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Detroit River: Building conservation bridges

The Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge will provide habitat for 29 waterfowl species. 

Detroit — what do you think of when you hear that name? Auto industry? Steel? The sounds of Motown? Makes sense. But, for a growing number of people "Detroit" calls to mind the river that flows past the city's front door and forms the boundary between the United States and Canada.

Unfortunately, this river has been unmercifully abused by humans, but nevertheless, it retains tremendous potential to benefit wildlife, fish, and people.

The Detroit River has paid a tremendous price for what humans call "progress." Indeed, most of what was natural in and around the Detroit River is now gone.

When Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac established Detroit in 1701, the river had extensive marshes along its banks and a diversity of adjacent upland habitats. Today, 95 percent of the historical coastal wetlands have disappeared under fill, steel, and concrete pilings.

Several islands in the river have been altered, eroded, or used to dispose of contaminated river sediment and industrial waste. Invasive plants, fish, and mussels also have contributed to the river's degradation.

Yet, special places still exist and can be restored alongside the high rises, stadiums, and smoke stacks.

The Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge was born of a vision shared by a group of local governments, corporations, and conservation organizations from the United States and Canada. It became a reality when President George W. Bush signed Public Law 108-23 in December 2001.

The law established an acquisition boundary for the refuge in the United States and also designated three small river islands, once part of Wyandotte National Wildlife Refuge, for inclusion.

The new refuge's habitats include islands, coastal wetlands, marshes, shoals, and riverfront lands along 42 miles of the lower Detroit River and western Lake Erie in Michigan.

The law calls for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) to establish partnerships with Canada and local communities and to enter into cooperative land management agreements with private landowners.

To that end, the Service, Michigan Department of Natural Resources, and Environment Canada are currently developing a Comprehensive Conservation Plan (Plan) to guide the refuge for the next 15 years.

The habitats protected and restored by the refuge will provide a hospice for 65 fish species and some 300 species of migratory birds, including 29 waterfowl species. The lower half of the river sits at the intersection of the Atlantic and Mississippi Flyways and connects Lake St. Clair to Lake Erie.

Some 3 million migrating waterfowl naturally follow the western shoreline of Lake Erie, where they stop to rest and feed in the river and in its nearby marshes. More than 300,000 diving ducks, primarily canvasback and greater and lesser scaups, feed in the river's wild celery beds.

The 1986 North American Waterfowl Management Plan included the river's ecosystem in one of its 34 waterfowl habitat areas of major concern.

The river's importance to wildlife and people is further reflected by two national designations: American Heritage River and Canadian Heritage River. And, several marshes along the river's lower region are Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network sites.

The Canadian government has not designated formal boundaries for a sister refuge, but conservation efforts on the Canadian side of the river are being guided in concert with the refuge's goals and the binational Conservation Vision for the Lower Detroit River Ecosystem.

Environment Canada has been working in partnership with the Service and Canadian agencies to achieve a compatible and shared focus for fish and wildlife habitat conservation.

The forthcoming Plan will provide guidance for inventorying resources, will include recommendations regarding the conservation of remaining coastal habitats, and will identify ways in which industry, local governments, and private landowners can enhance their lands to benefit wildlife.

Meanwhile, collaborative habitat protection and restoration work is underway in several locations. For example, in the United States a cooperative management agreement has been signed to restore habitat on a 500-acre nuclear energy facility, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is transferring property to the refuge for protection.

A positive view for the future of the Detroit River and Lake Erie's western basin reflects an abiding faith in nature. Do we look at what has been lost, wring our hands, and give up?

Or, do we identify what remains and what we can recover, value it, and work for its preservation?

Our positive outlook is influenced by the persistence of wildlife: despite the almost complete conversion of the river's banks to concrete and steel, despite the loss of nearly all the coastal wetlands, and despite decades of industrial pollution, the birds still come, as they have for millennia, looking for what they need to survive — we can't let them down.

For more information, contact Gary Muehlenhardt, Wildlife Biologists U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Conservation Planning, 1 Federal Drive, Fort Snelling, Minnesota 55111, (612) 713-5477, gary_muehlenhardt@fws.gov, or John Merriman, Issues Coordinator, Environment Canada, 867 Lakeshore Road, P.O. Box 5050, Burlington, Ontario L7R 4A6, (905) 336-4962, john.merriman@ec.gc.ca.

Republished with permission of "Birdscapes: News from International Habitat Conservation Partnerships," a publication of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife's bird habitat conservation division. For more information or to subscribe, please visit their website at http://library.fws.gov/Birdscapes/birdindex.htm.