Mapping Cancer Cases in a Small Town (Part 2)

  • Claire Schlaff and her daughter-in-law Polly were motivated by the loss of their son and husband, Doug, to start a cancer mapping project. They're trying to piece together information about cancer cases in White Lake, a resort community in West Michigan. (Photo by Sarah Alvarez)

This is the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

All this week we’re bringing you a special series on cancer and the environment.

Sometimes a whole community can be affected by cancer. In the second part of our series, Sarah Alvarez visits one town in west Michigan where families are trying to find out why their loved ones got sick:

Cancer is a scary enough word, and cancer cluster can sound even scarier. That term describes a place where more people have cancer than you’d expect to find in the rest of the population. But finding out if a cluster really exists and then getting something done about it is hard, really hard.

Claire Schlaff doesn’t know if there’s a cancer cluster in her small resort community around White Lake, Michigan. She says she just wanted to know more about what might have caused her son, Doug to get cancer and die three years ago.

“He went to two major medical facilities and was even in a clinical trial. They were focused on treatment. They weren’t about doing research into what causes Ewing’s Sarcoma.”

Claire’s daughter-in-law Polly was also looking for answers to what had caused the disease. She’s Doug’s widow and the mother of his three boys.

“He was diagnosed when he was 33 and he passed away when he was 35. We were high school sweethearts. He was a high school counselor; he was a high school basketball coach. He was an athlete.”

Polly started a Facebook group called Cancer in White Lake to gather stories of people around the lake affected by cancer. She and Claire had a hunch there was more cancer around White Lake than in other places. They collected more than a hundred stories from people with lots of different cancers. Claire and Polly thought it might have something to do with past pollution. This is Claire again:

“In 1985 we were listed as one of the great lakes area of concern because of contamination from Hooker chemical, the tannery, DuPont and maybe some others.”

White Lake has been cleaned up. It’s expected to come off the list of polluted places this year. The local health department doesn’t have any data to show there’s more cancer around White Lake than anyplace else.

Claire and Polly and some dedicated volunteers want to get the health department more data. The state keeps track of cancer rates by county, but not by town. And there are lots of types of cancers they don’t keep track of.

So Claire and Polly turned their Facebook group into something else.

“It’s a voluntary, self-reporting mapping project.”

They’re trying to map all the people in their community who’ve had cancer in hope of getting their health department interested in looking into this. They’re finding, then calling and surveying about 1000 people.

Terry Nordbrock runs the nonprofit National Disease Cluster Alliance. She says regular people are not usually successful in discovering a cancer cluster.

“There’s hundreds and hundreds of times where people have a concern-they’re observing harmful effects in their community and they can’t get anyone to listen to them. So that is actually the more common outcome: massive frustration for all involved.”

Terry Nordbrock says cancer clusters just don’t get enough attention from the government. She says that’s why people like Claire and Polly Schlaff often have to do the work themselves if they want to see it done.

“Communities deserve to have confidence that their concerns will be adequately addressed. We’re not there yet.”

Claire Schlaff says she doesn’t expect answers about what caused her son’s cancer.

“I don’t think we’ll ever figure out what caused Doug’s cancer. I feel like we might figure out why somebody got cancer.”

They do hope their work is useful and can provide answers for somebody, some day.

For the Environment Report, I’m Sarah Alvarez.

Our cancer and environment series continues tomorrow. We’ll hear about a confirmed cancer cluster in St. Clair County, where a number of young children have been diagnosed with a rare kidney cancer. That’s the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

Our Murky Understanding of Cancer and Chemicals (Part 1)

  • Corinna Borden was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma six years ago. She wrote a book about her experience - "I Dreamt of Sausage." (Photo courtesy of Corinna Borden)

According to the latest numbers from the National Cancer Institute, roughly 41 percent of us will be diagnosed with some type of cancer in our lifetimes.

But “cancer” is not just one type of disease.

There are more than 100 different kinds with different personalities and causes. And the causes are not all that well understood.

This week, we’re taking a closer look at cancer and environmental pollutants.

It’s a subject researchers are trying to learn more about, but the picture of how the chemicals in our everyday lives interact with our bodies’ cells is far from clear.


What it's like to hear the word "cancer"

Six years ago, Corinna Borden woke up in the middle of the night with a shooting pain under her right rib cage. It was the kind of pain that made her want to crawl out of her skin.

Months went by and the pain got worse. Doctors were stumped.

She was taking two Vicodin pills every four hours for relief. The medical tests continued, and they eventually found the problem.

Hodgkin’s lymphoma – cancer.

She was 29 years old when she got the news.

