Thursday, August 27, 2009

Return of river otters cause for hope

Return of river otters cause for hope

Listen to the commentary
Real Audio : MP3 download

This past summer I had the good fortune to observe North American river otters in Illinois on three separate occasions, more than I ever have before in a single season. The most memorable of these was when two otter pups splashed through a pool I was fishing on the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River early one morning. Their mother soon followed, but she had lost sight of them and she climbed out onto the opposite bank to look around, calling as she did in a series of bird-like chirps. (I was able to get a little video clip of the mother because I had gotten out my point-and-shoot camera as the went by.)

What’s so remarkable about seeing otters in Illinois?

It was only five years ago that they were removed from the list of state threatened species. At that time their population was deemed to be widespread and secure based on estimates that there were 4,600 otters living in areas where they had been reintroduced by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

The longer history of otters in Illinois is marked by dramatic ups and downs.

At the time of European settlement, river otters were common throughout state, 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 living in the state.

How did we get from fewer than one hundred otters to where we are now? Conditions for 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, 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 346 otters that had been trapped in Louisiana were released in appropriate habitat throughout Illinois. The robust growth in their numbers affirms that these animals found everything they needed to make themselves at home. Besides multiplying so quickly, they 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 and more people an opportunity to see them in years to come, and that’s cause for celebration. More importantly, though, it’s cause for hope, a reminder that even when conditions are bleak, good public policy, such as the Clean Water Act, can open the way for environmental renewal.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

U of I Student Farm produces delicious food, promotes sustainability

Listen to the commentary
Real Audio : MP3 download

When University of Illinois students at the Lincoln Avenue Residence Hall sit down to a bowl of minestrone this week, they may or may not understand what an extraordinary soup they are eating. They might appreciate the colorful mix of green, orange and red bell peppers, or the fresh ripe tomatoes, or the two types of summer squash that give their meal crunch and zip.

But there’s a story behind those vegetables.

Like much of the produce that will be served in meals at the Lincoln Avenue Residence Hall this year, they were grown on a new student farm operated through the university’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences.

The farm, which is located off of Lincoln Avenue just south of Windsor Road in Urbana, currently has about two acres in crops. [Photos: (upper) Intern Lauren Williams and volunteer Daniel Schreiber harvest summer squash.(lower) Manager Zack Grant and Williams sort squash.] It began supplying U of I Dining Services with salad greens back in May, and has added to the mix as other crops have matured. The bounty currently includes an abundance of tomatoes, summer squash, sweet corn, herbs, and melons.

According to an estimate by Dawn Aubrey, senior assistant director of Dining Services, over the course of the growing season the student farm will provide somewhere between five and six tons of the food served on campus.

I should emphasize that while one purpose of the student farm is to provide members of the U of I community with “abundant, delicious, locally grown food,” it has other reasons for being, too.

In a small but symbolic way, the student farm helps to reduce the campus carbon footprint by eliminating most of the carbon emissions associated with transporting food. Vegetables grown on the farm travel a mere one and a half miles to where they are consumed, as compared to the 1,500 miles or more that food purchased from another vendor might travel.

More importantly, the farm provides students who might be interested in developing their own fruit and vegetable operations with practical experience. It employs one manager, Zack Grant, who coordinates and oversees the operation, along with two student interns, who assist him. In addition, the farm gathers in a broad group of student volunteers, who contribute labor for planting, weeding, harvesting, and whatever else needs doing. While these volunteers may not go on to careers in agriculture, they gain from their experience on the farm an understanding of the issues involved with producing food in an environmentally sustainable manner.

Crops at the farm are grown using organic methods, which is to say without the use of synthetic pesticides or chemical fertilizers. But as manager Zack Grant pointed out to me, sustainability is not about simply replacing synthetic pesticides with ones that are derived from plants. Rather, it is about developing a more robust growing system: conserving water and discouraging weeds by means of plastic barriers and mulch, reducing the occurrence of pests through careful planting choices, and building soil fertility through the use of compost and nitrogen-fixing cover crops.

The establishment of the student farm was enabled by funding from the Student Sustainability Committee, which allocates money accumulated through fees that U of I students assess themselves to support projects that promote sustainability. It has also benefited greatly from its collaboration with Dining Services, which has provided considerable financial and material support, as well as a steady market for its products.

