Thursday, September 29, 2005

Welcome Back, Otters!*

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Today I want to celebrate more than four thousand, six hundred reasons for conservation of rivers, lakes, and wetlands in Illinois. You see, four thousand, six hundred was the estimated population of river otters last year in areas where they had been reintroduced by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources in the mid 1990s. That number led scientists to deem the river otter population “widespread and secure,” and to remove them from the list of “state threatened species.”

That’s a remarkable thing to be able to say about an animal with a history like that of the otter in our state.

At the time of European settlement, river otters were common throughout Illinois, but their numbers declined steeply during the nineteenth century, due to habitat loss and unregulated hunting and trapping. By the beginning of the twentieth century, sightings of river otters were rare, and when the species was listed as state endangered in 1989 it is estimated that there were fewer than a hundred river otters in Illinois.

How did we get from fewer than one hundred animals to more than forty-six hundred in just fifteen years? Conditions for rivers otters in Illinois had become favorable again even when numbers were at their lowest. Pollution in state waters had been greatly diminished thanks to the Clean Water Act, and that had allowed populations of fish, the otter’s main food, to rebound. In addition, beavers had come back in the state. Otters favor abandoned beaver dens for housing, preferring not to dig their own, and they also take advantage of the pools and wetlands beavers create for fishing.

Given these conditions, all the Department of Natural Resources had to do was just add otters. Between 1994 and 1997 a total of three hundred forty-six otters that had been trapped in Louisiana were released in appropriate habitat throughout Illinois. The current number of forty-six hundred otters indicates that these animals found everything they needed to make themselves at home. Besides multiplying so quickly, they have surprised biologists by taking up residence even in highly developed landscapes, including the Chicago area.

If you’re familiar with river otters, you know they are fascinating creatures. Strong, graceful swimmers, they are capable of remaining under water for three to four minutes, and traveling as much as a quarter of a mile in that time. In winter they bound through the snow and then slide on their bellies. Otters are also both curious and nearsighted, which is part of an adaptation that allows them to see well underwater, and which also explains why they sometimes come very near people and boats to investigate them.

The successful reintroduction of river otters in Illinois will allow more of us the opportunity to see them for ourselves in years to come, and that’s cause for celebration. But we should count this success as only one step on the road to the ecological recovery possible in our state.

*Credit an Illinois Department of Natural Resources Press Release for this title and the bad pun therein.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

The U of I’s Students for Environmental Concerns

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It’s not unusual to see campus environmental activism portrayed as a thing of the past, a phenomenon of the sixties and seventies. But having recently checked in with the U of I group, “Students for Environmental Concerns,” I’m happy to report that, whether or not they are making headlines, students are working as hard as ever to make positive environmental changes on campus and in the Champaign-Urbana community.

The group, which goes by the initials SECS, is a program of the University YMCA, where it meets, and a UIUC registered organization. It currently boasts somewhere between thirty and forty active members, whose academic interests include everything from natural resources and environmental sciences to English, psychology and civil engineering. In the words of current president Joe Teng, who takes pride in the group’s diversity, “You don’t have to be a hippie to care about the environment.”

You may recall SECS as the group that persuaded the Illinois Student Government to allow students to vote on a two-dollar per semester clean-energy fee back in spring of 2003. The fee, which passed with nearly seventy percent of votes cast in favor, has generated approximately two hundred eighty thousand dollars so far. That money is being used to get the ball rolling on a large-scale project to install one or more wind turbines for generating electricity on the new South Farms.

Currently, on campus SECS is focusing attention on recycling and energy conservation. Members maintain collection sites for ink-jet cartridges, which are then sold in bulk to a reprocessor. Proceeds from this operation are then used to cover the costs of recycling worn out batteries.

SECS is also working to promote energy efficiency on campus, beginning with energy audits of select facilities. The purpose of these audits is to identify what upgrades to existing facilities would have the most impact for conserving energy. In addition, SECS is encouraging University Housing to adopt commonsense conservation practices in dorms—things like energy-efficient lighting, and the use of energy misers on vending machines, which reduce the average electricity consumption of cold drink machines by about forty percent.

