Capital News Service

of the Michigan State University School of Journalism

Viruses pose threat to blueberry crop

(Michigan State University)

Capital News Service

LANSING—New research from the Department of Agriculture (MDA) and Michigan State University suggests there’s a growing viral threat to blueberry plants in the state.

Two viruses, blueberry shock and scorch, had previously been seen only in the Pacific Northwest and East Coast, but were discovered for the first time in Michigan last year.

The viruses reduce or eliminate the growth of fruit, but don’t threaten human health.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Michigan’s blueberry crop is worth $124 million yearly. Van Buren, Ottawa, Allegan, Muskegon and Berrien counties are the top producers.

A summer 2010 study found scorch virus in seven fields in Allegan, Ottawa, Saginaw and Van Buren counties, but the shock virus was not detected. This year all the plants diagnosed with the disease were destroyed.

The scorch virus is named for the burnt appearance of infected blossoms, said Annemiek Schilder, an MSU associate professor of plant pathology.

Robin Rosenbaum, the Plant Industry Section manager for MDA, said the study was done because of concern over a few infected plants.

“We’re trying to stay ahead of the curve,” said Rosenbaum, “Early detection is the only way to contain viruses like these.”

Rosenbaum said MDA ramped up the study to get in front of the virus as quickly as possible.

“If you think you have an opportunity to eradicate a disease, you must have a severe response,” Rosenbaum said.

Schilder said scorch is of higher concern for Michigan blueberries because it usually kills plants, while shock-infected plants may recover over time. She said another problem is that plants can carry a virus for a few years before symptoms start, so growers who don’t see symptoms might not test their plants.

She said that scorch is also more of a concern because it was found in 2009 and 2010, and shock was found only in 2009.

Schilder said her biggest concern is that the extent of scorch isn’t as contained as she’d hoped.

“Scorch was found in more places than expected, which indicates multiple introductions of the virus,” Schilder said.

“We have preliminary indications that Michigan aphids can spread scorch,” said Schilder, who said she is currently doing research to determine if aphids can transmit the virus.

She said scorch is worrisome because infected bushes produce fewer berries and eventually die.

Mike Hansen, the regional supervisor for MDA in southeast Michigan based in St. Joseph County, said the challenge for growers is not that entire fields will die off, but that blueberry growing could become uneconomical if enough plants are affected.

In June and July, the team of researchers, asked all blueberry farms in Michigan to participate in a survey, and Hansen said only a few declined to take part.

Hansen said the survey is important because researchers can’t look at the viruses’ impact on the Pacific and East Coasts and extrapolate what could happen in Michigan because of climate differences.

Mike DeGrandchamp, a partner at DeGrandchamp Farms, which has 150 acres of blueberry fields in South Haven and participated in the survey, said no shock or scorch was found there.

“We always have virus testing in our nursery blueberry stock because if you have a problem you want to know it,” DeGrandchamp said.

Hansen said, “Right now, we’re trying to determine how we got it, how widespread it is and how we can address it.

“We have a very large blueberry industry in Michigan, so we’re best off not letting the virus run loose.”

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.


Filed under: Agriculture

Flying invader could damage 2011 fruit crops

Capital News Service

LANSING—A new invasive fly has Michigan researchers working to protect next season’s fruit crop.

(University of California, Riverside)

Almost $20,000 of federal money went to Michigan State University  for early detection and rapid response of the spotted wing drosophila, a small but damaging insect similar to a fruit fly.

“This is the first that we’ve had it here so we don’t know what the impact is going to be on the fruit industry,” said Keith Mason, a research assistant for the project. “We’re at the stage where they’re trying to find out where it is.”

The insect, Mason said, was found in Southwest Michigan in late September—too late in the 2010 growing season to do any damage.

Mason said the pest hasn’t been found yet in Northern Michigan but could affect fruit-growing areas like Traverse City.

Although the spotted wing drosophila doesn’t spread disease, Mason said, it’s more destructive to crops than an average fruit fly because its egg-laying appendage can cut through fruit.

