A history of wetlands in Michigan: Part 1

How we came to better understand and appreciate one of the world’s most productive ecosystems.

Coastal wetlands are among the most biologically productive ecosystems in the world, supporting an incredible variety of species. Photo: Michigan Sea Grant

Coastal wetlands are among the most biologically productive ecosystems in the world, supporting an incredible variety of species. Photo: Michigan Sea Grant

They may not look as pleasing as wide sandy beaches or bring the obvious economic boon of waterfront development but wetlands provide a host of ecological and economic benefits to coastal communities. Michigan State University Extension and Michigan Sea Grant have several education and restoration efforts focused on wetland habitat. Coastal wetlands are among the most biologically productive ecosystems in the world, supporting an incredible variety of species. However, for many decades wetlands were viewed as a blight on the landscape, dangerous wastelands filled with disease.

This three-part series will explore the historic role of wetlands in Michigan and more contemporary understandings of the full benefits wetlands provide to both human and natural communities. Part One and Part Two of this series outline the ecological and economic benefits that wetlands bring to Michigan. Part Three discusses the history of land use change in Michigan and how these trends have shaped the state of wetlands today.

Coastal wetlands provide a host of vital services including:

Fish and wildlife habitat

  • A healthy wetland is a place of incredible biodiversity. Many species of waterfowl, songbirds, amphibians, reptiles, fish and mammals rely on wetlands.
  • According to Michigan Sea Grant close to 90 percent of Great Lakes fish species depend on wetlands at some point during their life cycle for food, shelter or spawning habitat. Many popular sport fish species including yellow perch, smallmouth bass and largemouth bass use wetlands as nursery habitat during their larval stage. Wetlands also support many invertebrate species that serve as a food source for Great Lakes fish.
  • Wetlands provide critical habitat for migrating birds. According to Ducks Unlimited every species of duck, goose and swan in North America relies on wetlands.
  • Wetlands are particularly important to threatened and endangered species. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency notes that while wetlands make up only 5 percent of the land area in the continental U.S. more than one third of threatened and endangered species live exclusively in wetland habitat. A full 43 percent of threatened and endangered species depend on wetlands at some point during their life.  

Water quality

  • Wetlands act as a natural water filtration system providing significant benefits to water quality.
  • As rainwater washes over urban streets and parking lots it picks up harmful contaminants like heavy metals. In an agricultural context, runoff can bring excess nutrients and sediments that feed algal growth and even toxic algal blooms.
  • Wetlands slow the flow of runoff water allowing pollution laden sediments to settle to the bottom. Wetland plants also take up excess nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus before they reach lakes and streams.

Beyond these ecological benefits, wetlands provide several services to coastal communities and economies. These services are explored in more detail in Part Two of this series.

Michigan Sea Grant helps to foster economic growth and protect Michigan’s coastal, Great Lakes resources through education, research and outreach. A collaborative effort of the University of Michigan and Michigan State University, Michigan Sea Grant is part of the NOAA-National Sea Grant network of 33 university-based programs.

Read the entire series:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

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