“I basically shut down,” said Borden. “Like I was totally blown apart and terrified, and I couldn’t think of anything but that I was going to die and that this was really unfair. And then there was a small part of me that was happy that the pain was not totally in my head, and hadn’t been… And then [I was] angry that nobody had found it. So there was a lot going on. There’s that great line with Paul Simon, ‘when you lose love, it’s like everyone can see into your heart.’ It’s the same feeling, you've just been stripped…. every boundary you have is just laid open. It’s a really emotionally horrible feeling. ”

Doctors reassured Borden that Hodgkin’s lymphoma is treatable, and a week later, she started chemotherapy.

But after months of treatment, it didn’t work. Her scans still showed a spot where cancer might be lurking.

“To be honest my anger with the western establishment of not having the chemotherapy help me was also coupled with the anger [that] I’ve been poisoned by whatever that’s been going on… I mean I have no idea what it is I’ve been actually eating, or drinking, or every cosmetic, they don’t have list all of the ingredients or the 'natural flavors' – that is an umbrella that can mean anything,” said Borden.

How could this have happened?

It’s a common question after being diagnosed. People ask, “How could this have happened to me – or to my sister, my uncle, my mom, my neighbor?”

There are many factors that can lead to cancer. There are the genes we have inherited. There are viruses. There are naturally occurring things like sun exposure, arsenic in water, and radon.

All these factors can interplay with our genes and cause the cells in our body to grow out of control.

And then there are the man-made chemicals in our lives. How these impact cancer can be tough to figure out.

The National Toxicology Program of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services publishes a list of substances that could cause cancer “to which a significant number of persons residing in the United States are exposed.”

The list is published every two years, and the most recent edition lists 240 substances that can lead to cancer.

  • 54 of these substances are listed as “known to be human carcinogens,”
  • and 186 substances are listed as “reasonably anticipated to be human carcinogens.”

The President's Cancer Panel calls for more action

Each year a panel of scientists appointed by the President takes stock of the nation’s strategy to fight cancer.

In 2010, a panel appointed by former President George W. Bush issued a report that said quote – “the true burden of environmentally induced cancer has been grossly underestimated.”

Chair of the President’s Cancer Panel Dr. LeSalle Leffall said that only a fraction of the 80,000 chemicals in use today are tested for safety.

“The health effects of many of these chemicals have not been studied or they’ve been understudied and the chemicals really remain unregulated,” said Leffall.

Leffall said the panel recommended more research and more action.

“We think that the government needs to take action to eliminate carcinogens from our workplaces, our schools, and our homes, and that action needs to start now,” said Leffall.

The President’s Cancer Panel report, “Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk,” talked about reducing exposure to things such as toxic substances in drinking water, pesticides, medical x-rays, car exhaust, and plastic food containers.

It was criticized by the American Cancer Society. They say only about 6% of cancer deaths are caused by occupational exposure and environmental pollutants.

From the ACS’ report “Cancer Facts & Figures 2012”:

Exposure to carcinogenic agents in occupational, community, and other settings is thought to account for a relatively small percentage of cancer deaths – about 4% from occupational exposures and 2% from environmental pollutants (man-made and naturally occurring).

They said the President’s Cancer Panel report put too much emphasis on these potential environmental risks to the detriment of other known risks – bigger risks – things like smoking, diet, and lack of exercise.

How can we know?

Dr. Richard Clapp is an environmental epidemiologist at Boston University.

He said the 6% number is outdated.

“This is a thirty-year old estimate. I think it was wrong 30 years ago and it’s wrong now. I don’t know what the real percentage is. I don’t think anyone knows what the real percentage is because things interact,” said Clapp.

He said right now, we simply don’t know enough.

“It’s not like environmental or occupational exposures cause 70% or 80%, we don’t know that,” said Clapp. “Anyone that claims they know that is making it up. There’s no way to prove that. But we do know that there are people getting exposed to stuff that causes cancer; why would we want to have that continue?”

Clapp says if there’s a chemical that looks like it might be linked to cancer, it’s wise to get rid of it.

He points to the falling rates of lung cancer as evidence of how we should approach the problem.

“It’s good news that lung cancer, especially in males, has begun to come down, and probably is beginning to come down in females. So that’s a story that needs repeating…  We don’t exactly know  the mechanism, we don’t know exactly what happens to an individual cell, from even whether it’s benzo[a]pyrene in the cigarette smoke, or something else in it, there’s lots of carcinogens in cigarette smoke. So we don’t know the exact details of how that works. But we know if we prevent that exposure it’s going to have a benefit for people’s health.”

Moving from a "reactionary principle" to a "precautionary principle"

Clapp said the U.S. should move toward the European model of chemical regulation. The REACH program (Registration, Evaluation, Authorization, and Restriction of Chemical substances) was adopted in Europe in 2007. It “places greater responsibility on industry to manage the risks from chemicals and to provide safety information on the substances.”