The fly, he says, affects all fruits but seems to be most attracted to blueberries, raspberries and strawberries.

Mason said California and Oregon were the first states to see the insect in 2009 and suffered large crop losses.

Mason said Michigan will fare better because a pesticide to kill the insect is available and the state’s growers often use pesticides.

If the spotted wing drosophila can survive Michigan winters, Mason said, growers need to be educated on how to deal with it.

Michigan blueberry growers rank first in the nation, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service. Blueberries are also one of the crops the spotted wing drosophila is most attracted to.

Bob Carini, a blueberry grower in West Olive, said he worries that monitoring and using pesticides will be costly.

“It’s definitely going to mean more work for the growers as far as monitoring and stuff like that,” he said. “It’s fairly expensive
because you have to have a trained scout that’s out there looking.”

Carini said pesticides are used based on types of insects and how many of those insects are captured.

Dave Trinka, director of research for MBG Marketing-The Blueberry People in Grand Junction, said it’s an expense growers haven’t seen before.

“We will have to employ thousands of monitoring traps, so that is an expense which we have not had to do before,” he said. “But we feel pretty confident after speaking to blueberry growers where this pest has been present that it has been, by and large, effectively controlled.”

The quality and taste of blueberry yields is another thing Carini worries about.

But he still expects Michigan fruit growers to handle the situation well.

“From my perspective, with monitoring and control methods we should be able to deal with it very well to help produce the quality blueberries,” he said.

Linda Jones, executive director of the Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council, said she’s unsure whether the insect will taint the taste of wine but hopes to create awareness of how to deal with it as researchers find out more.

Bryan Ulbrich, owner of Left Foot Charley Winery and Tasting Room in Traverse City, said his growers don’t typically use pesticides on vineyards. He said he’s not too worried, but if the insect proves destructive, he will consider using pesticides.

“We might not chose to risk the entire ecosystem of the vineyard,” he said.

Craig Cunningham, vineyard manager of Cunningham Viticultural Services in Traverse City, said he is more worried about a fungus associated with fruit flies than the insect itself.

“If that drosophila fly would come here and start being the damager of fruit and not this disease, then of course I would consider some kind of control,” he said. “But right now, as far as I know, that fruit fly is not up here.”

Cunningham said he thinks the possibility of it showing up in Northern Michigan is slim.

Mason said there will be efforts to educate growers on how to monitor and use pesticides for the fly at the December Great Lakes Fruit, Vegetable and Farm Market EXPO in Grand Rapids.

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

Filed under: Environment

Invaders worry Northern Michigan

Capital News Service

LANSING—Invasive species are continuing to threaten Michigan in the water and on the land, experts warn.

“Invasive species come in and disrupt the ecological balance. They can also disrupt habitat and wildlife,” said Deputy Director Frank Ruswick of the Department of Natural Resources and Environment (DNRE).

(U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)

Ruswick said the invaders include Asian carp, zebra mussels, phragmites, purple loosestrife, Eurasian watermilfoil, quagga mussels, rusty crawfish, bloody red shrimp, Eurasian ruffe, round gobies and sea lamprey. The Asian carp, zebra mussels and phragmites appear to be the ones of most concern, he said.

Media and political attention is focused on the fear that Asian carp will invade Lake Michigan from the Chicago River.

Invasive species of major concern in the northern Lower Peninsula include Asian carp and zebra mussels.

What are the long-term consequences of invasive species?

Kevin Cronk, monitoring and research director of the Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council in Petoskey, said, “Invasive species cause a reduction in the biological diversity of the ecosystem. In certain cases, invasive species can change the food web in an ecosystem by destroying or replacing native food sources.”

The council is the lead organization for water resources protection in Antrim, Charlevoix, Cheboygan and Emmet counties. It works to maintain the environmental integrity and economic and aesthetic values of lakes, streams, wetlands and groundwater.

Jim Sygo, deputy director of DNRE, said “Asian carp can disrupt the Great Lakes ecosystem by consuming large quantities of phytoplankton and competing with native fish for habitat.”

