Illinois’s Unique Places and Species
As we celebrate conservation successes during the Endangered Species Act’s 40th anniversary year, Illinois may not be the place one would expect to find unusual endangered species, one-of-a-kind ecosystems or Cinderella conservation success stories. Yet, all these are here in Illinois where endangered plants and animals are found in unexpected, unique and interesting 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 western Illinois counties near St. Louis. Endemic to the cave streams that flow underground through this region is the endangered Illinois cave amphipod, 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 intimate 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 19.3 percent and Monroe increased by 5.5 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’s 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, as well as threatened and endangered species. A globally rare ecosystem called dolomite prairies is found in the Chicago area. 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/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 (the only endangered dragonfly), the threatened lakeside daisy and endangered leafy prairie clover. 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.
Snakes on the Plains
Living in some Illinois wetlands and bordering uplands is the eastern massasauga, a small (up to 2 feet long), shy rattlesnake. The massasauga was fairly common in Illinois before most of the state’s wetlands were drained. Now, only six to eight populations remain and are scattered among sites in southern, east-central, and northeastern parts of the state, including the Chicago metro area. However, in response to drastic declines in recent years, conservation partners launched a recovery team and then developed a massasauga restoration plan specifically for northeastern Illinois. The plan calls for rescuing the remaining snakes in northeastern Illinois and then using them to build a breeding population in captivity. Long-term goals include habitat restorations and reintroductions back into the wild when good habitat and a healthy zoo population have been established.
Surprisingly Illinois is home to 40-some species of orchid. One of the rarest is the eastern prairie fringed orchid, a federally threatened plant. Most populations in Illinois are found in northeastern Illinois near Chicago in sedge meadows and prairies. More than half of Illinois‘populations of eastern prairie fringed orchid 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 Endangered Species Act 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 Act 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 and peregrine falcons have returned to nest in Chicago, and a healthy wolf 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.