A similar, precautionary approach to chemical regulation has been introduced in the U.S. Congress.

The Safe Chemicals Act (S.847) was introduced by Senator Frank R. Lautenberg (D-NJ), and hearings on the bill were held last November.

And the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) is working on a new carcinogens policy expected later this year that could move toward a more precautionary approach to chemical regulation in the workplace.

Making changes, but trying not to be consumed by them

Corinna Borden doesn’t know what caused her cancer, but she has changed her life.

Soon after her diagnosis, she got rid of the chemicals in her house, she began filtering her tap water, and she changed what she eats.

But she tries not to be consumed by these choices. She say she still has to live.

“I’ve been in a position where I didn’t want to get out of bed, because I was so afraid of dying,” said Borden.  “And that’s not how we should live. Life is precious and beautiful and I really feel that you need to go out and experience it.  And going out and being a little closer to the edge is… what choice do we have?”

It’s been almost six years since Borden first heard the word cancer, and she doesn’t know yet if her cancer is in remission. (Borden keeps a blog about her experiences and life lessons, and she's also written a book, "I Dreamt of Sausage.")

For those who get the disease these days – fewer are dying from it because of advances in treatment and screening.

But researchers continue to work on one of the biggest puzzles – what makes our cells turn cancerous in the first place?

Tomorrow, as part of our week-long series on cancer and the environment, Sarah Alvarez will take us to White Lake, Michigan. Some families there are trying to figure out where cancer in their community might come from.

Japanese Knotweed: A Plant With Strange Super Powers

  • The DNR's Vern Stephens on a corner lot in East Lansing that's covered with Japanese knotweed. In the winter, the stalks look just like bamboo. (Photo by Rebecca Williams)

It’s tall, it’s aggressive… and it’s tough to get rid of…

This is the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

Vern Stephens and Sue Tangora work for the Department of Natural Resources. They happen to be married to each other. And they have a common enemy.

“This is on my radar of being a 10 on a scale of one out of 10.”

That thing they hate? It’s a plant. An invasive plant called Japanese knotweed. It’s sometimes also called Mexican bamboo. I met up with Vern and Sue at a busy intersection in East Lansing… on a corner lot where Japanese knotweed is going hog wild.

(sound of walking through crunchy stalks)

“It looks like bamboo. It gets up to 10-12 feet tall. It’s like being in a jungle, the canopy is above your head, generally in a lot of the sites, you can’t touch the canopy it’s that high above you.”

Maybe you’re thinking… so what? It’s a plant. In fact, it’s been a popular landscape plant in Michigan for years. People like it because it grows fast, so you can use it as a privacy screen to keep out nosy neighbors.

But this plant is crafty. It’s native to Japan, where it’s one of the first plants that comes up after a volcanic eruption. So it can actually push through volcanic rock. The problem with that is… it can also break through the foundation of your home.

“We know in England, Japanese knotweed has been known to be a problem there and it’s to the point where people have trouble getting insurance for homes, some of their insurance rates are really inflated. You see pictures of it growing up a wall inside someone’s home.”

And actually – the knotweed on this corner lot is already breaking through the sidewalk.

Once the plant has gotten a toehold… it’s very hard to get rid of. Its roots can grow at least 9 feet into the earth. It releases a toxin into the soil so nothing else can grow near it. Vern Stephens says you can’t mow it or cut it… because that’ll just make it grow faster. And what’s worse… those little clippings can start a new population in the growing season.

Vern says the only way to treat it right now is with very specific herbicides. He says if you use the wrong herbicide… you could make knotweed grow even faster. It can take years to get rid of it.

In 2005, the Michigan Legislature made Japanese knotweed a prohibited species. Sue Tangora says you’re not required to treat it if you already have it… but you can’t share it.

“It’s illegal to sell at nurseries or farmers markets or anywhere. People will dig it up and share it with their friends or neighbors. Unless you’re really aware of all the laws in Michigan you may not be aware that’s actually illegal to do.”

The DNR is aware of garden clubs in the state that are still exchanging hybrids of Japanese knotweed… and even the hybrids are illegal to move off site.

How to identify and treat Japanese knotweed

A Daily Mail article about a couple in the UK struggling with Japanese knotweed

What the DNR recommends doing to treat knotweed


It’s even illegal to move soil that has the roots of Japanese knotweed in it… because that could spread the plant. And that has caused problems for the guy who owns this corner lot. Vern Stephens says the landowner wanted to develop the site… but now, he can’t build here until the Japanese knotweed is gone.

“He won’t be able to do anything on this until it’s cleaned up, I’m guessing three years minimum.”

The landowner didn’t want to be recorded for this story.

The DNR’s still trying to figure out how widespread Japanese knotweed is… but it’s been found throughout the state, especially in cities… such as Flint, Detroit, and Petoskey.