Phytoplankton serves as the base of the aquatic food web, providing an essential ecological function for all aquatic life, Sygo said.

Cronk said Asian carp has the ability to displace native fish altogether.

With no natural predators and the ability to produce 2.2 million eggs a year, the Asian carp could devastate the Great Lakes multibillion-dollar fishing industry, Sygo said.

Sygo said zebra mussels have spread rapidly to all of the Great Lakes and an increasing number of inland waterways throughout the United States and Canada.

Zebra mussels can also disrupt aquatic ecosystems.

Each zebra mussel can filter a liter of water per day removing almost every microscopic aquatic animal plant, including phytoplankton. They also can filter out toxic contaminants, Sygo said.

Phragmites, a large perennial grass, are a threat as well.

Ruswick said phragmites crowds out native plants, degrading wildlife and increasing fire potential.

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

Filed under: Environment

Spread of equine disease linked to decline in use of vaccine


Capital News Service

LANSING—A mosquito-borne disease may have spread among horses in Michigan this year due to a decrease in vaccines used, according to a state expert.

Eastern equine encephalitis (EEE) is a virus which can infect horses and humans and is usually carried by birds and mosquitoes.

“I think there was a decline of the use of the vaccine because of the economy. It’s unfortunate because it might mean the loss of a horse,” said Steve Halstead, the state veterinarian in the Department of Agriculture.

The increase of confirmed cases of infected horses this year is not connected to the number of confirmed human cases, Halstead said. There were three confirmed human cases, two in Kalamazoo County and the third in Barry County, according to the Department of Community Health.

Horse cases were reported in 10 counties, including in Allegan, St. Joseph, Cass, Eaton and Oakland.

“Humans cannot not get it from a horse. If a mosquito bites an infected horse then bites a human, the human cannot get it,” said Halstead.   “It cannot travel from horse to horse because the horse doesn’t generate enough of the virus to be transmitted.”

He said vaccination each spring is recommended for horses.

“There are vaccines for humans but it’s not widespread and not readily available to the general public. It has existed for decades,” said Steven Bolin Diagnostic Center for Population and Animal Health at Michigan State University College of Veterinary Medicine.

“Usually the people who get this vaccine are people who work in laboratories and are in frequent contact with this disease,” Bolin said.

James McCurtis, a Community Health communications officer, said the three cases confirmed this year are the only ones reported since 2002.

“It’s a concern but not alarming,” said McCurtis. “We announced it because we want people to be aware of it.”

The human symptoms include chills, headache, nausea and fever.

The symptoms for horses include fever, seizures, loss of appetite and stumbling.  Often the horse is down and unable to get up.

The Agriculture Department has received more than 50 reports of dead horses and 18 horses tested positive for the virus this year.

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

Filed under: Agriculture

Hunters: Be alert for listless deer

Capital News Service

LANSING—Hunters should be on the lookout for sick-looking deer because of a disease that causes animals to become weak, a state expert says.

Epizootic hemorrhagic disease (EHD) is transmitted by biting flies and causes high fever, said Tom Cooley.

Infected deer have been found in Berrien, Cass and Ottawa counties this year, according to the Department of Natural Resources and Environment.

If hunters find a sick-looking deer, contact the Michigan DNRE Wildlife Disease Laboratory.

“If the deer is dying in bodies of water, it raises a red flag,” said Cooley, a wildlife pathologist at DNRE.

White-tailed deer show signs of the disease promptly, including loss of appetite and excessive salivation, a high fever and a high respiration rate, Cooley said. The disease causes the deer to become thirsty, so they’re most likely to be found near bodies of water.

“Within three to 10 days of infection, the deer will develop signs of illness,” said Cooley. “It’s quick.”

Steven Bolin tests infected deer carcasses for the virus.

“We don’t see this disease every year. Sometimes it can be as many as 20 positive, but it’s never that big of a number. Of all the deer that test positive, it’s a pretty small number,” said Bolin of the Diagnostic Center for Population and Animal Health at Michigan State University College of Veterinary Medicine.

