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‘On the ground’ for grouse

Hazel Nyberg, 5, of West Branch Township, right, takes part in a grouse habitat project south of Gwinn on Saturday. The project was part of the Michigan United Conservation Clubs’ On the Ground program. Looking on is her sister Harriet, 3. (Photo courtesy of David Nyberg)

GWINN — Ruffed grouse — a popular game species — should benefit from local conservationists and volunteers being, literally, on the ground.

A group of people on Saturday drove in a caravan from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources’ Gwinn Field Office to a Grouse Enhanced Management Site in the Gwinn State Forest to enhance the area for grouse.

The event was part of a partnership involving the Mid-U.P. Chapter of the Ruffed Grouse Society in an On the Ground project administered by the Michigan United Conservation Clubs.

Society member Erik Strazzinski said grouse, as well as woodcock, inhabit areas with high-stem density, so shrubs were to be planted to create a thicket.

OTG is geared toward getting the public involved in habitat improvement projects on public land.

Caleb Eckloff, wildlife technician at the Gwinn Forest Management Unit of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, stands by plantings that were to be put in the ground south of Gwinn on Saturday. The project was part of the Michigan United Conservation Clubs’ On the Ground program. (Journal photo by Christie Bleck)

MUCC Education Director Shaun McKeon traveled from MUCC’s home base of Lansing to supervise Saturday’s event.

“We cover the whole state,” McKeon said. “We go all over.”

That means the Upper Peninsula, where the ruffed grouse thrives.

He said OTG involves about 30 habitat projects a year, and that includes a lot of Saturday, volunteer-oriented work.

The Gwinn-area project was no exception.

Makhayla LaButte is MUCC’s habitat coordinator who collaborates with the DNR and groups such as the Ruffed Grouse Society.

Saturday involved the planting of crabapple trees and fruit shrubs, she said, to improve the habitat and “get the season off to a good start.”

Caleb Eckloff, wildlife technician for the DNR’s Gwinn Forest Management Unit, said 85 crabapple trees were to be planted, with the Ruffed Grouse Society providing 250 shrub seedlings.

The planting sites were located off the Parker Spur road.

“This is a little-known local honey hole for grouse and deer hunting down M-35 between here (the Gwinn Field Office) and Escanaba,” Eckloff said. “If you’re familiar with the McFarland area, that’s about where it’s at.”

He said the DNR in 2018 re-opened and started to develop a historic hunter walking trail.

“So, we’ll be redecorating the perimeters of a lot of the openings that we planted last year with rye with these apple trees as well as a widened hunter walking trail that will receive some apples as well,” Eckloff said.

Autumn Christenson, Huron Pines AmeriCorps member and engagement specialist, planned the grouse project.

“It’s a pretty good turnout,” Christenson told the volunteers at the Gwinn Field Office, “and braving the weather.”

Part of that turnout included youngsters.

Hazel Nyberg, 5, and her sister Harriet, 3, are daughters of David Nyberg, director of corporate engagement at Northern Michigan University and a Michigan Natural Resources Commissioner.

The two girls were at the grouse event, which took place in chilly, rainy weather.

“Daddy, we did habitat today because we planted trees for birdies and helped the worm get back in the dirt,” Hazel told her father.

The OTG program celebrated its 2,500th volunteer over the weekend: Ricky Eckloff, of Skandia, who just happens to be Caleb’s father.

“As a Scoutmaster and outdoorsman, I understand the importance of volunteers and the positive impact they can have,” he said in a news release.

Since 2013, OTG, administered by the MUCC through DNR Wildlife Division funding, has accumulated more than 8,000 hours through 128 projects and positively impacted 1,668.8 acres of public land throughout Michigan.

Past projects include building hunter-access boardwalks, planting mast-producing trees, cleaning up parking lots and rivers, building wood duck nest boxes, planting native grasses and removing invasive species such as autumn olive and garlic mustard.

In 2016, OTG expanded to include OTG Jr., a field-trip-based program in which teachers and coordinators incorporate their classroom curricula into hands-on learning.

After each habitat project, students then are able to shoot a bow, fish or participate in waterfowl or mammal identification to blend what they learned about habitat improvement with species that benefit from OTG projects.

OTG has nine more projects planned throughout the summer months ranging from tree plantings to river cleanups. For a list of projects, visit mucc.org/on-the-ground/.