© 2022 Michigan State University Board of Trustees
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Detroit wildlife refuge could be model for urban conservation

John Hartig photo
Tina Shaw
flickr - U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
John Hartig at Humbug Marsh

When you think of wildlife refuges, Detroit probably isn’t the first place that pops to mind. But conservation scientists are paying increasing attention to the potential of urban spaces. Current State’s April Van Buren talks with John H. Hartig, who manages the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge, about his new book “Bringing Conservation to Cities.”

When you think about conservation areas, what’s the first place that pops into your mind? Is it the African Savannah? Or maybe the Florida Everglades? How about the city of Detroit? The Motor City is actually home to North America’s only international wildlife refuge.

The Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge covers over 18-thousand acres of water and land in Michigan and Ontario. And this refuge is part of a national effort to help reconnect the 80-percent of Americans who are city-dwellers with the natural world.

Current State’s April Van Buren talks with the guy who literally wrote the book on it. John Hartig is the author of the book “Bringing Conservation to Cities.” He’s also the manager for the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge.

This segment is supported by Michigan State University's Knight Center for Environmental Journalism. More news about the Great Lakes environment can be found at GreatLakesEcho.org and on Current State every Tuesday as part of our partnership.

Can bringing conservation wildlife refuges closer to urban areas make a difference in the diversity of people exposed to conservation? 

Absolutely. No matter where you go throughout the world or what cultures you go to, most people who get exposed to a compelling outdoor experience love it. And then once they get this experience, they can learn how to love it, care for it, become a steward, and become a conservationist. 

How has Detroit’s legacy of pollution impacted wildlife?

Because of…heavy industry, the number of people that we’ve had and how old Detroit is….we’ve had a dramatic impact on the Detroit River and its shoreline and its wetlands. For example back in the 1960s, the Detroit River was one of the most polluted rivers in North America. There was so much oil going into the Detroit River that we still had major winter duck kills due to oil pollution. That’s where we started from. And (now) we’ve seen 40 years of continuous water pollution control, pollution prevention by industries and municipalities, and we’ve seen some dramatic improvement in the quality of the river. If you add that up, that’s a pretty wonderful story of environmental improvement of the Detroit River. 

We have osprey for the first time since the late 1800s along the Detroit River in Gibraltar. We have lake sturgeon back…(spawning) for the first time in 30 years in the river. We are building spawning reefs for them. If you add that up, the return of bald eagles, peregrine falcons, osprey, lake sturgeon, lake whitefish, walleye and other species, it’s one of the single most remarkable ecological recovery stories in North America.

What are some challenges faced with developing a conservation ethic in an urban area versus rural? 

If you’re a big urban area you have many stakeholder groups. So, to get an agreement on something takes longer in terms of time. It takes more meetings to get it done. The complexity of things is harder. In big urban areas there’s lots of things. Like Detroit, much of it’s developed. So there (are) fewer opportunities to do this.  We have to partner with corporations, with municipalities to do this where we can. To create waterfront porches for both people and wildlife and give a compelling experience to people. 

What part of this project has been the most rewarding for you? 

I would say to always see the sparkle in kids’ eyes. You know the sense of wonder about natural resources and the outdoors. When we are involved in a project like Sturgeon Day or World Wetlands Day, or we’re planting trees at the Refuge Gateway with students, they see a bald eagle fly over and they’re just amazed. It is always amazing to me to see when kids get it. And the sense of wonder about natural resources, and then let their mind take over and ask questions and everything else. It’s pretty special for all of us.

Related Content
News from WKAR will never be behind a paywall. Ever. We need your help to keep our coverage free for everyone. Please consider supporting the news you rely on with a donation today. You can support our journalism for as little as $5. Every contribution, no matter the size, propels our vital coverage. Thank you.