“Four or five or six will test positive and we’ll test twice that many deer,” said Bolin.

Richard King of the mid-Michigan branch of the Quality Deer Management Association has hunted for 30 years in the Gladwin area and has not come across any deer infected with EHD.

“My experiences have been good,” said King, of Gladwin. “The one sick deer that I’ve encountered was very malnourished and could not stand. It just laid there and suffered. I called the DNRE and was told to follow up on it but I never did. That was a long time ago.”

EHD is not common but has been showing up more frequently.

Cooley said, “There haven’t been many cases, but recently, from 2006 to 2010, it showed up four times in five years.”

In 2006, die-offs occurred in Allegan County with 50 to 75 animals. In 2008, the die-off occurred in Oakland and Macomb counties and involved 150 to 200 deer. In 2009, die-offs occurred in Livingston County with more than 150 deer.

“It’s hard to say why. It might be because of the weather or climate change because the disease seems to be moving north. Historically, it affected the southern areas,” Cooley said.

There is no known evidence that humans can contract the disease.

“If a human were to consume a deer with EHD, there would be no human risk,” said Cooley.

“However, it’s recommended that hunters not consume sick-acting deer. Not every deer that gets infected dies, but be on the lookout.”

Regular firearm hunting season runs from Nov. 15 to Nov. 30.

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

Filed under: Environment

Programs push kids outdoors


Capital News Service

LANSING –Children in Ottawa County have a new place to enjoy outdoor activities in winter.

The County Parks Nature Education Center will offer a program for them to discover the natural beauty of winter.

Children with school groups or their families can come on weekends to watch birds, identify evergreens and learn about bugs, said Kristen Hintz, a park naturalist at the center.

The center opened in April at the Hemlock Crossing county park in Port Sheldon Township.

Twenty-one schools participated in the center’s fall discovery program in October.

“We try to have people outside as much as possible and encourage children to learn about the natural world,” Hintz said.

For example, Hintz recently led a group of fourth-graders on a hike, in which students collected leaves of varied shapes and colors of leaves to smell and identify.

They used senses of touch and smell as well as sight to learn about the environment, she said.

Hintz said it’s important for children to leave their computers, iPods and cell phones behind and go outdoors to enjoy nature and develop good recreational habits.

Mark Hoffman, chief of the marketing, education and technology division at the Department of Natural Resources and the Environment (DNRE), said an active outdoor life is a healthy lifestyle.

Studies show children across the country are more obese than previous generations and less involved in physical activities.

“So getting outdoors is a good opportunity for them to try and enjoy outdoor sports that lead to more active lifestyle,” Hoffman said.

The DNRE has a variety of programs to get students outdoors.

“We are approaching younger generations who have no concept of nature and have no connection with nature,” said Mary Dettloff, communication director at DNRE.

Under the national No Child Left Inside campaign, the department works with local groups to get kids outdoors.

A new state recreation passport makes it more convenient for parents and children to visit all 98 state parks, she said.

Dettloff said state parks offer about 500 programs for children throughout the year.

The department has educational programs to improve students’ awareness, appreciation and understanding of wildlife and natural resources.

Hoffman said one example is the Salmon in the Classroom program where elementary and middle school students learn about salmon, water quality and food chains.

The department provides salmon eggs and helps teacher with equipment, Hoffman said.

About 140 schools have participated in the program, which has run for more than seven years and continues to grow, he said.

Other programs, including Project WILD and Archery in the Schools, offer teachers resources and ideas on outdoor education.

Michigan United Conservation Clubs, a statewide conservation coalition, runs a weeklong summer camp program for youth and publishes Tracks magazine for students.

Amy Trotter, the organization’s resource policy manager, said the magazine teaches students about conservation and biology and encourages them to get outside.

Western Michigan University also works to link children with nature.

The university has developed a Core Kids earth science outreach program that sends scientists to local classrooms to talk about the earth.

