Report: Region's islands precious but threatened


Migratory birds, fossils, fish, rocks, Lake Erie water snakes - Pat Hayes says there is a lot to love about Kelleys Island.

Mr. Hayes, founder of the island's Audubon Club, said he has brought hundreds of lecturers over the past 18 years to educate island residents about their unique surroundings. He said the increased awareness created state parks and garnered conservation designations.

A recent study, however, suggests that threats to the area's natural endowments remain abundant.

Kelleys Island, as well as two other Lake Erie islands, made a Top 10 list of the most biodiversity-threatened islands in the Great Lakes in a report released recently by the Nature Conservancy.

The report details the distinctiveness of the flora, fauna, and geography of the islands situated in the Great Lakes. Conservation officials said the comprehensive study could be a first step to more specific preservation and cleanup work.

Mr. Hayes said that although he and members of his group have successfully lobbied for two nature preserves, a boardwalk, and an "important birding area" designation from Audubon Ohio, protecting the island is a slow process.

"We've been having a lot of growth that the islands have trouble handling," he said. "It's very frustrating to a naturalist."

The threats he sees include dock extensions, plans for new marinas and subdivisions, and the wash of chemicals that enter the lake from the mouth of the Detroit River.

Kelleys is just one of the Lake Erie islands dealing with development issues.

Dave Ewert, a senior conservation scientist with the Nature Conservancy in Ohio and one of the report's writers, said Lake Erie has always been vulnerable to exploitation.

The lake is the Great Lakes chain's shallowest and southernmost, he said, and the area is highly populated and more amenable to agricultural use than the other lake regions.

The islands in Lake Erie have always had the potential for economic benefit.

"They've been used, and they've been used for a long time," Mr. Ewert said.

The Nature Conservancy study reports there are seven globally rare species - including Eastern Foxsnake, Spatterdock Darner, and Tuckerman's Panic Grass - documented on Lake Erie islands.

Many of the coastal wetlands that have developed behind the lake's large sand spits, such as Long Point, are invaluable feeding stops for migratory birds, the study said.

The endemic Lake Erie water snake, although an annoyance to island residents, is restricted to the lake.

Kelleys Island, for example, is distinguishable for its limestone plains, known as alvars.

David Kriska, biodiversity coordinator for the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, said alvars affect the pH of the island, giving it more alkaline, or basic, conditions which attract a number of rare plants.

Mr. Hayes said the Kelleys Island alvar is the last still intact of the three original Ohio alvars; there are fewer than 20 alvar areas in North America.

He added that understanding the geological and biological history of the island is important for protecting it. "You have to teach people about what they have," Mr. Hayes said.

The report's writers said they hoped it would do just that.

Titled "Islands of Life," it is a result of collaboration from the Nature Conservancy, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, Natural Heritage Information Centre, Nature Conservancy of Canada, Great Lakes Program, University of Minnesota, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Great Lakes Island Project.

Along with detailing biodiversity levels in the five lakes as well as in Georgian Bay, Lake St. Clair, and the St. Lawrence River, the 154-page document lists the 10 islands with the highest biodiversity scores as well as the 10 most threatened.

It also recommends ways in which conservation on the Great Lakes could be improved.

Those recommendations include regulating invasive species, expanding the scope of local organizations, and updating zoning and management plans.

Megan Seymour, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the purpose of the report was not to direct specific actions but to increase awareness of conservation-significant areas.

Mr. Ewert agreed, adding that this report is the first complete catalog of the Great Lakes islands.

Andrew McDowell, western field director for the Western Reserve Land Conservancy, said this report would be useful in obtaining grants and federal funding.

A definitive study that ranks conservation needs can provide the necessary leverage in competitive grant processes, he said.

"Every little edge you can have in trying to obtain funding is helpful," he said.

The report placed four Lake Erie islands - Pelee Island, the Point Aux Pins Rondoeau System, the Long Point system, and the Turkey Point system - on the first list for their high biodiversity levels.

Three Lake Erie islands made the list of most threatened islands: Kelleys Island came in at seventh, and Sugar Island and South Bass Island were tied at ninth.