With the assurance that market provides, those involved with planning for the student farm anticipate it will expand to ten acres over the next two years, and eventually produce ten percent or more of the fruits and vegetables served on campus. That’s a lot of delicious minestrone, and a real step toward sustainability.

Below you can link to a video on this topic by John E. Marlin from the Agroecology and Sustainable Agriculture Program at the University of Illinois.

University of Illinois Supplying Cafeterias from New Student Run Farm from ASAP Illinois on Vimeo.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

On the hunt for prairie cicadas

On the hunt for prairie cicadas

Listen to the commentary
Real Audio : MP3 download

Spend part of an August day at one of the rare, high-quality remnants of original tallgrass prairie in Illinois and you’ll be treated to the reverberating sounds of male prairie cicadas (Tibicen dorsata) singing. Or buzzing. Or droning. The terms used to describe the sounds they produce tend to reflect the status accorded to insects by the person doing the describing.

In any case that sound tells female cicadas love is in the air. It tells people who hear it that they’re in a special place, since in central Illinois prairie cicadas occur only where native plant communities remain relatively undisturbed.

I had the opportunity to get up close with prairie cicadas recently when I accompanied Rob Stanton to Loda Prairie Cemetery Nature Preserve in Iroquois County to assist him in his study of their ecology. [Photo: Rob Stanton scans for prairie cicadas.] Stanton is a graduate student in biology who hopes to promote the conservation of prairie cicadas by developing a better understanding of their needs for food and habitat. Our objective on that day was to capture and mark as many prairie cicadas as we could as part of a study to estimate the total population at the preserve.

At first we had difficulty locating our quarry, since the bare flower stalks on which prairie cicadas normally perch and feed have been slow to develop at Loda this summer. But we devised a capture method of walking through the low growth to flush them and then watching where they landed so we could net them there. During my shift we managed to catch and mark 15 cicadas.

The bodies of prairie cicadas measure between an inch and a half and two inches long. Their wings are clear—the texture of cellophane—and divided by dark veins that give them the appearance of leaded glass. Held together at an angle, the wings extend past the end of the cicada’s body to exaggerate its size.

Viewed from above, a prairie cicada’s body resembles an intricately decorated shield, with a dark background marked by symmetrical designs in various shades of tan and white. [The orange paint mark on the right wing of this cicada indicates that it has already been caught.] This shield is topped by two knob-like compound eyes and a set of small, fine antennae. On the underside, male prairie cicadas are distinguished from females by a pair of rigid plates at the base of the abdomen. These plates are hinged, and when open they uncover the audio-speaker-like membranes called tymbals that male cicadas employ to produce sound.

Like other annual cicadas, including the familiar dog day cicadas of cities and suburbs, prairie cicadas spend the greater part of their lives—anywhere from two to four years—underground, feeding on sap from the roots of plants. (Prairie cicadas are referred to as an annual cicada because their generations are staggered, so that some individuals reach adulthood each year.) When they reach maturity, they emerge from the ground to spend a short time in the sun. During that interval they mate and the females lay eggs in the stem of a plant. The nymphs that later hatch from those eggs drop to the ground and burrow down to find a root to feed on, completing the cycle.

During the conversation that took place as we sought to catch prairie cicadas, Rob Stanton met many of my inquiries with the same response, which was “That’s a good question.” The problem wasn’t that he hadn’t done his homework, but that scientists still know little about prairie cicadas beyond the basics of their life history.

Whether we are able to conserve prairie cicadas where they occur now, or reintroduce them where prairie is restored, will depend on developing a more detailed understanding of these charismatic insects.

I was motivated to seek out prairie cicadas by an article that ran recently in The Illinois Steward Magazine, which is published through the University of Illinois.

The article, written by Joseph Spencer, an insect behaviorist with the Illinois Natural History Survey, relates the excitement caused by a photograph he took last summer (left) when he and Rob Stanton went to the Loda Cemetery Preserve for an initial look at the cicadas there. By chance Spencer tripped the shutter just as a female cicada expelled excess fluid from her digestive system.

For more on why entomologists would be so interested in such an event, see “A Taste of Loda Prairie” in the Spring 2009 issue of The Illinois Steward. It is available at bookstores and libraries or, better still, by subscription: Call (217) 244-2851 or visit