Conserving Great Lakes Alvars
Final Technical Report of the International Alvar Conservation Initiative (PDF) (251 pp, 4.5 MB EPA's PDF page) March, 1999
compiled by Carol Reschke, Ron Reid,Judith Jones, Tom Feeneyand Heather Potter on behalf of the Alvar Working Group
Alvar ecosystems are grassland, savanna and sparsely vegetated rock barrens that develop on flat limestone or dolostone bedrock where soils are very shallow. Almost all of North America’s alvars occur within the Great Lakes basin, primarily in an arc from northern Lake Michigan across northern Lake Huron and along the southern edge of the Canadian Shield to include eastern Ontario and northwestern New York state. Most types of alvar communities are globally imperiled, and they support several globally rare species as well.
The International Alvar Conservation Initiative is a collaborative effort aimed at providing a unified, consistent approach to understanding and conserving this rare and vulnerable Great Lakes ecosystem. The Alvar Initiative has been coordinated by the Great Lakes Program of The Nature Conservancy (TNC). Individual projects related to the Initiative were coordinated through annual meetings and ongoing discussions of the Alvar Working Group, a forum involving over 50 collaborators from government and non-government organizations and universities.
Highlights of Results
- an unprecedented, high-quality information base for future decisions about priority actions for alvar conservation across the Great Lakes basin by planners, agencies, and non-government organizations
- an enhanced understanding of several aspects of Great Lakes basin biodiversity, including the discovery of several new species and many new sites for rare and endemic species
- a broadly-accepted, consistent framework for evaluating alvar conservation priorities within the 27,200 acres of alvar habitats across the Great Lakes basin
- documentation of 34 high-priority sites with an assessment of protection urgency for each, as well as identification of 49 other significant alvar sites across the basin
- a much improved understanding of key ecological factors sustaining alvars, threats to their viability, and appropriate management and restoration practices
- over 8700 acres of high-priority alvar sites now in the process of permanent securement through acquisition, government designation, and conservation easements
- direct education of over 50 private landowners of 17,000 acres of alvar about the value of these imperiled habitats
- a dramatic increase in awareness of the need for alvar conservation among agency and non-profit staff, consultants, academics, naturalists, and the general public
- mechanisms to maintain the conservation momentum created by the Alvar Initiative, and to monitor future progress
- documentation of a model collaborative approach to conservation that could be applied successfully to other Great Lakes habitat types.
1. An accurate range-wide assessment of alvar distribution and conservation status
- Botanical field surveys were completed for 103 alvar sites, and data reviewed for a total of 121 alvar sites with an extent of approximately 27,200 acres.
- Field data was analyzed from 120 observation points and 85 quantitative plots to develop an alvar community classification system including 13 alvar community types and 4 related types. Each type was described and assigned a global rarity ranking, and each occurrence assigned a conservation priority ranking.
- New data was collected on target vascular plant species, non-vascular plants such as lichens, mosses, and algae, terrestrial molluscs, and target insect groups involving over 600 species. New sites were found for 10 globally rare land snails, and a total of 26 proposed new snail species are being described.
2. Documentation of priority sites for long-term protection.
- Alvar sites were evaluated on the basis of four criteria, including sites with the largest diversity of alvar community types, sites which collectively best represent each of the alvar community types, sites which best represent the diversity of alvar communities within each ecoregion, and sites with globally rare species.
- 34 "multiple-value sites" were identified as meeting more than one of these criteria, along with an additional 49 other significant alvar sites. More detailed information on individual sites has been provided in reports for NY, OH, MI, and ON, and in the Heritage Programs’ computerized databases. The multiple-value sites include:
Garden SE Glade
Thunder Bay Island
Three Mile Barrens
Dyers Bay/Brinkman’s Corner
West of South Baymouth
East Side Quarry Bay
Pike Bay Pine
West of Lynn Point
- Based on knowledgeable local input, securement urgency and management urgency rankings were provided for all multiple-value sites, showing that just over half of these sites have high urgency for protective actions.
3. A working knowledge of how alvar ecosystems function.
- Detailed studies of surface and groundwater hydrology were carried out at Chaumont Barrens (NY), and monitoring of seasonal alvar hydrology and the effect of ruts at LaCloche alvar (Manitoulin, ON) and Chaumont Barrens.
- Analysis of field data and land use history information was completed to assess the role of fire in alvar ecology.
- Long-term research plots have been established at 6 alvar sites in ON and NY to monitor the effects of livestock grazing and deer browsing on alvar ecology.
- Analysis of field data from observation points examined the role of exotic (non-native) species, and some site-specific research on control techniques for European buckthorn was also carried out.
- An overview of threats to alvar habitats across the basin was provided, with an analysis of where each threat is concentrated. This overview noted that over half of the multiple-value alvar sites have high or very high securement or management urgency ratings. Significant threats include quarrying, residential and related development, all-terrain vehicle and off-road vehicle use, heavy grazing and browsing, exotic species, plant collecting, logging and forestry, and waste dumping and vandalism.
4. Conservation strategies for the protection and stewardship of alvar ecosystems.
Approximately 100 participants took part in the June 1998 Alvar Conservation Workshop in Tobermory, Ontario. Seven types of conservation activity were noted as already underway for alvars within the Great Lakes basin:
- Protective public ownership within the Bruce Peninsula National Park, provincial and state nature reserves, and other state lands.
- Protective NGO ownership including TNC alvar holdings in New York and Michigan and Federation of Ontario Naturalists (FON) reserves on the Bruce Peninsula and Pelee Island. Several other major acquisition projects are currently underway.
- Private land stewardship, which involves an NGO working cooperatively with private landowners to encourage voluntary conservation, involving over 50 landowners and over 17,000 acres during the course of the Alvar Initiative.
- Joint planning for protection, involving several groups and agencies, on Manitoulin Island, the Carden Plain, and elsewhere through TNC’s ecoregional planning process.
- Integration of alvar sites into the land use planning system, particularly in Ontario, where the FON has undertaken a provincial alvar theme study to identify additional ANSI lands that must be considered in land use decisions.
- Site management and restoration activities including construction of boardwalks and interpretive trails, experimental techniques to control non-native plants, controlled burns, and restoration of former quarry sites through the seeding of lakeside daisy.
Priority actions recommended for alvar conservation include:
- Continued conservation leadership through the individual programs of TNC, FON, and Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC), and through a joint alvar conservation steering committee to oversee a part-time Alvar Specialist.
- Developing and implementing action plans for the conservation of high priority alvar sites.
- Broadening and strengthening support among private landowners, the native community, conservation practitioners, and the general public.
- Filling knowledge and research gaps in a number of specific areas.
5. Increased awareness of the uniqueness and value of Great Lakes alvars.
- The state summary reports for NY, OH and MI, and the upcoming alvar theme study for Ontario, address a technical audience.
- A glossy full-color booklet and poster being produced by FON will provide information for the general public.
- Alvar Initiative outcomes include at least 17 magazine and newsletter articles, 14 technical reports, theses and published journal articles, 4 stewardship booklets oriented to private landowners, and presentations at 5 conferences.
- Other media coverage including TVO Down to Earth, Great Lakes Radio Consortium, and Toronto Star newspaper.
6. A mechanism for monitoring the status of alvar elements and ecosystems.
A structure to support future monitoring and assessment is part of the responsibilities of a proposed joint alvar conservation steering committee. This follow-up will be included in the duties of an Alvar Specialist, through reports on progress to bi-national conferences or through biennial update reports, and through a twice-annual electronic newsletter.
7. A replicable model for regional collaboration in the conservation of biodiversity.
An analysis of the model provided by the International Alvar Conservation Initiative includes an outline of the process steps, a discussion of key ingredients for success, and criteria to identify other ecosystem types which might benefit most from such a collaborative approach.