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Dinosaurs alive! (and well) in Michigan.

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Do you know we live with dinosaurs in Michigan? Now, I don't mean fossils we dig from rocks, but rather living, breathing dinosaurs. We swim among them in the summer and fall, celebrate their conservation in the winter, and protect them during their spawning season in the spring. Ladies and gentlemen, behold the lake sturgeon: an evolutionary champion!

Living Fossils of the Wolverine State

Scientifically known as Acipenser fulvescens, lake sturgeon belong to a unique family of fish called Acipenseriform, and are one of 27 sturgeon species worldwide. They appeared in the fossil record during the Upper Cretaceous period (136 million years ago), the same time that North American dinosaur varieties such as brachiosaurs and venenosaurs were at the height of their development and the Rocky Mountains were beginning to rise. Truly ancient living fish, they have earned the informal status as living fossils. This claim is further supported through scientific debate over the rate at which they are evolving, their curiously long generational intervals, an impressive tolerance for wide ranges of temperature and salinity, and lack of predators due to size. Lake sturgeon can grow to over seven feet in length and have a natural life span of 100 years or longer. They also have no teeth. So although as full-grown adults they are certainly massive enough to overtake and eat us, thankfully these gentle giants prefer a diet of crustaceans and fish. Using their four barbels--tactile organs that precede their enormous mouth, they slowly cruise benthic environs seeking a yummy crayfish treat to vacuum up and enjoy. And with that familiar dorsal fin, even local kids occasionally confuse them for Michigan sharks--providing outstanding interpretive moments to share awareness of freshwater habitats of the Great Lakes and other natural, place-based phenomena that surround us.

For over a century, beginning in the late 1800s, lake sturgeon were exploited through poaching and environmental degradation resulting in a substantial decline of the species. Initially considered a nuisance fish, fishermen soon discovered their potential for revenue. By 1860, a market developed for smoked lake sturgeon. A few years later it expanded to include caviar and isinglass, a product used in the clarification of wine and beer, made from the fish's swim bladder. Catch rates intensified by 1885, which eventually collapsed the species by early last century. Today, the state estimates populations at one percent of their former abundance. To address this decline, Michigan imposed strict fishing regulations and listed lake sturgeon as a state threatened species (Public Act No. 451 of 1994). The state's primary conservation management strategy is to rehabilitate and reestablish self-sustaining populations of lake sturgeon.

Primordial Interpretation

The origins of interpretation in Michigan arguably began with fish and by 1940 state fish hatcheries were already highly popular tourist destinations. During this year, the Oden State Fish Hatchery located in the northern lower peninsula of Michigan had been operating for 20 years and according to historical journals kept by hatchery management, lake sturgeon were their most celebrated species with the visiting public.

Michigan's first documented hiring of interpretive staff came from the state's Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). On April 15, 1940, James Wilkinson of the Michigan Department of Conservation completed Project Proposal Form #402 requesting that the CCC Camp in the nearby town of Wolverine "provide two enrollees for the Oden State Fish Hatchery starting approximately June 15 [1940], to assist Oden Hatchery personnel in guiding visitors about hatchery and explaining its operation." This bid helped give rise to the present-day interpretive staff now stationed in over 40 state parks and at all six state fish hatcheries of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

In recent decades, interpreters, biologists, and other stakeholders from across the entire region of Michigan's northern lower peninsula have integrated their work in interpretation and conservation of lake sturgeon. Project work has flourished among regional groups, and these close partnerships have propelled the lake sturgeon interpretation movement. Michigan State University spearheads ongoing sturgeon research; the Michigan Department of Natural Resources provides habitat restoration, policy, and regulation; the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians held an inaugural release in 2013 of 3,500 lake sturgeon from the first northern tribal fish hatchery into the species' legacy watershed; and Sturgeon for Tomorrow promotes advocacy and education surrounding the plight of lake sturgeon.