“We bring rocks that are hundreds of millions of years old into the classroom and talk to kids what they mean,” said Susan Grammer, the K-12 outreach coordinator for the program.

She said it’s important to let children know what’s happening on the planet, such as sea level rise and climate change.

“It will get them excited about science and interested in the natural world,” Grammer said.

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

Filed under: Education

U.P. losing solid-waste inspectors to retirements

Capital News Service

LANSING – By the beginning of December, the Upper Peninsula will have lost all three of its solid-waste inspectors, including the supervisor, to retirement, according to the Department of Natural Resources and Environment (DNRE).

As a result of budget reductions, the DNRE has limited funds to replace them.

Instead, the solid-waste staff based in Cadillac and Gaylord will do U.P. inspections, according to Jim Sygo, deputy director of the DNRE.

The shift means less time for employees from Cadillac and Gaylord to do inspections and handle other duties in their home districts, which include 22 counties from Mason to Roscommon.

“It will have some adverse affect,” said Lonnie Lee, field operations section manager for the DNRE. “We’ll have to prioritize.”

“It’s likely they might do a smaller range of secondary inspections to hit the larger plants in the U.P.,” Sygo said, noting that northern Lower Peninsula inspectors will have flexibility so they can work in the U.P. “They’ll live out of their cars and a hotel for two weeks. It isn’t unreasonable, but it’s an added burden.”

Debbie Nurmi, environmental manger for Republic Services in Manistee, which is inspected by the Cadillac district, said the change won’t affect operations, but the inspector’s increased workload may affect the time it takes the landfill to obtain approvals.

“Today’s landfills are built and operated to comply with state regulations,” she said. “Whether they come once a year or once a month, landfills will still operate to remain in compliance with these regulations.”

There are 40 active solid waste facilities in the U.P., according to the DNRE. Currently, two inspectors from other districts manage the U.P.’s hazardous waste treatment storage and disposal facilities and companies that generate hazardous waste.

Municipal landfills are inspected quarterly, but Lee said construction projects and problems such as groundwater contamination require more frequent inspections.

There are staff in the U.P. who can be trained and assigned to solid waste management part-time, but the department would still need to borrow an inspector from the Lower Peninsula, according to Lee.

Sygo said the DNRE is also working with the Environmental Protection Agency to consider whether the federal agency can assist in inspections, noting that the EPA sometimes does its own inspections to evaluate the state’s.

“It isn’t something we haven’t done before, but we’re looking to do it again,” he said.

Liane Shekter Smith, the chief of the DNRE’s Environmental Resource Management Division, said the loss of the U.P.’s key staff will affect the workload across the state.

“We’re not going to be able to do everything we used to do. We’ll have to put our resources where our priorities are,” she said. “It’s going to be difficult to answer complaints in a timely manner, if at all.”

Shekter Smith said complaints include neighborhood complaints and anonymous dumping cases. The department is working to identify where to reduce services by evaluating types of inspections and determining which are most effective.

Paul Wandrie, manager of the Mackinac Island Solid Waste Facility, said that people with complaints can notify the city directly rather than calling the DNRE. He said that’s been done in the past with odor complaints.

Richard Aho, director of the Marquette County Solid Waste Authority, said he is aware that the U.P.’s regional supervisor is retiring but didn’t know that the region’s entire staff would be gone by the end of this year.

“Anybody they bring in won’t have experience with this area. We’ll just have to pick up where the other guy left off,” Aho said. “It’s a matter of the transition into the new inspector.”

Aho said having a DNRE regional office in his “own backyard” makes it convenient to stay in contact with inspectors and discuss projects. With an inspector coming from another area, he said he’ll adapt by communicating through e-mail.

And for emergencies, Sygo said, the DNRE’s staff based in Gwinn will respond as soon as possible.

Shekter Smith said, “These are uncertain times. We’re going to work the best we can to provide services.”

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

Filed under: State Agencies

Big pig problem provokes blame brawl

Capital News Service

LANSING – Michigan’s got a big pig problem, and nobody wants to take the blame.