Al Hansen is the director of parks and recreation for the City of Petoskey. He says they’ve been struggling with knotweed in city parks for about three years. He says they’re treating knotweed on city land. But they’re having trouble getting some private landowners to see knotweed as a problem.

“They don’t realize the consequences when it escapes the landscape beds themselves and that’s the difficult part, because they were able to buy it at one time, and therefore they don’t view it as being an invasive.”

And that’s maybe the biggest problem for officials. It can be hard to get people fired up about plants… especially when it’s something that everyone thought was good.

I’m Rebecca Williams.

Climbing Melting Ice

  • Neale Batra rappels down a frozen waterfall. The rope is anchored to trees at the top of the climb. Credit: Meg Cramer/Michigan Radio

The Pictured Rocks National Lake Shore is a special place for Midwestern ice climbing. Every February, hundreds of climbers meet in Munising for Michigan Ice Fest. That’s because the Lake Superior shoreline has one of the highest concentrations of accessible ice climbs in North America. Meg Cramer went to visit the climbing crowd and brings us this story:

That’s Bryan DeAugustine. Usually, he’s a middle school principal. But this weekend, he’s a volunteer instructor at Michigan Ice Fest.

“Ice climbing is like solving a puzzle and doing gymnastics at the same time. So it’s a nice marriage of your mind and your body. You have to really be focused and balanced. It’s just a fun way to spend the day outdoors.”

Ice climbers wear metal cleats strapped to their boots. In each hand, they carry an ice tool that looks like a small pick axe. They swing, chop, and kick their way up vertical ice.

It’s a lot less dangerous than you might think. Everyone uses ropes and harnesses. Still, advanced climbers often give this advice: don’t fall.

Lada Pistek is about to climb up a 40 foot tall pillar of ice. During the summer, it’s a small creek that drops off a ledge in the forest. Now it’s a thick, frozen column. It’s hollow, and water is still dripping through it. When you look into the pillar from the top, you can see all the way down to the creek bed below. It’s exhilarating.

“When we found this place, we got like, we were amazed. It’s so quiet. Not so many people here. It just touched us.”

(forest sounds)

Along the Lake Superior shoreline, porous sandstone cliffs sweat groundwater. It slowly freezes into thick sheets. Curtains of ice drop off ledges into the lake—and people climb them, lowering 250 feet down to the ice shelf and climbing back out.

Here’s Bryan DeAugustine.

“It creates a pretty fragile environment in some ways. We’re really careful with the rock and we have a great relationship with the national park service. They let us climb here and… it just… there’s ice everywhere. Every cliff band that you encounter can find ice formed on it.”

(dripping water)

But that’s not so true this winter—which has been unusually warm by Munising’s standards.

Lake Superior still hasn’t frozen. Free floating blocks of ice crowd the shore.

Every climb is melting.

But people come anyway – hundreds of them. That’s because Michigan Ice Fest is a once-a-year opportunity for the climbing community to hang out and talk shop.

Bill Smith is a National Lakeshore park ranger. He says the climbing crowd is a good thing for Munising.

“I think they enjoy it for the economic boost that it gives. I know some of the establishments have a long running relationship with the ice climbing community. And it’s a big bonus. Great crowd. A lot of fun, I like harassing them.”

At night, Ice Fest participants get together, drink beer, and watch slideshows.

Everybody gets pretty nerdy about it.

For Bryan DeAugustine, that sense of community is one of the best things about the Munising ice climbing scene.

“It’s a sense of belonging, people who understand each other and are pretty positive about life. It’s just really fun and if you want to try this sport, the UP is the place to come. And come to Munising, Michigan to give it a try.”

For the Environment Report, I’m Meg Cramer.

Republican Presidential Candidates & Environment

  • The four remaining GOP contenders at last month's debate in Florida. (Screen grab from video /

The Republican candidates for president have taken their messages of energy independence on the road in Michigan. The state’s primary is just a few days away. Rick Santorum has been the most vocal candidate about energy and environmental issues on his campaign stops in Michigan. He says “radicals” are blocking energy independence and economic growth in the country. Michigan Public Radio’s Laura Weber has more:

At a campaign stop in west Michigan this week Rick Santorum was asked for his stance on man-made global warming. He responded…

“There is a radical ideology of radical environmentalists, who, in fact, do put the earth above the needs of man, and see them in conflict with each other.”

Santorum says the federal government should focus on the needs of people first – such as the need for more jobs. He says when people have their needs met they are better able to take care of themselves and, in turn, the earth. He says ultimately the responsibility of environmental stewardship is on the individual. But Santorum says radical environmentalists are using global warming to manipulate the federal government.

