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  • Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

    Wetlands were everywhere on the Great Lakes, how one project is helping save them

    By Caitlin Looby, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel,


    HOWARD – Just outside the mouth of Duck Creek in the bay of Green Bay, Valerie Brady hovered over her waterproof datasheet – a must for a wetland scientist. Raindrops pooled on top, which she pushed away to record what kinds of fish her team caught in nets set out the night before.

    Yellow perch. Brown bullhead. Common carp.

    And as if the rain wasn’t enough, smoke from the Canadian wildfires still clung to the air.

    “Are we having fun yet?” Brady shouted louder than the rain and boat engines.

    In late June, Brady, an aquatic ecosystem ecologist at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, and her team of eight scientists were on their last day surveying wetlands near the bay of Green Bay.

    The trip was one of more than two dozen Brady and her team will take this summer to survey wetlands across Lakes Michigan and Superior, working their way north from Green Bay up to Thunder Bay, Ontario.

    Brady’s work is a part of a massive effort called the Great Lakes Coastal Wetland Monitoring project, one of the most comprehensive, collaborative research projects in the country. Scientists across the U.S. and Canada survey nearly a thousand wetlands for bugs, fish, aquatic plants, birds, frogs and water quality.

    It's is a great example of “big science,” said Bob Howe, a professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and founding member of the monitoring survey. The survey is in its 13th year, giving scientists a “good sense” of what is going on in Great Lakes’ wetlands.

    And it’s through wetlands that the scientists will understand just how well the lakes are faring, Howe said.

    But the reach goes much further. It's highlighting the need for wetland protections, helping efforts to restore the areas of concern – the most troubled areas in the Great Lakes – and training the next generation of scientists.

    The field teams go to great lengths to do this work. They go out rain or shine, day and night. Some wetlands are in pristine areas, while others are in industrial centers. Many aren’t easily accessible, requiring that teams go out on boats or bushwhack their way in.

    And not even the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the massive sampling effort.

    Wetlands protect the lakes, shoreline communities

    Wetlands are one of the most important, yet imperiled ecosystems across the Great Lakes region.

    The Great Lakes have lost more than 50 percent of their coastal wetlands, which is why Brady said scientists need to be “keeping an eye on them.”

    Unfortunately wetlands are up against an underrated reputation, Brady said, the public often views them mucky, smelly and ridden with mosquitoes.

    Wetlands protect both the lakes and the communities that live near them, she said.

    They filter sediment and nutrient pollution before it can enter the lakes. And wetlands act like a sponge, soaking up water during heavy rainfall and flooding.

    Wetlands are also full of biodiversity, including bugs and small fish that form the bottom of the food web, allowing birds and larger, prized fish to thrive.

    And that’s likely needed as protections for wetlands were recently rolled back.

    In a recent ruling, the Supreme Court erased federal protections for many wetlands, leaving it up to the states. While wetlands are well protected in Wisconsin, Great Lakes’ water is all connected. So, what happens in one lake will likely affect another.

    But “if you want to keep bird and fish populations going, you need to protect wetlands,” Brady said.

    'We always get it done'

    The wetland survey is the only long-term monitoring that’s happening along the shoreline, according to Brady. And there are more than 75 scientists working on the project at all times.

    It's funded by the Environmental Protection Agency’s Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, the landmark program that has funded projects that restore and protect the lakes since 2010.

    Every year, the scientists survey a subset of the wetlands, rotating between them and covering about a thousand over the course of five years.

    “The real power of this is comparing all the wetlands in the region,” Brady said.

    But to compare all the wetlands, everything has to be done the exact same way at every site. The teams undergo rigorous training to make this happen.

    It may seem monotonous that everything has to be done exactly the same, but “every day is different out here,” said Kari Pierce, a field crew leader on the project.

    And Pierce has seen a lot.

    While sampling at the Green Bay sites last year, a tornado came through, abruptly ending their sampling. When they went back the next day to collect their nets, multiple downed trees cut off their access to the water. They got hand saws from a home nearby and it took them two hours to cut their way back to their sites.

    But no matter what, Pierce said “we always get it done.”

    A ‘fantastic opportunity’ for students

    While the bug and fish teams work throughout the summer months, the bird and frog teams survey from the end of May to mid-July.

    To prepare for the upcoming field season, Sarah Baughman listened to bird calls on repeat during her 40-mile commute from Manitowoc to the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. She had four months to memorize 142 different calls.

    The 29-year-old went back to school in 2021, transitioning from a career in art to science. A newfound calling in wetland restoration.

    Baughman is a part of a team led by Erin Giese, the interim director of the Cofrin Center for Biodiversity at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. She has worked on the project since the beginning. Giese’s team surveys birds and frogs from Chicago to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

    Bird teams goes out twice a day around sunrise and sunset. Frogs, on the other hand, have a much more precise window when their calls can be heard.

    Frogs only call for a couple of weeks after they first come out of hibernation, which happens when nighttime temperatures are warmer than 40 degrees for multiple nights in a row. After that, they won’t call again until the following year.

    The project is “not for the faint of heart,” Giese said. But “that is the dream to train the next generation of scientists.”

    There are few changes for students to get on-the-job training before they enter careers in science, making this a “fantastic opportunity,” Giese said.

    Wetland information ‘critical’ to areas of concern

    Information from the wetland monitoring project is “critical” to restoring the areas of concern throughout the Great Lakes, said Brianna Kupsky, the Lower Green Bay Area of Concern Coordinator at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

    The areas of concern were designated by the EPA as some of the most degraded sites throughout the Great Lakes’ basin.

    The information from the project is used for planning, Kupsky said, so they can figure out what species to prioritize and what sites need the most attention. The information also lets the agencies know what projects are on track and achieving their goals.

    Information from the survey has even become an integral part of the State of the Great Lakes report, released every three years by the U.S. and Canadian governments.

    There have been a lot of restoration projects in the wetlands in the Sensiba State Wildlife Area in Suamico where Giese and her team monitor birds and frogs.

    If certain birds are present that tells scientists that the project is working, Howe said. But, if certain birds haven’t come back, they know that something different needs to be done.

    “It’s ecology in action,” he said.

    Detecting change ‘for better or worse’

    Over the past decade, Great Lakes water levels have seen both historic highs and lows, reflecting a dynamic that scientists say might become more dramatic with climate change.

    There are marked differences in how birds use wetlands during these years, Howe said, which over time, they can put these changes into context, determining if they are natural or attributed to human impacts.

    “It’s going to help us detect change for better or worse,” he said.

    Baughman finds meaning in being “one piece of the puzzle” in the large-scale effort. The fieldwork blends her love of art and science, she said, seeing that there is "healing" all around.

    Of course there are times when she is tripping over branches or stomping through muck. But the most fulfilling moments are when she is kayaking before dawn, listening to the chorus of birds around her.

    “It’s also for a bigger purpose than just my happiness,” she said. “I get to contribute to something that'll outlast me.”

    Caitlin Looby is a Report for America corps member who writes about the environment and the Great Lakes. Reach her at or follow her on Twitter @caitlooby.

    Please consider supporting journalism that informs our democracy with a tax-deductible gift to this reporting effort at or by check made out to The GroundTruth Project with subject line Report for America Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Campaign. Address: The GroundTruth Project, Lockbox Services, 9450 SW Gemini Dr, PMB 46837, Beaverton, Oregon 97008-7105.

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