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Understanding Importance of Streamside and Lakeshore Habitat
Michigan Ag Connection - 08/11/2017

The thousands of rivers, lakes and streams in Michigan are beautiful, special places, not only to a wide range of people, including anglers, boaters and campers, but numerous plant and animal species.

Those areas between the water and the uplands are called riparian areas or riparian zones. A riparian management zone is "an area designated and consciously managed to protect functions and values of riparian areas." Within a watershed -- the area drained by a river or stream system -- the lands next to streams and rivers are particularly important to the health of those waterways.

"Because of the unique conditions adjacent to lakes, streams and open-water wetlands, riparian areas harbor a high diversity of plants and wildlife," Michigan Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologists said in a report on "Riparian Zone Management and Trout Streams: 21st Century and Beyond." "Life is simply richer along rivers and streams.

"Riparian areas are ecologically and socially significant in their effects on water quality and quantity, as well as aesthetics, habitat, bank stability, timber production, and their contribution to overall biodiversity." Plant habitat along rivers and streams is called riparian vegetation. The plants that grow there have an affinity for water.

"Vegetative cover refers to overhanging or submerged tree limbs, shrubs and other plants growing along the shore of the waterbody," the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's website states. "Rivers, streams and lakes can be buffered from the effects of human disturbance in the watershed by varied, multi-layered vegetation in the land corridor that surrounds them.

"Healthy, intact vegetative cover in these riparian areas can help reduce nutrient and sediment runoff from the surrounding landscape, prevent bank erosion and provide shade to reduce water temperature. Vegetative cover can also provide leaf litter and large wood (such as branches and logs) to serve as food, shelter and habitat for aquatic organisms."

In Michigan, large woody debris from mature trees growing along streambanks controls how streams look and function.

"Large woody debris provides cover for salmonids (trout and salmon), habitat and food for aquatic invertebrates, adds nutrients, traps smaller debris, provides feeding and resting sites for a wide variety of wildlife, and has other beneficial effects," the DNR fisheries biologists said.

"When leaves, twigs, sticks and even entire trees fall into streams, they provide both food and shelter for aquatic insects, and habitat for reptiles, amphibians, fish, mammals and birds."

Woody debris can slow down fast-flowing water, create deep holes and provide cover for fish and other wildlife to hide in.

At Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, in Alger County, rangers said the streams there are home to more than 170 groups of aquatic macroinvertebrates, those organisms that that live underwater, do not have a backbone and can be seen with the naked eye.

"These include larval and/or adult water bugs, water beetles, caddisflies, stoneflies, dragonflies/damselflies, mayflies, fish flies/alderflies, true flies, riffle beetles, aquatic earthworms, scuds, leeches, snails and limpets, and crayfish," the park's website said. "The presence of caddisfly, stonefly and May fly larvae indicate that streams here are of high quality and are in good ecological health."

According to the EPA, vegetative cover along lakes and streams varies naturally among the various ecological regions in the United States.

"The amount and complexity of vegetative cover for a given stream, river or lake is used as a measure of the integrity of the waterbody's physical habitat," the EPA said.

The DNR fisheries biologists said the agency and its partners spend many thousands of dollars each year to introduce additional large woody debris into our river systems, debris that has been lost artificially over time due to a variety of circumstances.

"Not only are shorelines and rivers important for recreation, several species of wildlife depend on shorelines for their livelihood," said Holly Vaughn, a DNR wildlife communications coordinator.

Ninety percent of all wildlife species use riparian areas for some aspect of their existence during their life cycles.

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