“And so I never signed on with global warming. I realized…[applause]”

And then Santorum clarified—

“Let me be specific so I’m not taken out of context—manmade global warming. I do believe the Earth warms, I do believe it cools.”

Santorum rejects the science of climate change – though the vast majority of scientists agree that climate change is real and caused mostly by people.

Santorum also says the federal government needs to stop hoarding and protecting the country’s bountiful natural resources. He says natural gas and coal could be used to enrich the United States, lower fuel costs at the pump, and establish energy independence. His rival, Michigan-native Mitt Romney, agrees.

“Coal, oil, gas, nuclear, solar, wind, ethanol – use all those resources, so we have an ample supply of energy ourselves, and don’t have to send hundreds of billions of dollars buying energy every year. And by the way, put in place that keystone pipeline. That’s a no-brainer.”

But environmentalists in Michigan say the proposal to install an oil pipeline from Canada, through the middle of the U.S., is not a no-brainer for Michiganders. The Enbridge pipeline ruptured in the Kalamazoo River two summers ago.

“Yeah, I think Michigan has seen the dangers firsthand that communities around the country face.”

That’s Jordan Lubetkin with the Michigan chapter of the National Wildlife Federation.

“Pipeline spills are not a rare occurrence. In fact they happen hundreds of time per year.”

The Keystone pipeline proposal is an issue on which all of the major Republican candidates appear to agree. That includes Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul, who have not campaigned in Michigan with Santorum and Romney. In fact, it appears there are few environmental issues the candidates disagree on. All of the candidates have also spoken in favor of more drilling for oil and hydraulic fracturing for natural gas. But the theme that runs through all of the energy platforms is finding ways to create more jobs while diminishing dependence on foreign oil.

Ryan Werder with the Michigan League of Conservation Voters says the intersection of energy and job creation could play perfectly in Michigan.

“The candidates are talking so much about market forces, and they’re talking about ‘let the private sector do as it will,’ and I agree. Clean energy is where the market is going.”

And Werder says Michigan is equipped with a strong manufacturing industry ready to build on wind and solar energy industries. Werder says he wishes at least one of the Republican candidates would address the economic opportunities presented by clean energy.

“We’ve suffered a greater economic depression than any other state in the country, and so we need to be the most innovative, and the most forward-thinking out of any state in the country.”

For the Environment Report, I’m Laura Weber.

Visiting a Black Bear Den

  • An 11-year-old male black bear that was just placed back in his den after a checkup by DNR bear experts. He's still under the effects of the tranquilizer in this photo, but they'll wear off soon. (Photo by Mark Brush)

Black bears are doing really well in Michigan. The Department of Natural Resources estimates there are somewhere between 12,000 and 15,000 black bears in the state. They’re mostly in the U.P. and the northern lower peninsula. But in recent years… bears have been heading south and pushing into new territories.

Bears have been spotted in the Thumb, and around Flint, Grand Rapids, Battle Creek and Lansing.

Dwayne Etter is a bear researcher with the DNR.

“We’re trying to understand better how bears are using these habitats, how they’re moving through the landscape, if there’s corridors they’re using.”

To do that, they trap bears, put GPS radio collars on them, and let them go. On this day, they’re checking on an 11 year old male bear in Oceana County. They’ve invited a lucky few to tag along as they go right up to the sleeping bear in his den.

“The only access is right at him, so there’s no sneaking up, he knows you’re there. The other issue we have is that our wind is blowing right into the den, so he’s getting to smell us too.”

Bears are not true hibernators. They’re sleepy this time of year… but they can wake up quickly. Dwayne Etter says that’s especially true this winter because it’s been so warm. So Etter sends us civilians up to the top of a ridge to watch from a distance. He and two other DNR staffers approach the bear from a meadow below.

Mike whispering: “See that hump down there? That’s his den.”

Mike Wegan is a wildlife technician with the DNR. We watch as the guys make their way through the valley below us.

“They’re going to come in, and dart him from the opening of the den.”

They dart the bear. It takes a couple minutes for the drug to set in.

“Sometimes they’ll kinda poke it with a stick to see if it responds at all. Once they determine it’s out and it’s safe, they’ll reach in there, give the bear a tug on the arm, and then we’re good to go.”

Watch a video about the black bear checkup by Michigan Radio’s Mark Brush

More about southern Michigan bears from the DNR


(sound of walkie talkie): “You can go ahead and bring everyone around.”

We hop into trucks, drive around to the meadow and hike up to the den. A couple of the biggest guys climb into the den and haul the sleeping bear out.

(sound of pulling bear out of the den)

He’s jet black… and he’s smaller than I expected.

“Do you have a thermometer? Yup.”

They take his temperature and they cover him with coats to keep him warm. They swap out his old radio collar for a new one, and give him an overall checkup.

