Beaver Island is a pristine environmental haven. Will it last?


BEAVER ISLAND, MI – Deep in the heart of northern Lake Michigan is a string of islands absolutely brimming in ecological richness.

Endangered Great Lakes piping plovers pitter-patter across the beaches. Threatened Pitcher’s thistle grows in such abundance it pops up in sand volleyball courts. Mature ash trees thrive and produce seeds, survivors of the statewide infestation of invasive emerald ash borer beetles.

World-class smallmouth bass swim in bays and coves around the archipelago. Sandhill cranes patrol every field and meadow. Abundant deer and turkey stop what little traffic there is on the main island. And what must be millions of bumblebees and monarch butterflies dance across the blooms of countless acres of milkweed along every roadside, at every beach, and basically everywhere you look.

Beaver Island teems with biodiversity

A monarch butterfly lands on a common milkweed plant on Beaver Island on July 17, 2023. (Neil Blake | Blake |

Nature abounds on Beaver Island and across its surrounding smaller islands. The archipelago is a biodiversity powerhouse, and the locals know it.

“I’ve always felt that we are the keepers of the natural resources, whether that be our native cattail that we will ship the seeds off to other communities, or it’s our shoreline and some of the seeds that we have in the Pitcher’s thistle,” said lifelong Beaver Islander Pam Grassmick, a well-known environmental advocate for the rural community.

Michigan’s Beaver Island archipelago remains a haven for among the most pristine, untouched environments across the entire Great Lakes, where the vast flora and fauna lures research biologists and outdoor enthusiasts to explore the living laboratory. Yet, the vast biodiversity on the remote islands is also considered the most threatened because of residential and recreational development currently on an upswing.

Scientists and island residents must balance demands for island homes and tourism, while protecting habitats where globally rare species such as piping plovers, Dwarf Lake iris, and Michigan monkey flower thrive.

Biodiversity haven

There are open dunes and northern fens. Boreal forests and bogs. Rich conifer swamps and mesic northern forests.

Beaver Island and the surrounding isles in the archipelago abound in an array of ecological habitats. The islands are found in northern Lake Michigan about 30 miles offshore from the mainland Lower Peninsula.

Beaver Island teems with biodiversity

Shelby Harris, a terrestrial invasive species (TIS) administrator, stands on Beaver Island on July 18, 2023. (Neil Blake | Blake |

“There’s nowhere like this that holds so many natural communities like we do. I mean, from boreal to mesic to our open dunes, it really is a treasure,” said Shelby Harris, a Native Beaver Islander and the invasive species program administrator for the island’s two townships.

“But for everything that makes us special, it also makes us very susceptible.”

Related: Yes, there are beavers on Beaver Island

Scientists at the Michigan Natural Features Inventory in recent years categorized 16 unique habitats across the Beaver Island archipelago, spending years documenting the biodiversity across thousands of acres of public lands and nature preserves.

What they discovered are globally rare ecosystems, including multiple coastal fens and a high-quality Great Lakes marsh. They found old-growth yellow birch, threatened and endangered wildflowers, and abundant sphagnum moss peatlands.

Beaver Island teems with biodiversity

A poor fen, which has characteristics of both a bog and a fen, sits nestled against a small lake on Beaver Island on July 20, 2023. (Neil Blake | Blake |

Beaver Island and several surrounding islands are so rich in biodiversity that UNESCO included them two years ago in its designated Obtawaing Biosphere Region. That means Beaver, Garden, High and Hog islands are now monitored by scientists in an interdisciplinary effort to handle social and ecological changes as a globally significant zone.

“Last time I was out there I was just enjoying seeing ash trees that are alive and healthy. So, we have lost almost all our ash trees on the mainland – definitely our black ash trees in swamps but even our upland green and white ash trees – they’re all pretty much gone. The old trees are gone,” said Derek Shiels, stewardship director for nonprofit Little Traverse Conservancy, which has multiple nature preserves on Beaver Island.

“That’s a hotspot of biodiversity that’s not as impacted by invasive species as the mainland is. It’s a gem for Michigan.”

Ecosystem threats

The push for people to explore beautiful outdoor places because of the COVID-19 pandemic brought a renewed focus on America’s Emerald Isle, aka Michigan’s Beaver Island.

Many homes and properties were sold sight unseen to people who had never visited Beaver Island; the number of short-term rentals spiked. Outdoor recreation enthusiasts of all sorts came for the natural spaces – hikers, cyclists, paddlers, and off-road vehicle drivers.

It wasn’t long before locals realized not every visitor treated the environment as carefully as they should.

“With ORVs, we’ve had them going up and down dunes. Sometimes they’ve been asked to stop, and I know we had one of our deputies mention that the person said, ‘Well, they paid for all of this, and they intended to enjoy it,’” Grassmick said. “The problem with that is that it causes erosion, it kills some of our federally endangered plants, it will for years impact the shoreline.”

Beaver Island teems with biodiversity

Pam Grassmick sits at her home on Beaver Island on July 21, 2023. (Neil Blake | Blake |

She said that while most of those who moved to the island seem to prefer living “in town” near the harbor, that doesn’t eliminate the risk of new home construction in ecologically sensitive places. The threat of development in sensitive spots isn’t new, though.

Related: The rarest wildflower in Michigan thrives on Beaver Island

Little Sand Bay Nature Preserve owned by Little Traverse Conservancy is where the last known population on Beaver Island of the endangered Michigan monkey flower grows. But that whole area was planned for shoreline homes in the mid-1990s.

