Oakland County Parks Natural Resources Team Hard at Work

The Oakland County Parks (OCP) Natural Resources team is working diligently year-round to promote healthy ecosystems in our communities. This includes surveying, monitoring and – when appropriate – taking strategic action to protect natural spaces and sensitive species across the county. Here are some highlights of the important work OCP Natural Resources staff focused on this spring and summer:

Vernal Pool Monitoring

Vernal pools (or ponds) are small, isolated areas of wetland that occur in forested areas throughout Michigan. They typically develop in depressions in the forest floor that seasonally flood year after year. Vernal pools play a key role in many species’ lifecycles here in Michigan. While seemingly temporary, these areas provide important habitat all year long for a wide range of native species. Birds and mammals use them as a source of water and food in the early spring months when other resources may still be scarce. Amphibians and insects will use vernal pool water to complete their lifecycle and raise young. After the water has dried up, some animals will use the dried beds and exposed debris as cover to raise young and avoid predators.

Addison Oaks is home to rich vernal pool activity in the spring – and to numerous species of salamander, including:

OCP Natural Resources works with the Michigan Vernal Pools Partnership and other research institutions on management and conservation of vernal pools in Oakland County. This includes identifying vernal pool locations, monitoring wildlife populations and planning ecologically minded trails to reduce the impact from erosion and use on these sensitive habitats. Check out this OCP Vernal Pools Story Map to learn more, including how to get involved.

Sustaining Fisheries, Waters and Wetlands

Lakes, rivers, streams and wetlands serve as vital habitat for park wildlife such as fish, frogs, turtles, snakes, salamanders, waterfowl, wading birds, beaver and muskrat. Stewardship of park water resources includes water quality and water level monitoring, invasive species surveys and aquatic nuisance control. In addition to serving as vital habitat, inland lakes, streams and rivers are also important places for recreation, and Oakland County Parks provides ample opportunities for visitors to fish or paddle:

OCP Natural Resources staff is hard at work to sustain and enhance park fisheries for all to enjoy. This year, they are working to inventory fisheries throughout the park system. OCP is partnering with other agencies – such as MDNR – to facilitate fish surveys in local lakes and streams. Surveys will help to identify type, quantity and health of the fish in the parks system. Additionally, these surveys can help staff plan and execute habitat enhancements and restoration projects to help maintain fish and aquatic species’ diversity throughout Oakland County.

Crooked Lake at Independence Oaks and Thread Creek at Groveland Oaks were both surveyed this summer, and a survey of Creger Lake at Hawthorne Park (soon to be Pontiac Oaks) is in the works. Efforts will continue to expand in 2024, with a goal of having all waterbodies inventoried by the fall of 2025. Surveys can be done in a variety of ways, from netting to electrofishing, which involves briefly stunning fish so they can be easily caught by a hand net. No matter what technique is used, care is always taken to ensure fish and other aquatic species are safely returned to the water after identification, counting and measurement.

Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake (EMR) Surveying and Protection

The Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake (EMR) is an eco-indicator species, meaning that impacts to its population are an indicator of the health of the wider ecosystem, and particularly the sensitive wetland habitats they call home. A decline in EMR populations is a sign that something is wrong with the environment. Wetlands play an important role in flood control, water filtration, ground water recharging, biodiversity and genetic variability, and countless native species rely on access to wetlands to survive. That is why it is so important to track EMR populations since they are an early indicator of the health of these critical wetland habitats.

The OCP Natural Resources team does extensive work in county parks to protect and expand Massasauga habitat, which includes prairie fens, wet meadows and upland grasslands. This requires significant invasive shrub removal and prescribed fire to restore the open grassy landscapes this species prefers. All EMR observations are tracked in GIS (geographic information systems) to help determine where additional work or protection is needed.

Massasaugas are protected as both federally threatened and state threatened species. This status makes it unlawful to kill, take, trap or possess this species. The EMR is Michigan’s only venomous snake, but don’t worry too much, they are also shy and will do their best to avoid confrontation. That said, if you do come across a Massasauga:

  • Stay calm.
  • Keep at least a three-foot distance between you and the snake.
  • Keep pets away.
  • Do not harm the snake.
  • Leave the snake alone and allow it to escape.
  • Seek immediate medical attention if you or your pet is bitten.
  • Report all EMR sightings in Oakland County Parks via the Massasauga Snake Observation Form.