DNR wildlife assistant Dan Moran points out this bear’s got a few battle scars.

“He probably fights, but he’s probably the boss.”

Then, the guys roll him carefully into a tarp, and attach a scale to a big stick they found in the woods. It takes four guys to lift the bear.

(grunting) “He’s not off the ground guys, sorry.” “Ugh, set him down.”

They try a couple times… but the scale’s not working.

“He’s heavy, how about that?” (laughter)

They estimate the bear weighs around 300 pounds.

When they wrap up their work, they pull him up the hill and put him back into his den.

“Butt first, butt first!”

Dan Moran brushes snow off the bear’s head and arranges him with his head peeking out of the den.

(Moran to bear): “There you go. That’s better, yeah.”

“Because he’s still under the drug we want him lying so his airway and nose are clear. We don’t want his nose stuck in the mud or snow or dirt.”

Then Moran tests the new collar to make sure it’s working.

(radio tracker beeping)

Later, they’ll download data from the bear’s old collar and find out where he’s been.

Dan Moran says bear encounters will be rare and there’s nothing to fear. He says bears will probably run away before you even see them.

“Bears are pretty reclusive, pretty shy, they travel mostly at night so you don’t see them a lot. Respect the animals, you know, but don’t be afraid of them, enjoy them.”

That’s the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

A Pig Ban Gets Muddy

  • A Mangalitsa pig at a farm in McBain, Michigan. (Photo by Peter Payette)

Wildlife officials took aggressive action last year to keep pigs from running wild on the landscape. Certain kinds of pigs were declared an invasive species. But farmers and ranchers say the move was too extreme. They’re challenging the science of the ban. As Peter Payette reports, distinguishing between pigs can be complicated:

Stuart Kunkle has ten pigs at his small farm south of Traverse City.

“We have a mix and some purebreds here. We have two mulefoots which are the black pigs. That’s Rosabelle and down there is Trinity at the end… then we’ve got a mixture of what we believe is Russian boar and Mangalitsa.”

All these pigs are hairy and the Mangalitsas are almost as dark as the mule foots.

Kunkle got into pigs for a few reasons. One is: he has a day job and pigs are less work than other animals. And he says the market for pastured pork is growing and chefs have become interested in some of the unusual breeds.

But his pigs might soon be illegal. Kunkle isn’t certain but he has the list of characteristics the state will soon use to identify illegal pigs.

“They have erect ears, which I have heard that the erect ear is something associated with the Russian boar. But you know, I want to say except for certain breeds, I want to say a lot of the pigs I’ve ever seen have erect ears.”

Stuart Kunkle is not exactly who the state was targeting when it banned feral swine.

Wildlife officials have been talking for years about the dangers posed by hunting ranches that sell wild boar hunts. They say the animals sometimes escape and there are now thousands living in the wild.

One top official has referred to them as four-footed Asian carp.

Dan Eickinger is with Department of Natural Resources. He says states in the south that have large pig populations will never get rid of them.

“They just simply recognize that control techniques are effectively off the table for them that it’s just a problem they’ll have to live with now.”

To avoid that here, Michigan declared some pigs an invasive species.

But banning so called wild pigs is not that simple. All pigs are descended from the Eurasian boar. Boars were domesticated, resulting in a new sub-species. Sometimes, domestic pigs escaped and become wild again.

That led to the classification of another sub-species, feral swine. And all these types can cross breed, further mixing the gene pool.

Scott Everett sums it up like this.

“There is only one species of swine. What they’ve attempted to do is invent a different species and put that species on the invasive species list.”

Everett is working with the Michigan Animal Farmers Association. It’s a group of ranch owners and farmers fighting this rule.

A related Environment Report story

The DNR Feral Swine page


The group already has one lawsuit against the state. And they sent a letter earlier this month outlining their objections to the science involved.

They say there is no clear way to distinguish between pigs.

The DNR has a different view. They say domestic pigs have become their own species after years of separation from wild boars. And Dan Eichenberg says his department has been clear about what they’ll look for.

“I think it’s quite the opposite of saying we’ll know them when we see them. I think we’ve clearly articulated the points we’ll be looking for in helping us determine whether a pig’s been prohibited.”

Back at Stuart Kunkle’s farm, he is making no plans to get rid of his pigs. He doesn’t think the state’s rules will stand up.

“I’m concerned but I’m raising my pigs and that’s what I plan to keep doing.”

The prohibition on feral pigs takes effect on April 1st. At that point, the state plans to begin contacting anyone they think has an illegal animal.

For the Environment Report, I’m Peter Payette.

Muskegon Lake Cleanup & When Science Meets Art

  • Watershed Monotype 05 / Leslie Sobel

This is the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

Muskegon Lake is on a list of polluted hot spots around the Great Lakes called Areas of Concern. It made that list because of decades of industrial pollution.

