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Illinois's Unique Places and Species
by Kris Lah, Cathy Pollack, Kristen Lundh, Mike Redmer, and Kim Mitchell
Photo Credit: P. Burton
As we celebrate conservation successes during the Endangered Species Act's (ESA) 40th anniversary year, Illinois may not be the place one would expect to find unusual endangered species, one-of-a-kind ecosystems, or inspirational conservation success stories. Yet all of these are here in Illinois—in unexpected and unique places.
Caves, in Illinois?
Unknown to many, Illinois has a small karst region characterized by numerous surface sinkholes and underlying caves. The Salem Plateau karst region is found in two counties in western Illinois, near St. Louis. Endemic to the cave streams that flow underground through this region is the federally endangered Illinois cave amphipod (Gammarus acherondytes), a small freshwater crustacean. Sinkhole density in the Salem Plateau is as high as 230 sinkholes per square mile. Joints and fractures in the subsurface allow surface water to flow rapidly into caves that the amphipod inhabits. There is an relationship between the Illinois cave amphipod's habitat and the land-use practices on the surface that threaten the species.
Due to the proximity to St. Louis, this beautiful area of the state is under pressure from residential and industrial development. Between 2000 and 2010, the population of St. Clair County increased by nearly 20 percent, and Monroe by almost 6 percent. Listing the Illinois cave amphipod as endangered has led to land acquisition projects to permanently protect cave entrances and parts of cave recharge areas. This species has made major strides in recovery, and although it is not there yet, one day may be considered for removal from federal protection
Conservation in the Windy City
The Chicago metropolitan area is home to some of the highest diversity of plants and animals in the state, including some endangered and threatened species. A globally rare ecosystem called dolomite prairies is found near the Windy City. These prairies and associated wetlands occur where the Niagra Escarpment emerges at or near the ground surface. The Niagara Escarpment is a limestone geological feature that runs predominantly east to west, from New York State through Ontario, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Illinois. Dolomite prairies and fens are wet prairie ecosystems that support a complex of life, including federally threatened and endangered species, found in few other areas. The escarpment is exposed in the Lower Des Plaines River Valley, and small prairie wetland remnants there are home to the Hine's emerald dragonfly (Somatochlora hineana), the only endangered dragonfly; the threatened lakeside daisy (Hymenoxys herbacea); and endangered leafy prairie clover (Dalea foliosa). Visiting these amazingly intact and functioning sites gives one a sense of truly being in a natural area. Yet these remnants of diversity lie like islands amidst what can seem like a sea of development.
Photo Credit: Mike Redmer, USFWS
Snakes on the Plains
The eastern massasauga (Sistrurus catenatus), a candidate species, is a small, shy rattlesnake that was once fairly common in Illinois wetlands and bordering uplands. After most of the state's wetlands were drained, the snake was found only in small populations scattered across the state, including the Chicago metro area. However, with the exception of only one population, the massasauga is now considered nearly extirpated from most historic sites in Illinois following drastic declines in recent years. Although the eastern massasauga's future in Illinois is tenuous, conservation partners launched a recovery team in 2007. One of the recovery team members is the Lincoln Park Zoo and their involvement on the recovery team led to the preparation of a Species Survival Plan (SSP). An SSP is a collaborative management program developed and carried out by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. As part of the SSP, the Lincoln Park Zoo is working on captive breeding and rearing techniques, but the SSP does not focus solely on captive animals. The SSP provides a venue for collaboration among many groups which has expanded partnerships and led to field research that is providing information for conserving this species across its range.
Surprisingly Illinois is home to 40-some species of orchid. One of the rarest is the eastern prairie fringed orchid (Platanthera leucophaea), a federally threatened plant. Most populations in Illinois are found in northeastern Illinois near Chicago in sedge meadows and prairies. More than half of the state's eastern prairie fringed orchid populations are in Illinois Nature Preserves, providing the highest form of land protection in the state. Over 70 volunteers monitor this orchid's populations during the blooming season. They collect population information and also hand-pollinate flowers to increase seed production. Some volunteers also manage lands through prescribed burns and invasive species control to maintain and improve conditions for the orchid's conservation.
When the ESA was passed in 1973, it shined a light on the plight of charismatic species. Over the last 40 years, as little-known and obscure species have been added to the list, the ESA has brought to light the complexity of life that comprises the fabric of ecosystems. People are part of this fabric, and addressing threats to obscure species also addresses threats to us. During the last 40 years, bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) and peregrine falcons (Falco peregrinus anatum) have returned to nest in Chicago, and a healthy wolf (Canis lupus) population is found not far north in Wisconsin and Michigan. During the next 40 years, we face more difficult challenges, but we expect to be talking about the unexpected species that have recovered and that continue to live in Illinois: Illinois cave amphipod, Hine's emerald dragonfly, lakeside daisy, leafy prairie clove eastern massasauga, and eastern prairie fringed orchid.
Kris Lah, an endangered species biologist in the Service's Chicago Ecological Services Field Office, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 847-381-2253, ext. 15. Cathy Pollack, a fish and wildlife biologist in the Service's Chicago Ecological Services Field Office, can be reached at email@example.com or 847-381-2253, ext. 28. Kristen Lundh, a fish and wildlife biologist in the Service's Rock Island Ecological Services Field Office, can be reached at Kristen_lundh@fws.gov or 309-757 5800, ext. 215. Mike Redmer, a fish and wildlife biologist in the Service's Chicago Ecological Services Field Office, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 847-381-2253, ext 16. Kim Mitchell, in the Service's Midwest Regional Office located in Twin Cities Minnesota, can be reached at email@example.com or 612-713-5337.
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