Showcasing the Michigan DNR: Kids, sportsmen help DNR improve Drummond Island grouse habitat

A Drummond Island Elementary School student shows
off the trees he’s about to plant at the DNR’s GEMS site.
(Michigan DNR photos)
A recent work day at a Department of Natural Resources recreation site on Drummond Island had it all: local sportsmen, statewide conservation clubs, public employees, citizen volunteers. And kids. Thirty-five of them.

The event was a tree- and shrub-planting day at the state Grouse Enhanced Management Site (GEMS). It brought together groups with varying purposes to fulfill one mission: improve the habitat for ruffed grouse and other species on the northern Lake Huron island.

“This is what we do with the kids for Arbor Day,” said Brian Plowman, president of the Drummond Island Sportsman’s Club and a captain on the island’s ferry boat. “This has been going on for a lot of years before I was involved.”

The Drummond Island school kids’ tree-planting project was begun by John Ostlund, an Elk Rapids resident who owns a camp on the island. Known as “Bugman” – Ostlund says “it’s because I bug everybody,” but really he has a background in entomology – the 77-year-old Ostlund started taking the elementary school kids out to plant trees years ago. They planted pine trees on various tracts that were lacking in tree cover.

“We have to help out nature at times,” Ostlund said. “She can’t do it all herself.”

Youngsters plant trees at the DNR’s Drummond Island
Grouse Enhanced Management Site.
Ostlund’s mission has evolved over the years, and the program the DNR embarked on last year to create showcase ruffed grouse management areas dovetailed perfectly into this year’s event.

“We’re moving more toward shrubs that help the wildlife,” Plowman said. “Elderberries, high bush cranberries, dogwoods – we’re planting anything that has anything to do with helping out wildlife.

“And the kids love it,” Plowman continued. “They don’t care what kind of trees we’re planting. They just want to go out and plant trees.”

DNR biologist Dave Jenthoft, who works out of the DNR’s Sault Ste. Marie office, said this was the first project at the Drummond Island GEMS, which was established in 2014.

“This is a good project,” Jenthoft said. “We get some good habitat work done, and it’s a good collaborative project, getting the kids involved and getting them out here to understand habitat. And it’s good to work with so many different groups.”

Among the groups were the Ruffed Grouse Society (RGS) and the Michigan Sharp-Tailed Grouse Association.

Marty Sarrault assists a youngster with trees to be
planted to improve wildlife habitat on Drummond Island.
The RGS, which partners with the DNR on the GEMS program, is a natural fit. Terry Lamb, a regional director with RGS, said his group acquired the trees and shrubs through the Leelanau County non-profit group Saving Birds Thru Habitat.

“We do this throughout the state,” Lamb said. “It allows RGS to work with the chapters on more than just holding banquets. People are getting out and doing something worthwhile for the environment – using elbow grease on the ground – but it’s a good social outlet, too.”

The sharp-tailed grouse group, which works to benefit a grassland species, believes the species it focuses on will derive some benefit from the planting, too.

“Sharptails will utilize these areas in the winter for cover and for the mast crop,” said Marty Sarrault of Cheboygan, president of the Michigan Sharp-tailed Grouse Association. “It’ll work for them, too.

“Besides, I spend more time going after grouse and woodcock than I do sharptails.”

Youngsters, gathered at the sign at the DNR’s Drummond
Island GEMS, prepare for a day of tree planting.
Elly Plowman, the teacher who escorted the 35 Drummond Island Elementary School students (third through sixth grades) to the site, said the event was a great fit for the children.

“Our school theme is CREW – caring, respectful, enthusiastic workers,” she said. “This fits in perfectly. This project is a good way to give them the opportunity to be good CREW members.”

Trevor Norris, a sixth-grader who said he planted six trees, agreed.

“I like helping the ruffed grouse,” he said. “I like to hunt them, once or twice year. I’ve gotten a few.”

Mike and Amanda Fairchild, cattle farmers on the island, showed up with their fifth- and sixth-grade sons to help out.

“It’s a good time,” Mike said. “The kids learn how to plant trees and help the wildlife, and some of these kids don’t get to do this sort of thing very often.

DNR biologists Dave Jenthoft (left) and Al Stewart discuss
logistics as volunteer Marty Sarrault hands out trees for
youngsters to plant at the Drummond Island GEMS.
“And it’s good to see the Ruffed Grouse Society involved, too. It’s a good outing.”

Charter boat skipper Ivan Gable, who grew up on the island and retired there after a long career downstate in the automotive industry, says the kids are the key.

“They’re out here picking up rocks, asking what they are, learning about trees – they can’t teach that in school,” he said.

Al Stewart, upland gamebird specialist with the DNR, said he thinks the GEMS program – with seven sites across the state – is a winner.

“GEMS projects coordinate the community into activities that advance wildlife and help develop stronger partnerships with our constituents,” Stewart said. “It allows everyone to have an investment in the land and its management.”

The GEMS will be heavily managed with an eye toward producing top-quality habitat with easy accessibility. The sites will benefit from accelerated aspen-cutting rotations, improved trails that are easily negotiated and seeded to clover, and planting trees and shrubs that are attractive to grouse, deer, and other wildlife.

“The local chambers of commerce in these communities want to have showcase areas that attract people to them,” Stewart said. “And there’s an educational component, teaching people what habitat to look for, or if you’re a landowner, what kind of habitat to strive for on your own property.”

For more information on GEMS, visit