TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) - The Nature Conservancy said Wednesday it has bought most of an uninhabited Lake Michigan island that provides crucial stopover habitat for migratory birds, assuring it will remain permanently undeveloped and protected.
St. Martin Island is part of a chain stretching between Wisconsin's Door Peninsula and Michigan's Garden Peninsula in the northwestern corner of the lake. More than 7 miles from the nearest mainland, it features wetlands, cobblestone beaches, bluffs and thick vegetation.
Millions of sparrows, warblers and other species stop briefly on St. Martin and neighboring islands to take a break and feed before continuing their journey south during fall migration and north in springtime. More than 100 species have been documented on St. Martin in recent years, said Dave Ewert, senior scientist with the nonprofit conservancy's Michigan chapter.
"Migration is very stressful for birds, and having safe stopover sites where they can rest is critical to their success," Ewert said.
The Nature Conservancy bought 1,244 acres - roughly 94 percent of the island - from the Fred Luber family. Luber, of Milwaukee, is former chairman and CEO of Super Steel Products Corp. The remainder consists of a few private lots and a small area controlled by the U.S. Coast Guard, which has a light tower on the island.
Eventually, the conservancy will turn over its share to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for addition to the Green Bay National Wildlife Refuge, a sanctuary for native birds and endangered plant and animal species, including rare snails. The refuge includes Hog, Plum and Pilot islands.
The conservancy owns all or part of other Great Lakes islands, including Susie Island in Lake Superior near Grand Portage, Minn., and a parcel on Charity Island in Lake Huron's Saginaw Bay. It once owned Calf Island in the Detroit River near Lake Erie but turned it over to the federal government in 2002.
Conservancy officials said they're seeking private donations and government grants to cover the St. Martin costs. The group also plans to donate nearby 10-acre Rocky Island, which it has owned since 1986, to the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Luber, 88, bought most of the island in the mid-1980s intending to develop it as a resort, said his daughter, Martha Luber. But the remote location and lack of electricity, running water and other infrastructure were substantial hurdles - and the family decided the island's ecological value and natural beauty were more important.
"The biologists with The Nature Conservancy took me up there to learn about the birds, the ecosystem," Martha Luber said. "These islands are unique places and they need to be kept that way. They're jewels."
She said she's seen dozens of bald eagles nesting there - and even pelicans.
The family sold it for $1.5 million, which the conservancy said was well below the fair market value of $2.85 million.
Aside from its location, what makes the island particularly suitable for traveling birds is its heavy cover of Canada yew, white cedar and other trees that provide protection and an abundant diet of flies, caterpillars and other insects, Ewert said.
It's also popular with migrating bats, butterflies and dragonflies.
About two dozen commercial fishing families lived on St. Martin Island in the 1800s but abandoned it when fish populations dropped.