The presence of feral pigs, which can cause environmental damage, carry disease and endanger people and other animals, has been widely reported in the media, but the source and number of wayward porkers are under intense debate.

About 3,000 to 5,000 feral pigs, most weighing 200 to 300 pounds, are running loose in the state, said Russ Mason, wildlife chief at the Department of Natural Resources and Environment (DNRE).

“Think of them as Asian carp with four legs,” Mason said. “They have no redeeming factor whatsoever.”

Commercial pork producers blame the situation on private hunting preserves that offer pigs as game and where they sometimes escape.

“I would say 99 percent have emanated from those hunting preserves,” said Sam Hines, executive vice president of the Michigan Pork Producers Association in Holt.

But hunting preserve operators counter that their pigs rarely, if ever, escape.

Salvatore Palombo, owner of County Line Game Ranch in Beaverton and president of the Michigan Animal Farmers Association, said he’s never had a pig escape and questioned the magnitude of the problem.

“By the DNRE’s own records, they’ve had approximately 250 escapes in the last eight years,” Palombo said. “Of those, all but roughly 50 have been accounted for. It is doubtful that those animals can survive in the wild.”

Mason said DNRE’s estimate comes from combining the number of reported sightings with the relative frequency that wild pigs are seen in other states.

“There’s hand-waving on one side and data on the other,” Mason said. “Just in the last three weeks, I’ve had at least four photographs and a video sent to me.”

Gratiot County has had the most sightings in the state since 2001, followed closely by Washtenaw, Midland, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Marquette counties, according to the DNRE.

In an effort to reduce the population of feral pigs, a new state law allows anybody with a hunting license or concealed pistol permit to kill a wild pig.

Mason said the pigs destroy forest regeneration efforts, severely damage wetlands, prey on native wildlife, create unnecessary competition for food and cause soil erosion and water quality problems. He compared a site that had been foraged by wild pigs to one cleared with a tractor.

“Pick a concern, any concern,” Mason said. “They also have a negative impact on endangered species. They’re a source of diseases that we’re trying to eradicate in wildlife like tuberculosis and diseases that are agriculturally important like pseudorabies.”

The pork producer’s Hines said pseudorabies is a major worry for farmers because many pigs are bred in-state then shipped to other states, mainly Ohio and Indiana, to be raised to market weight before they are sold.

Despite its name, pseudorabies is not related to rabies. It is a form of the herpes virus that weakens the immune system of pigs, making them vulnerable to other illnesses, in addition to causing abortion and stillbirths. An airborne disease, it can also be transmitted through contact with feral pigs or contaminated food.

“If we were to have an outbreak of the disease here, the states that are currently receiving these animals would no longer allow that to happen,” Hines said. “I’m talking about literally hundreds of thousands of pigs on an annual basis. Probably somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 weekly are being shipped to other states.”

Hines added that 25 percent of pork products are exported to foreign countries, so a disease outbreak halting that trade would have a devastating economic effect.

Hogs and pigs are a $357 million-a-year industry in Michigan, which ranks 12th in the nation in market value, according to the Michigan State University data.

The five major pork-producing counties are Allegan, Cass, Ottawa, Branch and Calhoun.

Amy Trotter, resource policy manager at Michigan United Conservation Clubs (MUCC), said lack of regulation for pig-hunting preserves has added to these problems.

“Right now these facilities are not regulated, or if they are, they’re regulated under the captive cervid (deer and elk) regulation,” Trotter said. “That requires high fences but doesn’t talk about anything like a pig, which burrows.”

DNRE is currently investigating the escape of at least 10 elk and two deer from a 70-acre ranch southwest of Munising in September.

Ron McKendrick, owner of Renegade Ranch Hunting Preserve in Cheboygan, said most hunting reserves have sufficient fencing and containment facilities because pigs are too expensive to lose.

“The cost of a Russian boar is about three times the cost of a domestic pig,” McKendrick said. “You’re looking at about $1.75 a pound, and the average one is 200 to 220 pounds, so it’s over $300, my cost, for the hog.