“Before they purchased it, you could come down here and you would find every 100 foot they had a stake. They were going to sell these 100-foot lots all the way down,” said retired biologist and ecology professor Beth Leuck, a part-time island resident. “There’d be a house every 100 feet.”

She said that didn’t happen because the conservancy bought the land instead, forever protecting 3,500 feet of Lake Michigan shoreline with its special interdunal wetland. It’s a model for prioritizing protection of the most valuable ecological areas and directing residential development elsewhere on Beaver Island, Leuck said.

Native Great Lakes mussels

Retired biologist and ecology professor Beth Leuck holds native Great Lakes mussels on July 15, 2023, at Little Sand Bay Nature Preserve on Beaver Island.

But people aren’t the only threats to sensitive ecosystems on the islands. Invasive species present a constant risk to the environment.

The invasive emerald ash borer was discovered on Beaver Island in 2017, presumably arriving with contaminated firewood, despite a longtime ban on mainland firewood brought to the islands. It’s the only conclusion since the 30-mile offshore distance is too far for the tree-killing insect to have arrived on its own.

Beaver Islanders are now working with federal agriculture authorities to release parasitoid wasps that attack emerald ash borers. It’s an effort to test the biological control measure for possible broader release, designed to slow the spread of the invasive pest insect and save ash tree stands.

Related: Mercenary wasps may be key to saving ash forests on Beaver Island

And there are other invasives.

European swamp thistle crowds out native swamp thistle in wetlands. Invasive narrow-leaf cattail out-competes and is now hybridizing with native broad-leaf cattail. Invasive spotted knapweed elbows out native species like threatened Pitcher’s thistle and common milkweed.

That’s why Harris works with landowners on the island to teach them about invasive species and help keep the worst invaders in check. She hosts public talks at Beaver Island District Library and visits private properties to identify what plants are native and which are problematic.

“I do not recommend grabbing with your hand and pulling them out as an option. My best technique that I found is I get a garbage bag in this hand, I get scissors, and then I just cut the pieces of the European swamp thistle into the bag,” Harris said to about two dozen gathered at the library July 21, 2023, to hear her and other ecology experts speak.

There’s a big to-do list for Beaver Island’s fight against invasives, though a persistent effort to keep invasive phragmites in check shrank the infestations from 30 acres down to two. The invasives species program brought interns to the island this year: One day they may be removing invasive watercress from encroaching on the endangered Michigan monkey flower in an unnamed creek, and the next day boating off to other islands for shoreline inventory work.

“Three days of shoreline survey. They walked the entire shoreline of Garden, High, and we’ll be making it to Hog for the first time since 2012. We look for invasive species and we map them,” Harris said. “We also have been recording our threatened, endangered, and special-concern species and reporting those.”

Environmental challenges are expected to continue.

Senior MNFI Conservation Scientist Phyllis Higman said invasive species and climate change are the greatest threats to the Beaver Island archipelago.

Beaver Island teems with biodiversity

Phyllis Higman stands on a poor fen on Beaver Island on July 19, 2023. A poor fen has characteristics of both a bog and a fen. (Neil Blake | Blake |

“We’re starting to see climate change impacts more than ever. And the challenge with that is you’re changing the abiotic environment, the temperature, the rains, the severity of the storms in the winter, it’s just … changing a lot of stuff,” Higman said.

“Some people are moving species. I’m more of a ‘Well, let’s kind of learn as we go along, watch, and hopefully things will transport themselves.’ But when you’re on an island, you don’t have anywhere to go.”

Grassmick said a critical change in the island’s climate is different prevailing wind patterns, now often coming from the east. She said it’s not just Great Lakes water levels causing erosion along the island’s shorelines.

“It’s actually the direction of the wind. And it’s the force of the wind that has changed,” Grassmick said.

Conservation goals

An effort to purchase and preserve a unique poor fen habitat on Beaver Island is among top conservation goals on Beaver Island. A poor fen is an acidic peatland with characteristics of both bogs and fens.

Both Grassmick and Leuck said the spot in question would be a great place to build a universal-access boardwalk so the public can experience the vast biodiversity.

There are carnivorous plants like the pitcher plant and sundew, plus wild orchids such as rose pogonia and dragon’s mouth. Thick sphagnum moss grows in shades of green, brown and red. Common terns fly overhead. Blueberries and raspberries ripen in the brush, while cranberries just start to noticeably grow.

Related: Dark sky island: Beaver Islanders embrace Michigan’s darkest nights

“If people don’t understand the threats to certain ecosystems, or the value of certain ecosystems, or the specifics and the specialties that are occurring around certain habitats, like a bog, you can’t appreciate it,” Grassmick said. “They think that only mosquitoes are, you know, being created in an area, but what they’re not understanding are the orchids and that whole fen that is developing. That’s important.”

Higman said habitats like the poor fen on Beaver Island support a variety of other insects, birds and wildlife, and it’s important to not lose these naturally functioning environments.

“Through large swaths of our state, we’ve destroyed a lot of ecosystems and they take a long time to recover and sometimes they never recover,” Higman said. “The more pieces you take out you simplify the ecosystem, and eventually you’ll have collapse so that it no longer holds a functional role. And that’s for every ecosystem. This one is just rare.”

Read more about Michigan’s Beaver Island here.


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