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Years before the new conservation model, which focuses on collaborative efforts between agency and non-agency entities to accomplish projects involving our watersheds, Sturgeon For Tomorrow (SFT) was defining and crafting such partnerships here in northern Michigan. The protection of lake sturgeon is fostered through the tenacity of SFT Black Lake Chapter President Brenda Archambo. Affectionately referred to as the Sturgeon General, Archambo also serves the National Wildlife Federation as Michigan's outreach consultant, and is responsible for educating public officials, community leaders, journalists, and the general public about environmental policies backed by sound science. Using her extraordinary gift of uniting partners who share common conservation goals and objectives, Archambo is invited annually to Washington, D.C., to testify before the U.S. Senate Committee of Environmental and Public Works Sub-Committee on Clean Air and Nuclear Safety. Her testimonies focus on reducing mercury, air toxins, and industrial carbon pollution in order to help protect Michigan's long-standing investment in our outdoor heritage.

Boasting three statewide chapters, SFT's Black Lake Chapter pioneers exceedingly unique trademark projects to interpret and protect lake sturgeon. Their mission is to assist fisheries managers in the rehabilitation of the lake sturgeon; to advance education; to further other charitable, educational, and scientific objectives; and to engage in and facilitate scientific research furtherance of such purposes. SFT achieves goals tied to their mission by offering guided public tours of their partnership streamside sturgeon hatchery on the Black River in Cheboygan County, outreach programming to schools, special events, fundraising, and their signature program titled the Sturgeon Guarding Program.

Following a formal interpretive orientation, hundreds of volunteer guards descend upon the Black River and camp along its banks. It's a sort of "take back the night" for fish, during which Sturgeon Guards ensure poachers are kept at bay during the wee hours of the spring spawning season. Lake sturgeon begin spawning between 18 to 25 years old and at this age are quite large--nearly the size of an adult human. When spawning, they swim in the shallows of rivers, making them vulnerable for poachers to spear, club, or simply wrestle the docile fish right out of the water. Because of their impressive size, poachers commonly assault sturgeon for bragging rights and photo ops rather than for sustenance.

"For over a decade, the annual Sturgeon Guarding Program has proven that citizens who watch over the river have greatly reduced poaching while helping to ensure the protection and proliferation of the species," said Ann Feldhauser, a Department of Natural Resources retiree and the program's volunteer coordinator. "It's a unique and rewarding experience to witness the sight of these majestic fish, swimming up the Black River, and to take part in safeguarding one of Michigan's most valuable natural resources."

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A popular local winter festival called Shivaree is the only large-scale event in Michigan that celebrates interpretation and conservation of lake sturgeon. Last held in 1961, Shivaree was resurrected on Black Lake in February 2013 after a 52-year hiatus. The board of directors of SFT and other community friends met in 2012 to discuss the plans and they were bound to make the winter festival a success once again. Thousands of people attended the 2013 event to kick off the lake sturgeon season opener sharing music, great food, and ice fishing.

Advancing a Legacy

Professional interpreters have been working for years to reverse the historic public stigma about lake sturgeon. Expressions like nuisance fish or monsters became conventional lingo used to describe them and likely aided their degeneration. To tell the story of lake sturgeon through integrity and realism, northern Michigan partners continue enhancing the visitor experience at the Black River Streamside Hatchery with exhibits and additional programming, and have initiated a regional sturgeon educational program for Michigan students. Modeled loosely after the state's well-established "Salmon in the Classroom" program, plans for the lake sturgeon outreach may enable school districts to shift from raising non-native salmon in a classroom aquarium to an academic exploration of the biology, physiology, and cultural significance of our ancient endemic lake sturgeon. Currently a small, quiet program titled "Lake Sturgeon on Loan" takes place in seven schools across northern Michigan where students feed and care for a yearling-sized lake sturgeon (up to 10 inches) to release in May. The program is supported by dedicated partners, including the Northeast Michigan Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative, with funding from the Great Lakes Fisheries Trust. Future projects aim to mesh these grassroots efforts with the Michigan Department of Education's Next Generation Science Standards and launch this program statewide for the ultimate place-based educational experience.

Maureen Stine serves the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and is the treasurer of NAI Region 4. Reach her at maureen.stine@mi.usda.gov. For more information on lake sturgeon and related interpretive programs, visit www.natureology.me.
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Author:Stine, Maureen
Publication:Legacy Magazine
Geographic Code:1U3MI
Date:Mar 1, 2014
Words:1517
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