In the Champaign-Urbana community, SECS members conduct activities with environmental themes for after-school programs about once a month. These include presentations on topics such as recycling, along with related games and crafts; for example, bowling for plastic milk jugs and creating Halloween masks out of recycled materials.

As I worked on this profile, I couldn’t help but think of a quote from anthropologist Margaret Mead, who said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.” At the U of I, the efforts of Students for Environmental Concerns remind us that such an ethos is alive and well.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

The Importance of Rivers and “It’s Our River Day”

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"It's Our River Day"

2005 Vermilion River Paddling Festival

Celebrate the Sangamon! River Clean-up
City of Monticello - 217.762.2583 or Prairie Rivers Network - 217.344.2371

It’s easy enough to live in our part of Illinois without thinking too much about rivers. They are numerous here, but small and heavily altered, and most of us encounter them only as we drive over bridges. But stop to dip your toes in one and you are connected to a system that makes life here possible.

Statewide, Illinois boasts thirty-three thousand miles of permanently flowing rivers and streams. If you lined them all up they would stretch the length of the state from north to south eighty-five times.

We ask a lot of these waterways. More than seven and a half million people in Illinois get their tap water from rivers or other surface water sources, including reservoirs. We hunt and fish and boat and birdwatch on rivers.

We also depend heavily on rivers for taking water away. Cities and industry combine to discharge millions of gallons of treated wastewater a day into Illinois rivers and streams. These waterways are also essential for carrying off storm water, making it possible for people to live and farm in areas that would otherwise remain too wet for such purposes.

Human uses aside, Illinois rivers and streams are home to amazingly diverse aquatic animal communities, including a hundred eighty-eight species of fish, fifty-seven species of mussels, and hundreds of species of insects. These aquatic communities are, in turn, interwoven with the wider community of animals that inhabits river corridors, everything from painted turtles and tiger salamanders, to otters, osprey, bald eagles, and herons. Indeed, river corridors account for nearly all of the high quality wildlife habitat that remains in east central Illinois.

All of this is a long way of encouraging you to participate in “It’s Our River day,” this Saturday, September 17th. This statewide celebration, championed by Illinois Lieutenant Governor Pat Quinn and the Illinois River Coordinating Council, calls attention to the roles rivers play in our lives, and encourages citizens to get involved with river conservation.

In Monticello, a number of groups including the city and Prairie Rivers Network will sponsor a clean-up to “Celebrate the Sangamon!” You are invited to paddle the river in a canoe or walk the banks to help remove debris. This clean-up is scheduled for 8:30 a.m. to noon, with check-in at the Monticello City Building.

In Danville, there is a clean-up on the Salt Fork River scheduled from 10 am to 3 pm on Saturday, in connection with the Vermilion River Fall Festival at Ellsworth Park. The festival, which runs Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, also includes canoe and kayak rides, along with conservation, education, and recreation booths.

Other “It’s Our River Day” events include clean-ups on the Kankakee and the Mackinaw, and at various sites on the Illinois River. Details and web links for these events and others are available on the
Lieutenant Governor’s website.

So if you’ve got the time, Saturday promises to be a great day on the water.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Speaking of Monarchs

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If you’re wondering whether you’ve been seeing a lot of monarch butterflies in the past couple of weeks, you probably have. Spurred on by cooler, shorter days, monarchs from southern Canada and the northern U.S. have already begun their southward fall migration. At our latitude, peak abundance for monarchs typically occurs between about September 10th and September 23rd, although variations in weather patterns and other factors shift the timing of this event from one year to the next.

If you are a native to Illinois, where the monarch is the state insect, you are probably familiar with some of the characteristics that make it one of the world’s favorite insects.

Chief among these is the fact that North American monarchs migrate, like no other butterflies in the world. Each year, the summer’s last generation of monarchs born east of the Rockies flies south to the mountains of central Mexico, a journey of more than fifteen hundred miles for some. Under normal conditions, migration advances at roughly fifty miles a day, although tagged individuals have been reported to cover close to eighty miles. Monarchs feed on nectar as they move south, and actually gain weight over the course of the journey.

