From the Office of the Director

Marty Holtgren PHD
Executive Director
Muskegon River watershed Assembly

A Valued Partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Award winning American author and environmental activist, Wendell Berry said, “The Earth is what we all have in common.” and this is a call to us at MRWA.  We literally work side-by-side with so many Muskegon River Watershed residents and organizations to protect and restore our shared watershed.  One of our major partners in protecting this ‘common resource’ is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).  They have conducted Lake Sturgeon surveys with us, funded fish passage improvements, and focused strategic efforts to improve the Muskegon River Watershed.

A New Relationship with an Old Friend

In 2020, the USFWS Green Bay Fish and Wildlife Conservation office developed a Strategic Habitat Plan for the Lake Michigan Basin.  This plan will guide their efforts during 2020-2024 in support of the restoration of aquatic habitats within the Lake Michigan Basin through technical assistance while working across political and jurisdictional boundaries.  Especially exciting to the MRWA is the focus on five major watersheds one of which is the Muskegon!  The Plan identifies priority species that serve as “conservation targets” and will aid in determining which aquatic habitat projects will be most important.  We have many of these species in the Muskegon River watershed including the Lake Sturgeon, River Redhorse, Brook Trout, Northern Pike, Lake Whitefish, Longnose Sucker, and Freshwater Mussels.

In 2020, the Strategic Habitat Plan has helped guide the important work we are collaborating on with the USFWS.  These projects include two dam removals and the restoration of aquatic habitats at a severely eroding bank on the Muskegon River.  The dam removals will help restore brook trout habitats, reconnect tributaries to the mainstem, and decrease water temperatures.  At one of the dam sites, we placed temperature recording devices this past summer, that were provided by the USFWS, and we found that the water temperatures were increased more than 3 degrees because of the dam.  This is significant as the Muskegon River’s cool and cold water tributaries are at risk of becoming warmer and failing to provide the critical thermal refuge for fish and other sensitive aquatic life.  It is exciting for me to consider how this partnership will benefit the watershed over the next few years as I imagine the possibility of multiple dam removals, each providing an immediate impact.

A Changing Relationship with USFWS

Throughout my career, I have observed firsthand the unique role that the USFWS has played in species and habitat conservation.  It is dependent on committed staff that can successfully work across jurisdictional boundaries and build relationships.  Almost 20 years ago, as I was beginning my career as a fisheries biologist, I attended a sturgeon conference where I knew very few people.  I remember visiting a sturgeon spawning site with the other conference attendees and I found myself standing alone and outside of the large group of people.  Rob Elliott, who was a fish biologist with the USFWS, saw me and made his way through the group and started a conversation.  I never could have imagined that his outreach would start a relationship that would produce years of collaboration and friendship.  Since that time, I have worked on dozens of projects with Rob – the most recent being the sturgeon surveys we did in 2019 on the Muskegon River.  During these surveys MRWA members were able to participate on the USFWS boat with Rob, and his colleague Dr. Jessica Collier, to monitor the young sturgeon and help on this critically important work.

I found out a few months ago that Rob would be retiring, and I instantly felt anxiety.  It is rare to find someone with his qualities.  He is one of the kindest people I have ever met, can make complex partnerships work almost seamlessly, and is so committed to protecting our natural resources.

The good news is that Jessica Collier will be the fish biologist that we work with from the Green Bay Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office.  She has worked with Rob over the past few years and shares many of his qualities, with an engaging personality and a deep understanding and commitment to watershed protection and rehabilitation.  If 2020 is any indication we will have many years of doing great work together to benefit the Muskegon River watershed, its trust species and habitats, and people.

The MRWA wants to thank Rob Elliott for his many years of dedicated service and profound impact to the Muskegon River.  You have made a difference that will continue for years.