Richard Rediske is a professor of water resources at Grand Valley State University. He says the last phase of cleanup is underway. The next step will be to improve habitat for fish and wildlife.

Rediske is working on projects to restore wetlands and remove debris at an old sawmill site. He says he expects it’ll take another five years to get Muskegon Lake off the Areas of Concern list. It was listed in 1985… so, getting the lake cleaned up and restored will end up taking more than three decades.

“That’s pretty much typical. White Lake to the north of us is actually going to be delisted this year so they’re a little ahead of us. It takes a long time to assess the problems and then fix them.”

Michigan has 14 Areas of Concern.

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This is the Environment Report.

At a lot of universities, the sciences are housed on one part of campus, the arts on another. But the two sides will have a chance to intersect this week, when the School of Natural Resources and Environment at the University of Michigan opens its first art gallery. Jennifer Guerra has more:

I have in my hand a beautiful survey map of the Mississippi River from the 1940s. The map is made up of these endless spaghetti swirls of pink and green and blue lines.

Now, what do you get when you combine this colorful survey maps with recent satellite images of the River from when it flooded last spring?

Well, for artist Leslie Sobel – you get a little thing called inspiration:

“I got fascinated by these images. And then I started trying to paint my emotion, capturing what was physically happening, but also trying to be more of a painter about it; more brushy.”

The paintings in what she calls her WATERSHED series will be on display at the new Art and Environment Gallery.

The images evoke water and movement, but like all good works of art, interpretation is up to the viewer. Like this deep, dark red, river-shaped S that dominates one of Sobel paintings. She describes it as “this giant swath of red becoming almost a monster.”

And here’s how ecologist Sara Adlerstein sees the deep, dark red S:

“I see the veins in the red, and I see the danger. I know how threatened these environments are because they’re closer to humans than the large ocean.”

Most of us live closer to rivers than to other bodies of water, so Adlerstein says we have more opportunities to harm them.

Adlerstein – who’s not only a research scientist, but also an artist – is the one curating the new gallery. When it comes to environmental issues, she says scientists need to be able to communicate with people outside of their field:

“If you’re not able to communicate to the general public, then your work is not all that relevant. So I’ve been exploring to do that through art; I think art speaks to the heart. With an image you can communicate directly to the heart and make people think about how to educate themselves if they’re interested in the issues.”

She hopes the new gallery will show scientists and students that charts and pie graphs aren’t the only way to share their research. Sometimes, a deep, dark red river-shaped S can say volumes.

For the Environment Report, I’m Jennifer Guerra.

The Art and Environment gallery opens in the School of Natural Resources and Environment building on Thursday, February 16th at 4 p.m.

Fruit Growers and a Changing Climate

  • Cherry grower Jim Nugent prunes his trees. (Photo by Bob Allen)

This is the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

Warmer temperatures and melting snow are less than ideal for winter sports and outdoor festivals. But as Bob Allen reports, the weird weather has northern Michigan fruit growers holding their breath, hoping to avoid disaster:

In his more than 20 years as an agricultural extension agent in the Traverse City area, Duke Elsner says this is the most bizarre winter weather he’s ever seen.

“The ups and downs have just been remarkable. The inability to hang on to a cold period for any length of time has been very strange.”

A gradual drop in temperature at the beginning of winter and holding there below freezing for long periods are the ideal conditions for plant to become frost hardy.

And hardiness is what protects them from getting damaged by cold.

But when temps bounce up into the 40’s and 50’s as they’ve done frequently this winter, some of that hardiness is lost.

“Our trees and vines can take below zero in a normal winter. I sure wouldn’t want to drop below zero at this point in time, I’ll say that.”

That’s fruit grower Jim Nugent. He and a couple of his neighbors are doing the yearly chore of pruning his cherry trees.

(sound of pruning)

With long-handled saws they reach up eight or ten feet to strip away branches and limbs.

Nugent knows his orchard is vulnerable right now because of a loss of winter hardiness. But there’s not a lot he can do about it.

Things could go either way at this point.

A sudden drop to zero would be serious.

But orchards still may slide by unscathed. If temps gradually drop below freezing and stay there, trees will regain some of their hardiness.

“I don’t believe at this point we’ve had any damage.”

Just down the road from Nugent’s orchard, vines are spread on trellises across the slope of a south-facing hill at Black Star Farms.

At this point, a few days of warmer weather is not such a big deal to winemaker Lee Lutes.

He says grape vines are more deeply rooted than cherry trees and able to withstand cold.

Lutes is more concerned about lack of snow cover. Usually at this time of year there’s a foot or two on the ground. And that blanket of snow insulates the tender parts of the vine that are just above the ground.