“So I’m not going to let any get out,” he said.

McKendrick said his 300-acre facility has plenty of food and space, in addition to a holding area with two fences and an electric wire, and he’s never had a pig escape through the fences.

However, McKendrick said he was forced to shoot and kill two pigs that got loose while they were being unloaded upon arriving at the preserve about eight years ago.

While McKendrick brings in pigs only when hunters specifically request them, County Line’s Palombo said his preserve usually has 40 to 120 pigs on the premises, depending on hunter demand. Those pigs are born and raised within its 320 acres.

Palombo’s preserve is surrounded by two perimeter fences separated by a road.

MUCC’s Trotter estimated that about 40 hunting preserves offer wild pigs in Michigan.

“Because they’re not required to register, the only ones we really know about are the ones that also have deer or elk,” Trotter said. “There could be even double that, that nobody is aware of yet.”

The DNRE’s Mason said some wild pigs might come from illegal release, when people bring them across state lines and release them to be hunted in the wild, but data show a strong correlation between wild pigs and hunting preserves.

“Look across the state and pinpoint where pigs have been either shot, hit by cars or reported to us,” he said. “Overlay that map on the locations for these pig hunting operations – there’s a very strong and significant relationship.”

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

Filed under: State Agencies

Community groups, state, fight homelessness


Capital News Service

LANSING – Michigan had more homeless people in 2009 than a year before but communities are making strides in helping them find a place to live, experts say.

The state’s more than 100,000 homeless people last year represented a 10.8 percent jump from 2008, according to the Michigan Campaign to End Homelessness.

The primary reasons were unemployment and poverty.

Southwest Michigan had 12,309 homeless people in 2009, and its 24.8 percent increase was the highest in the state. The number in Southeast Michigan increased by 1.1 percent, but with 35,109 homeless people, the area still had the most.

Programs across the state are working on the problems, including shelters in Holland and Royal Oak.

“It’s not really surprising when you consider what has happened with the economy here in Michigan,” said Karen Holcomb-Merill, the state fiscal project director at Michigan League for Human Services.

She said many residents lost jobs and their homes were foreclosed because of the distressed economy.

Barb Ritter, the project manager at Michigan Coalition Against Homelessness, said that despite increased joblessness and poverty, the state’s homeless rate rose about 7 percent less than the national average in the past two years.

“We are holding the line as best as we can,” she said.

Both Ritter and Holcomb-Merill said the Campaign to End Homelessness has helped many residents.

Sally Harrison, director of the Office of Rental Development and Homeless Initiatives at the state Housing Development Authority, said the campaign is a collaborative effort among major state agencies, such as departments of Human Services, Community Health and Corrections, and local groups.

Their goal is to end homelessness in 10 years.

“We want to ensure that every person in Michigan has a safe, stable and affordable place to live,” Harrison said.

She said Michigan was the first state to develop a 10-year plan for ending homelessness.

Launched in 2006, the campaign has developed strategies to get resources to people in need and has helped more than 10,000 households.

Harrison said the homeless population includes military veterans, single mothers, people with disabilities and families living in their cars.

More than half are adults and children in families, most of which are headed by single mothers, statistics show.

That’s the case with the South Oakland Shelter in Royal Oak, which served 213 clients in 2009, of whom 113 were women and children, according to Austin Kralisz, a community relations officer at the shelter.

But more two-parent families than single mothers sought assistance from the Holland Rescue Mission last year.

The mission is a Holland-based organization that serves primarily Ottawa and Allegan counties.

Janet Ewing, director of its Family Hope Ministry, said the organization served 997 homeless people in 2009, fewer than in previous years.

Single women and two-parent families are a growing proportion of its clients, Ewing said.

Harrison said the campaign helps people to pay for housing by themselves.

For example, she said, homeless people may be eligible for apartments at a rent of less than 3 percent of their income. Meanwhile, they get other services that help them get back on their own feet.