At their overwintering sites, which were only discovered in 1975, monarchs congregate by the millions on Oyamel fir trees, resting quietly from mid November to mid April. As spring advances, the overwintering monarchs begin to mate, and they move north into the Gulf Coast states to lay eggs. The resulting young will become the year’s first generation of new adults. Members of this new generation will then continue the journey north, laying eggs as they go.

How the south-migrating monarchs of the fall locate the same clusters of trees their great great great grandparents left in the spring remains a mystery for scientists.

Monarchs are also memorable for the fact that as caterpillars they feed exclusively on plants of the milkweed family, which contain toxic compounds that make them unpalatable to birds and other would-be predators. Thus the showy bands of white, yellow, and black on the caterpillars and the vivid orange and black of the adult’s wings, are a warning to other animals: “Don’t eat me; you’ll get sick.”

This is not to say that monarchs have it easy. Monarch caterpillars are preyed upon heavily by ladybugs, as well as various other insects and arachnids, despite the toxic milkweed compounds that protect them from birds.

Monarchs are also quite frequently killed by cars. In fact, the first study to document systematically the magnitude of roadway mortality of butterflies and moths anywhere in the United States was conducted by a group including May Berenbaum of the U of I Department of Entomology. Extrapolating from counts of dead monarchs along roads near Champaign-Urbana, they estimated that, statewide, more than five hundred thousand monarchs became roadkill over one week during the course of their study.

Of course, the long-term well being of monarchs as a species depends on habitat. They are especially vulnerable at their overwintering sites, where logging and other disturbances can affect large portions of the population at once. But habitat alteration is also a factor here in the north, where suburban development and the expansion of agriculture leave less and less room for the plants that monarchs depend on.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Environmental Benefits of Mass Transit

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Unless you’re new to town you probably know that the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District—the MTD—has stepped into a hornet’s nest as it has moved to annex newer housing developments in southwest Champaign this year. I don’t mean to take on the legal or political ins and outs of annexation, and I don’t mean to speak for how the MTD operates. But I would like to recall to your attention the environmental benefits of mass transit, benefits that are enjoyed by everyone in the community served, riders and non-riders alike.

When some people take the bus rather than drive in individual cars, we all benefit from cleaner air. You may hear people complain about the exhaust that buses produce. But from the perspective of the community as a whole, the real issue is the per-mile difference in emissions between bus travel and car travel. A bus does produce more exhaust than a car, but it also transports more people. In net terms, bus travel reduces air pollution.

When some people take the bus rather than drive in individual cars, we all benefit from a reduced demand for parking. Of course there’s money to be saved for every parking space that employers don’t have to build or maintain, but there are also important environmental benefits to not building parking, too. By not building parking, we reduce the rate at which land surrounding the urban area is gobbled up, and we refrain from putting additional stress on local waterways with more storm runoff.

When some people take the bus rather than drive in individual cars, we all benefit from reduced congestion on city and campus streets. According to Census figures from the year 2000, the average travel time to work for residents of Champaign-Urbana was 14.6 minutes. That relatively short commute is one of the factors that makes our community such a pleasant place to live, and mass transit helps to make it possible.

Local planners project that over the next two decades traffic congestion will increase to twelve times current levels, given current patterns of new development, which heavily favor travel by car. In other words, unless mass transit plays a larger role in the way our community grows, drivers in Champaign-Urbana will spend more and more time sitting in their cars in the years to come, using more gas, creating more exhaust . . . you know this picture.

Beyond the inconvenience increased traffic congestion means for drivers, it also creates an environment that is hostile to other means of transportation. As streets become more crowded with cars, they become more dangerous for people who walk or bike, in effect creating pressure for them to drive, too.

Clearly, not everyone in our community is going to use bus service to get from place to place. But that does not make the benefits of bus service to the community any less real.