Thursday, July 18, 2013

Illinois Nature Preserves protect habitats, plants and animals for the long haul

Illinois Nature Preserves protect habitats, plants and animals for the long haul 

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In a commentary from June, I spoke about an Illinois Nature Preserve without much attention to what the designation “nature preserve” means. Today I correct that, and call attention to the work of the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

The Nature Preserves Commission was established by the state legislature and is affiliated with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. Its mission is “to assist private and public landowners in protecting high quality natural areas and habitats of endangered and threatened species in perpetuity, through voluntary dedication or registration of such lands into the Illinois Nature Preserves System.”

The first site dedicated by the commission was Illinois Beach Nature Preserve, in 1964. Located within Illinois Beach State Park, it preserves high-quality beachfront along with the dune complex connected to it.

[Photo: A least bittern, one of the state-threatened bird species that breeds at Sun Lake Nature Preserves. Courtesy of Lake County Forest Preserve District.]

The most recent addition to the system is Sun Lake Nature Preserve in Lake County, which was dedicated along with seven other sites this past May. It’s a 530-acre property that preserves a lake, freshwater marsh and upland forest, and supports fifteen species of plants and animals listed as threatened or endangered in the state.

In between, the commission has dedicated another 370 Preserves around the state, which range in size from one acre to more than 2000 acres.

I spoke recently with Mary Kay Solecki, who is the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission field representative for east central Illinois. She pointed out that some of the most accessible nature preserves in our part of the state are located in Forest Glen County Park in Vermilion County. There you can hike through the Russell Duffin Woods Nature Preserve on the River Ridge backpack trail, where the trail follows the Vermilion River. If you’ve been there you may have noticed the magnificent old growth beech trees, the ones with the smooth gray bark that people feel compelled to carve their initials in. Also at Forest Glen you can walk through the Doris Westfall Prairie Restoration Nature Preserve, which was established in 1972 and serves as a model for restorations of tallgrass prairie around the state and elsewhere.

Solecki added that east central Illinois is also home to some accessible nature preserves at cemeteries where small remnants of original prairie remain. These include Prospect Cemetery Prairie Nature Preserve in Ford County and Loda Cemetery Nature Preserve in Iroquois County. Late summer is a great time to witness the profusion of native flowers blooming at these sites, although you probably want to visit in the morning or evening to avoid the worst heat of the day.

Because sites dedicated as nature preserves represent the highest quality habitats and protect rare plants and animals, enjoyment of them is limited to hiking and observing.

That’s not the case for sites protected by the other program administered by the Nature Preserves Commission, the Land and Water Preserve program. This program promotes conservation of larger blocks of habitat that are useful for wildlife but not necessarily pristine. Landowners may use property enrolled in the Land and Water Reserve Program more intensively, for hunting, fishing and camping, for example, and even timber harvest.

You can learn more about the work of the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission and access a directory of nature preserves through or find them on facebook.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Endangered mussel found in Illinois River after century-long absence

Endangered mussel found in Illinois River after century-long absence

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Conditions for life in the Illinois River have changed dramatically since the middle of the 20th century, thanks in large part to the Clean Water Act. For example, surveys of the upper river in the 1960s by researchers looking for mussels, a.k.a. freshwater clams, failed to yield even a single live specimen. In contrast, surveys of the same area conducted in the 1990s, turned up hundreds of mussels representing no fewer than 18 species.

More recently, scientists from
a collection of state and federal agencies got a unique opportunity to check on the status of mussels in the upper Illinois River in May of this year when the water level was lowered for inspection and repair of the dam at Marseilles. Instead of using scuba gear and other specialized equipment, as they would under normal conditions, they were able to boat from one exposed shoal to another, and walk around to collect mussels.

Even the people most familiar with the river were not ready for what they found. In the words of Rich Lewis of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, “everybody was just shocked at the number of mussels.”

[Photos: sorting mussels on an exposed shoal; Kevin Cummings in the mussel collection at INHS holding the shell of the scaleshell mussel.]

In the course of two days, the census and salvage operation collected nearly 15,000 live specimens. And there were many more where those came from; there just wasn’t enough time or manpower to get all of them. Among the total were representatives of 23 species, fiver more than were found in the 90s.

The exposed bed of the Illinois River had another shock for scientists, too.

It was one of the last live mussels picked up at one of the last sites they visited, a mussel known by the unprepossessing name, “scaleshell.”

Few people would have recognized they were holding anything special, but the scaleshell was found by Kevin Cummings, who is Senior Research Scientist and Curator of Mollusks for the Illinois Natural History Survey at the U of I Prairie Research Institute. He has spent decades assessing museum collections around the world to create an accurate database of Illinois mussels.

“One of these things is not like the others,” is what he told me he thought when he picked it up. Without any prompting from Cummings, his crew came up with the same identification, and that was later confirmed with DNA analysis conducted by Kevin Roe of Iowa State University, an authority on the genetics of the scaleshell.

Scaleshells were historically found in the Mississippi and Ohio River drainages, from Minnesota in the north to southern Arkansas in the south, and they were widely distributed in the bigger rivers of Illinois. But none have been documented in the state for more than a century.

Up until Cummings’ discovery, the only known remaining populations of scaleshells, which are federally endangered, were in Missouri, Arkansas and Oklahoma.

People who aren’t normally concerned with mussels might wonder why others get excited to know they are coming back, as both the large numbers and presence of rare species in the Illinois River suggest.

Cummings explains by comparing mussels in a river to canaries in a coalmine. “When they begin to decline, we know there are problems in the system. When they come back, we know we’re headed in the right direction.”


Author's note: a longer version of this piece ran in the Champaign News-Gazette on July 7, 2013: