Trail Creek Fen Habitat Restoration

Volunteers installing native plant plugs grown in Save the Dunes’ greenhouse. Photo courtesy of Samantha Erdelac


By Samantha Erdelac, Stewardship Manager, Save the Dunes

Trail Creek Fen Nature Preserve (Trail Creek Fen) is a beautiful, ecologically rare 38-acre natural area located on the southwestern side of Michigan City, Indiana within the Trail Creek watershed. The property was acquired by The Nature Conservancy (TNC) in the 1980s, and they later transferred ownership to Save the Dunes in 2005. The property includes a remnant savanna, dry/mesic woodland, riparian forest, and two high-quality gramnoid/forested fen habitats separated by the main branch of Trail creek. This fen habitat is extremely rare in our region.

The property consists of over 200 native plant species including dwarf birch (Betula nana), tamarack (Larix laricina), and state-threatened branched bur-reed (Sparganium androcladum), along with state-rare Baltimore checkerspot butterfly (Euphydryas phaeton) and state-threatened spotted turtle (Clemmys guttata). Trail Creek Fen has one of the greatest displays of butterfly species that I have seen throughout Northwest Indiana, and also has a good number of Eastern box turtles.

The property was once home to pitcher plant (Sarracenia purpurea), rounded-leaf sundews (Drosera rotundifolia), jack pine (Pinus banksiana) and grey birch (Betula populilfolia), but these plants and others have been lost due to various disturbances.  Two major disturbances include historic grazing within the dry/mesic woodland, and installation years ago of a gas pipeline right through the two fens and the remnant savanna. Threats to the ecosystem include woody and herbaceous invasive plant infestations and lack of controlled burns to help balance the woody and herbaceous plant populations. Very little management of Trail Creek Fen occurred throughout the years, leaving large infestations of invasive plant species replacing the native plant communities.

Large infestation of Oriental bittersweet that was treated within one of the upland habitats. Photo courtesy of Samantha Erdelac

In the spring of 2009, Save the Dunes received roughly $50,000 through the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Sustain Our Great Lakes program to remove invasive plant species within the upland and wetland communities at Trail Creek Fen. This grant project allowed us to hire four interns, who received on-site training on habitat restoration. The grant also provided opportunities for the public to learn how to identify and remove invasive plants and the importance of controlled burns and maintaining native plant communities.

The funding allowed stewardship staff, interns, and volunteers to remove several acres of exotic shrubs, such as glossy buckthorn, autumn olive, bush honeysuckle, and multiflora rose. Oriental bittersweet was removed throughout much of the upland and forested fen habitats, along with isolated populations within the open fen areas. Large shrubs and vines were cut down and the stumps treated with herbicide, while smaller shrubs and vines received foliar herbicide treatments.

At the time, phragmites, hybrid cattails, and reed canary grass were also threatening the two fen communities. Staff and interns started removing these noxious wetland weeds – a significant threat to the high-biodiversity fen habitat. Removal treatments included foliar spraying and wicking depending on the size of infestation and the sensitivity of the area.

Staff and interns also started to remove garlic mustard and dame’s rocket that had taken over much of the property over the years, including the fen communities. These two exotic plants can be a challenge to remove due to the biennial lifecycle and abundant seeds that are produced from these plants, requiring follow-up treatments every year to reduce the amount of infestation on the property.

Thanks to help from our partners – Shirley Heinze Land Trust and Indiana Department of Natural Resources (Division of Nature Preserves) – we were able to conduct a controlled burn on a portion of the property to reduce woody species density and help establish native plants. The property had not seen a controlled burn for at least 5 years, and yet was essential to maintain the balance of woody and herbaceous plants and the overall health of the natural communities.

A controlled burn being conducted within one of the fens at Trail Creek Fen. Photo courtesy of Samantha Erdelac

Save the Dunes also grew over 3,700 plant plugs for the grant project from our solar greenhouse with native seed that was collected earlier by staff and volunteers on the property. These plugs were planted within the areas of the fen that underwent the greatest amount of phragmites and hybrid cattails removal.

After eliminating the invasive threats and conducting a controlled burn, we were happy to see native branched bur-reed reappear within parts of the fen, along with the appearance of a few new native plant species that had not yet been noted on the property.

As the grant ended in the fall of 2010, stewardship staff continue to maintain Trail Creek Fen to ensure that these invasive plant threats do not jeopardize all the hard work that our staff, interns, volunteers, and partners have accomplished thanks to the Sustain Our Great Lakes funding.

There is still much work to be done at this property, but with continual removal of invasive plants and routine controlled burns we hope to bring Trail Creek Fen back to its formal beauty.

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