Check out this Michigan DNR video to learn more:

Prescribed Burns

Prescribed burns are planned and controlled fires – set with permission from local fire authorities – that provide a natural way to benefit local ecosystems. This is not a new strategy. The Great Lakes Anishinaabeg have used fire to manage the landscape across what is now known as Michigan since time immemorial.

Our human relationship with fire goes back thousands and thousands of years,” said Damon Panek, wildland fires operations specialist for the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and enrolled member of the Mississippi Band of White Earth Ojibwe.” The Ojibwe people of Lake Superior Chippewa alone have more than 700 life-sustaining uses for fire, and Oshgikin, the spirit of fire, is defined as ‘the thing or mechanism that makes things new.”

Many Michigan habitats have adapted to a cyclical fire that benefits native plants and animals by making nutrients from burned materials accessible again, controlling invasive species and – most importantly – maintaining an open community structure by setting back excessive woody growth.

Prescribed burns are an important tool that the OCP Natural Resources team uses to help maintain the health of natural areas within the park system. This spring, the team executed successful prescribed burns at Addison Oaks, Groveland Oaks, Highland Oaks, Independence Oaks, Lyon Oaks, Orion Oaks, Rose Oaks and Waterford Oaks.

Oak savannas (or “oak openings”) – for which Oakland County is named – need regular fire to prevent woody shrubs and trees from encroaching and displacing other species. Oak leaves contain tannins that burn readily, while their bark is fire resistant – making them well adapted to fire and even able to help in creating the conditions for fire. These savannas are globally impaired after being significantly damaged by European settlement and agricultural conversion, periods of industrialization, and heavy urban sprawl. Fire is a critical tool in maintaining these unique communities, which give this county and region it’s distinct natural character.

Native Tree Plantings

Native Species are more adapted to native pests and environmental stressors than non-native species, so when selected correctly they typically live longer and require less maintenance throughout their lifetime. They also play a key role in the food chain, providing critical food sources for native insects and other wildlife. Because of these benefits, planting native species – and encouraging others to follow suit – is an important priority of OCP Natural Resources.

Recent native tree plantings at OCP parks included:

  • Addison Oaks – 150 trees (sugar maple and, white pine)
  • Glen Oaks – 25 trees (red maple, white oak and white pine)
  • Groveland Oaks – 75 trees (red maple and white pine)
  • Springfield Oaks – 50 trees (red maple and white oak)
  • Waterford Oaks – 35 trees (flowering dogwood, white oak, red bud and red maple)

Check out the OCP Native Tree Planting Guide for more information.

Invasive Species Management

OCP is a founding member and fiduciary of the Oakland County Cooperative Invasive Species Management Area (OC CISMA). OC CISMA is a community organization that brings together various county, city, village and township government agencies, non-profit organizations and other conservation partners to develop and fund a coordinated county-wide strategy for combating invasive species. Invasive species management is an important component of the work that the OCP Natural Resources team undertakes to preserve and protect native species and healthy ecosystems across Oakland County:

Spotted Lanternfly
Spotted lanternflies (SLF) are a highly invasive insect that feeds on a wide range of fruit, ornamental and woody trees, posing a threat to specialty crops. They can spread over long distances by hitchhiking or laying egg masses on vehicles, outdoor equipment and firewood. Since SLFs were discovered in Pontiac last year, OCP staff has been working hard to prevent the spread of this invasive species:

  • Tree removal – select Tree of Heaven (another invasive species and a preferred host of the SLF) have been removed from Oakland County property.
  • Trapping – in collaboration with USDA/MDARD, proximity traps have been strategically placed to monitor SLFs while treatment measures are put in place to control their spread.

Phragmites are reeds that can grow up to 15 feet tall and in thick patches. They are found in wet areas such as ponds, roadsides, drainage ditches, agricultural areas and lakefronts. They can grow rapidly, eliminating habitat for native plants and animals, disrupting recreational opportunities and causing visibility concerns along roadways. OCP partners with the Road Commission of Oakland County (RCOC) and OC CISMA to support the eradication of Phragmites and Japanese Knotweed from road rights of way across Oakland County.

Aquatic Hitchhikers
Oakland County is home to thousands of lakes and rivers that residents and visitors use for recreational activities, including boating, fishing, paddling and more. These activities can unintentionally contribute to the spread of aquatic invasive species (AIS), such as non-native plants, animals and other organisms that can have a negative impact on the environment and even human health. During the summer, OCP operates two mobile boat cleaning stations that can be used on any watercraft, are waterless and include hand tools for manual removal of non-native plants and animals. They also have a solar panel-powered vacuum and air blower that prevent accidental transport of organisms – such as Zebra Mussels, European Frog-bit and Eurasian Watermilfoil – that are left on or in boats.

