Tucked away in the southwest corner of Portage lies the Gourdneck State Game Area (SGA), owned and maintained by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDNR). The Gourdneck SGA provides quality habitat for many wildlife species: cottontail rabbit, white-tailed deer, wild turkey, American woodcock and fox squirrels. This area is also home to three “Threatened and Endangered” or “Special Concern” species, including Henslow’s sparrow, the eastern box turtle and the eastern massassauga rattlesnake. Several species of migratory birds nest at the Gourdneck SGA.
In April, the MDNR performed a 200-acre controlled burn on the parcel along US-131 and Vanderbilt Avenue in both forest and prairie areas. “Before European settlement in Michigan, fires were ignited by Native Americans or lightning strikes,” said Don Poppe, Wildlife Biologist with the MDNR. “Certain landscapes like pine barrens, oak savannas, forests, grasslands and prairies can benefit from fires, which mimic a natural disturbance.”
The goal of the fire in April was to control invasive species (such as the autumn olive) and underbrush, create critical habitat for wildlife and encourage new growth in the forested areas. Burned areas regrow quickly, providing abundant food and shelter for animals and allowing the return of native grasses and wildflowers in prairie landscapes.
Trained fire staff use specialized equipment to light and control the prescribed fires. Poppe was very pleased with the results of the recent controlled burn and says there are plans for additional fires in the Gourdneck SGA.
Various types of landscape are present in the Gourdneck SGA, including wetlands, forest, prairie and cropland. The area provides opportunities for recreation, such as hunting, trapping, bird watching, wildlife viewing and hiking. A 57-acre area is farmed as part of an agreement between the MDNR and a local farmer.
The first parcel of the Gourdneck SGA was established in 1941 on land along Gourdneck and Hogset lakes in Portage and Schoolcraft townships. Eventually, three parcels in Portage – one adjacent to US-131 and Vanderbilt Avenue and two along West Centre Avenue – were added. The four separate units, totaling 2,293 acres, are dedicated to public hunting and recreation. The parcel adjacent to US-131 and Vanderbilt Avenue is the largest of the four at about 1,250 acres.