“We had that nice snow storm here last week and I felt a moment of relief there seeing six inches of snow on the ground. And now it’s gone again. It’s never good to see exposed ground at this time of the year.”

Growers are wondering if these wild fluctuations in weather are just random events or if they might be the new normal.

Jeff Andresen has been looking into that question. He’s the state’s climatologist and a professor of geology at Michigan State.

And he says the dramatic swing from the cold hard winter of last year to nearly the opposite this year is not just a random spike in a long term pattern.

These extreme changes, he says, are a sign of global climate change.

“It’s not just noise. It’s something longer term and it’s related to a more global signal.”

Climate change tosses up another challenge for northern Michigan fruit growers.

Even if they get through this period of lack of snow and warmer weather, spring brings a new risk.

Andresen’s research shows an overall increase in temperatures of two degrees statewide in the last thirty years.

That’s pushing fruit trees to blossom earlier by as much as a week to ten days.

It wouldn’t be so bad if the last date of spring frost also was shifting to keep pace. But it’s not.

That means the buds that produce the fruit are more exposed to the kind of freeze that wiped out the cherry crop in 2002.

But the peninsulas of northwest Michigan are some of the best tree fruit sites in the world. The surrounding waters help to moderate the most extreme winter weather.

Grower Jim Nugent says what these recent changes in climate do is put a premium on the best sites to grow fruit.

“Our better fruit sites up here are still pretty outstanding. Even with the changes I think we’re going to have a fruit industry here for a long time.”

For the Environment Report, I’m Bob Allen.

Climate change is already happening in the Great Lakes region: Learn more

An Environment Report interview about adapting to climate change in the Great Lakes region

Living With Wolves

  • There are an estimated 687 wolves in the state of Michigan. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Gray wolves in the western Great Lakes were recently taken off the endangered species list. Now, the state of Michigan is responsible for managing the wolf population.

Michael Nelson is an associate professor of environmental ethics and philosophy at Michigan State University. He’s an author of a new report on people’s attitudes about wolves in Michigan. So, your report is based on a statewide telephone survey. What’d you find out?

MN: Well, we found out a number of things. We asked a few questions of people. Generally, we found out that people enjoy knowing there are wolves in Michigan. This varies from place to place. We also found out that in general, the people of Michigan really support wildlife biology, wildlife science as an important way to make decisions about wolves.

RW: How do people’s feelings about wolves change based on where they live in the state?

MN: Yeah, you know, I think we all realize that Michigan, like many other states, has different kinds of cultures within the state. And of course, we also know that people who live in wolf territories have different ideas than people who don’t, and people who live in rural areas have different ideas than people who live in urban areas. Generally, we found that there was less support for wolves in the U.P. as opposed to the Lower Peninsula. Overall, 82% of Michiganders enjoy knowing wolves exist in Michigan – that’s how we phrased that question. In the northern lower peninsula where there are wolves now, it was 82%, they were average as well. In the U.P. it was 61% of people who enjoyed knowing wolves existed in Michigan.

RW: And far and away, most of the wolves in the state are in the U.P.

MN: That’s right.

RW: So, Michigan’s wolf management plan does not call for a hunting season for wolves. The state legislature would have to decide that. In your survey, you asked people, “Should there be a wolf hunting season in Michigan?” What’d you find out?

MN: Well, we found out that 85% of Michiganders disagree with that, and it varies, again, a little bit from place to place in the state. And that 14% of Michiganders agreed that they would be likely to purchase a license to hunt or trap wolves. Of course, we’re only reporting their behavioral intention. Their actual behavior would be something else.

RW: Last July, reporter Bob Allen produced a story about illegal wolf kills spiking in the Upper Peninsula. He reported that wildlife officials said they could defuse the situation if they could just get gray wolves removed from the endangered species list.

In the piece, we hear from the manager of the Hiawatha Sportsmen’s Club, Larry Livermore. He says in the U.P. – people are increasingly convinced wolves are decimating the deer population.

I wanted to play that for you:

“You have a whole bunch of honest law abiding citizens who have finally had enough and say, you don’t care about us, you don’t understand our dilemma here and so we will take it into our own hands. And that’s happening. People who I never dreamed would say I would shoot a wolf are telling me that they will shoot one.”

Your most recent survey was done in 2010, well before the wolves were taken off the endangered species list. How do you think people’s opinions might shift now that the wolves are off of the list?

MN: Oh, that’ll be the next great survey question. There’s really something important to discover. It was kind of fortuitous that we gave our survey just before the wolves came out, just before they made it to the lower peninsula. So a survey in a year or two could really reveal some interesting things.

Michael Nelson is a professor of environmental ethics at Michigan State University. Thanks so much for talking with me.

MN: Oh, thank you.

That’s the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.