Get Involved

You can play an important role in supporting OCP’s efforts to preserve and protect local ecosystems across Oakland County and even in your own backyard:

Help Manage Invasive Species

Protect Pollinators

Did you know that one out of every three bites of food you eat is thanks to pollinators? Somewhere between 75-95% of all flowering plants require help with pollination and those helpers come in the form of bees, birds, butterflies, bats and other little critters. But these little helpers need a helping hand themselves – learn how you can be a pollinator protector:

  • Leave the leaves. Fallen leaves are a valuable resource, not garbage:
    • Remove only from walkways or where they are smothering plants
    • Mow right over leaves to create a mulch that will nourish your lawn
    • Don’t clear leaves from under tree canopies or around shrubs – they provide a nutrient-rich layer of protection for overwintering pollinators and plants
    • Avoid cutting back native stems – they can serve as safe harbor for nesting bees
    • Stick to a rake or a broom if you can – leaf blowers are noisy, disturb pollinators and leave a carbon footprint up to 30 times that of a car
    • Save yard clean-up for springtime if possible – wait until temperatures are above 50 degrees Fahrenheit for several days
  • Pass on pesticides. Pesticides are acutely toxic to bees and other pollinators, if you have to use them you can take steps to reduce their negative impact:
    • Apply minimum recommended dose and choose a pesticide that is effective for the target pest and least toxic to non-pest speciesAvoid applying to flowers since that is the part of the plant pollinators visitAvoid applying when wildflowers are in bloom and pollinators are most likely to be exposedBees are most active during the day – spray in the evening or at nightRemove flowers from flowering weed species prior to applying
    • Be aware of drift and open water sources – wind or water can carry chemicals far beyond the intended application area, harming pollinators and other wildlife miles away
  • Plant native plants. See below!

Plant Native Gardens

In early June, OCP Natural Resources partnered with MSU Extension for the third annual Native Plant Event, an initiative established by the Oakland County Board of Commissioners in 2020 to help raise awareness about the ecological benefits of native plants. The event distributes more than 600 native plant kits to registered Oakland County residents interested in cultivating their own native gardens. Although the 2023 event has passed, it is not too late to get started on a native plant garden of your own – here are some tips and resources that might come in handy:

  • Choose Native Species. Deciding on what species to plant can be overwhelming – the MSU Extension Native Plant Guide for the Southern Lower Peninsula is a good place to start. They also have a neat Plant Search Tool that includes the option to search by soil moisture, light, bloom period and more. To achieve year-round visual interest, consider:
    • Choosing flowering species (keep bloom season in mind for optimal color year-round)
    • Choosing species of different heights
    • Incorporating woody species
  • Plan Your Garden. Native gardens can be beautiful as a “set and forget” wild style, but if you want to achieve a more intentional native garden look, consider:
    • Cultivating dense and sizeable clusters of a single speciesClustering lower growing species in front of higher growing ones for a sense of depth and fullness
    • Adding a border or mulch to maintain more intentional aesthetic
  • Source From Local Nurseries. Whenever possible, get your native species from local native plant nurseries.
  • Plant Your Garden. If the area has existing grass or weeds, remove these by hand before planting:
    • Arrange plants on top of the soil in your intended design
    • Space plants approximately 18 inches apart in holes that are slightly wider than the root ball (bury root ball about the same depth as it was in pot – don’t plant too deep)
    • Water immediately and frequently during the first two weeks and during dry conditions throughout the first season

Visit the OCP Natural Resources and Sustainability website for more information about the important work they are doing to increase biodiversity, protect sensitive species, manage invasive species, increase climate resiliency and more.

For more information, visit Oakland County Parks website. Follow along with them for programs, events, and news on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

Oakland County offers residents quality, affordable housing in welcoming neighborhoods with access to parks and recreation, public transportation, and healthy food as part of the Livable Neighborhoods goal in our five-year road map. Follow the Oakland County Executive Office on Facebook and Twitter for updates and visit our dashboard to see the progress being made to ensure Oakland County is All Ways, Moving Forward. Follow along with Oakland County on FacebookInstagramLinkedInPinterest, Twitter, and YouTube using #OaklandCounty, or visit our website for news and services year-round.

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