The Stream Teams

MARQUETTE – Scuds? Sideswimmers? Gilled snails? If these and other macroinvertebrates – basically, animals without backbones- are your thing, consider volunteering with the Alger Conservation District’s stream monitoring program this year.

Josh Forrester, a conservation technician with the district, talked to potential volunteers Wednesday at Northern Michigan University during National Wildlife Week.

“The ultimate goal of this program, basically, is just to protect our fresh water through engaging citizens, educating the public and creating stewardship,” Forrester said.

The program is made possible through a grant from the Michigan Clean Water Corps, a network of water-monitoring programs in the state, created to help the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

Volunteers look at and collect aquatic life found in streams, marking their findings on data sheets. It is hoped, after two years, volunteers can monitor the streams on their own, he said.

The program allows volunteers to make contributions to science.

“This is something that’s just custom made for that,” said Teri Grout, Alger Conservation District executive director.

“Why collect bugs?” Forrester asked. “They’re scientifically useful. They’re good indicators of streams.”

By that, Forrester meant the looking at the diversity and numbers of macroinvertebrates, such as crayfish, clams, worms and the like, that indicate habitat loss, sedimentation and chemical pollution, for example.

“It’s designed to be a cheap, easy and fun way to actually get real data you can use without having to do all this chemical analysis and that kind of thing, to see what’s actually living there, and go by that,” Forrester said.

There’s the scientific aspect, of course.

“It’s basically a great opportunity to see an ecosystem, pretty much a complete ecosystem, just quickly and easily, see how they all interact, you know, and to see a microcosm of a much larger biosphere in a way,” Forrester said.

Last but maybe not least, it can be just plain fun.

“It’s also fun to splash around and play with bugs too,” Forrester said.

A person also could get lost in collecting scientific data is the nicest of settings.

Grout said,” I mean, I can’t think of anything better to do on a nice day after dinner than standing in waders in a nice, clear stream. It’s not just work.”

A training session is offered to volunteer before they hit the field. Forrester said the animals they’ll collect typically are larval and nymph stages of insects such as dragonflies and mayflies, which can look nothing like their adult forms. However, those grown-up insects eventually will have an impact on the local habitat.

“It gives you a really good glimpse of the whole area,” Forrester noted.

The types of macroinvertebrates volunteers might come across are varied. Caddisflies, for example, create cases from stream debris, Forrester said. Stoneflies have two tails and “cool” back patterns, he said, while water pennies are tiny and cling to rocks.

Then there is the aptly named sideswimmer.

“They are called sideswimmers for a reason,” Grout said. “They just scuttle along, like they’re doing the sidestroke. I mean, as soon as you see one, you know you got it.”

There is some danger, although minor.

“Hellgrammites have been known to bite,” Forrester said.

However, special tools can come in handy to combat the dangers of the deep.

“Forceps are a really good tool for picking these up,” Grout said.

Challenges also can come in the form, for example, of “true bugs,” which Forrester called escape artists, being hard to catch and hard to keep.

“They don’t always make it into the jar,” he said.

Reed Saam, an NMU student majoring in environmental science with an emphasis in water resources, has volunteered with the Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve, with 2013 marking his third year with this project. He expressed an interest in taking part in monitoring streams for the Alger Conservation District.

“I’m a fly fisherman, so I’ve always been interested in bugs,” Saam said.

Generating that interest in a program such as the stream monitoring effort also could provide a lot of environment benefits down the line.

Forrester said, “It doesn’t take much time. It doesn’t take a whole lot of effort.”

People interesting in volunteer with the stream monitoring program can call the district at 906-387-2222.

The program, Forrester said, should ramp up sometime in late April or early May.