“In 2009, 81 percent of the people we assisted are still housed after six months, which is pretty good,” Harrison said.

Local organizations also help homeless people gain skills.

For example, the South Oakland Shelter has programs to encourage self-sufficiency, such as job placement, budget management and computer training.

Ewing said the Holland Rescue Mission offers vocational tracks to help people get certificates and develop a career.

Harrison said she’s pleased with what the campaign has achieved but worries that a lack of resources may slow the progress.

“In a poor economy where jobs are rarely available, people need longer assistance and resources aren’t enough to go around to help everybody who needs help,” she said. “That is probably one of the greatest challenges.”

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

Filed under: Social Policy

Rail boosters push for more train service

Capital News Service

LANSING—Advocates for better transportation in Michigan say the state needs more federal aid and better planning to accommodate all-time highs in train ridership.

Amtrak reported that its ridership nationwide is higher than ever, at 28.7 million passengers in 2009-10. And President Barack Obama recently proposed $50 billion in federal aid to transportation, including passenger rail service.

Although transportation officials acknowledge that federal money might not be available soon, if ever, Michigan has definite needs.

“With the report, there’s some good concepts,” said Tim Fischer, deputy policy director at the Michigan Environmental Council. “Still, the specifics are what’s important.”

For example, Fischer said, infrastructure banks, or loan programs serving transportation development, are a necessity.

Fischer said Michigan also needs to rev up its efforts with intra-city passenger rail and commuter train systems. An online forum, Michigan By Rail, is attempting to get people to discuss transportation issues, he said.

“We’re asking the question to Michigan citizens: ‘What do you want to see in your rail system?’” he said. “What we’re hearing, uniformly throughout the state, is that people want to see their passenger rails better connected to the rest of the state.”

Fischer said state residents are asking for more direct train routes, but Amtrak has only three lines and 25 stations in Michigan. None of the lines serves Northern Michigan or the Upper Peninsula. They run between Chicago and Grand Rapids, Pontiac and Port Huron.

Improving intrastate travel is number one on the list for John Langdon, governmental affairs director for the Michigan Association of Railway Passengers, who lives in Holland.

“We need to increase the frequency of trains,” said Langdon. “The benefits would be bringing tourism and business to Michigan by rail.”

According to Amtrak, the Pere Marquette train from Chicago reaches its destination at Grand Rapids at 10:20 p.m.

“Business travelers need schedules that would work for their schedule,” Langdon said. “You’d have to spend two nights before you could get any work done.”

Langdon proposes that a train from Chicago arrive in Holland no later than 10 a.m. and in Grand Rapids before noon.

That timeline, he said, would bring more business to the state and allow tourists to jump off and spend a day in Southwest Michigan beach towns, like New Buffalo and St. Joseph.

“The bottom line is, any time Amtrak has increased frequency in any part of the nation, there’s a dramatic increase in ridership,” he said.

He said the New Buffalo station saw a 302 percent increase in passengers after a new station opened nearer to the beach. He attributes a recent uptick to commuters working in Chicago who have settled in the area.

“There’s no question in my mind that we need to at least show commitment so we can prove we should be provided with” more federal
grants, Langdon said.

Larry Karnes, Michigan Department of Transportation freight policy specialist, said a federally mandated state rail plan is in the works and is expected to be finished next June.

“It will identify the issues that are facing people in passenger rail, the needed service and resources available,” he said.

Karnes said Michigan last updated its rail plan in the early 1980s.

The rail passenger system gets a state subsidy, and that money is extremely limited, Karnes said.

“Michigan has been in the bottom 20 percent compared with other states for mass transportation funding for the past 40 years,” said Bill Shreck, communications director at the Michigan Department of Transportation.

Fischer said if public transit is implemented and residents use it rather than drive on roads, the cost of public transportation maintenance might be less than the cost of widening and maintaining highways.

“It’s cheaper to fund public transportation by far than it is to expand highways,” he said. “Those are costs that we as a state have chosen to invest in. Those don’t last forever.”

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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