Illinois Natural History Survey - University of Illinois

Resoration Ecology

Geoffrey Levin


The Illinois of today, a land of corn and soy beans with a scattering of towns and a few large urban areas, is a far cry from what the first European settlers encountered. Two hundred years ago the state was covered by vast prairies, with a scattering of forests, savannas, and wetlands. Now only 0.1% of the state supports high-quality natural areas. Our streams and rivers are similarly degraded due to draining, channeling, damming, and siltation. These losses dictate that if we are to protect and enhance our natural heritage, we must not only preserve the natural areas that remain, we must also restore degraded lands and waters and try to reconstruct natural habitats, or at least some important aspects of them, on sites that formerly were used for agriculture or industry.

The Illinois Natural History Survey has a long tradition of restoration research. Our focus has been primarily on basic research that supports restoration and reconstruction. For example, the goals of restoration must be guided by the historic distribution of the state's vegetation, and we have staff reconstructing that history. Other staff are involved in research and monitoring to help determine what management techniques are effective in restoring plant and animal populations. We work in all the major ecosystems in Illinois including prairies and savannas, forests, wetlands, and waterways ranging from small streams to large rivers.

The Survey is also directly involved in restoration projects, both small-scale and more recently as partners in the most ambitious restoration projects ever undertaken in Illinois. At the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie and the Lost Mound unit of the Upper Mississippi National Wildlife Refuge, the focus is restoring and reconstructing prairie and savanna habitats on these huge former military reservations. Along the Cache River in southern Illinois, diverted early this century but now being partially returned to its historic channel, we are helping restore formerly vast and rich floodplain forests. We are also involved in pioneering efforts to restore floodplain forests, backwater lakes, and other habitats along the Illinois River. The Survey is proud to participate in these unprecedented efforts, where our expertise is being applied to regain some of the natural conditions that greeted the first European settlers.



Prairie/Savanna Restoration

Amy Symstad

Before European settlement, much of the Illinois landscape was covered by prairie and savanna. Less than 1% of these communities remain, however, and the small size of most of the remnants that do exist makes them unsuitable for animals that need the open landscapes characteristic of prairies and savannas. Grazing, invasion by exotic species, and lack of fire also threaten many of Illinois' remaining prairies and savannas. As a result, many plant and animal species that depend on these communities have declined in the state. INHS scientists are working to reverse these trends in two ways. First, they are cooperating with federal agencies in the establishment of two large-scale prairie/savanna restoration projects. Second, they are conducting research to understand how various restoration and management techniques affect the organisms that make up prairies and savannas.

INHS scientists are located at two former military installations that will play a major role in reestablishing large expanses of prairie and savanna to Illinois. At the former Joliet Arsenal in Will County, the U.S. Forest Service and Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) are cooperating to reconstruct tallgrass prairie in croplands and pastures on a significant portion of the 19,000 acres that now comprise Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. INHS' two scientists there are participating in planning research and restoration and are aiding the Forest Service in developing the site's Land and Resource Management Plan. They also coordinate volunteer monitoring of Midewin's birds and threatened and endangered plant species. On the other side of the state in Carroll and Jo Daviess counties, INHS scientists are working at the Lost Mound Unit of the Upper Mississippi River Wildlife and Fish Refuge. Lost Mound is a joint venture of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and IDNR at the recently closed Savanna Army Depot. This area was never plowed and is dominated by native sand prairie and savanna vegetation. However, construction of roads and buildings and an extensive period of fire absence and intensive grazing have taken their toll on the landscape. INHS scientists stationed there are working closely with the FWS to manage, restore, and do research in the 3,500-acre upland portion of Lost Mound while the Army is completing environmental cleanup. The challenges facing each of these large sites are considerable, but the benefits of restoring these unique large areas of prairie and savanna for Illinois fauna and flora and the people who enjoy them will be even greater.


One of the main challenges facing restoration projects throughout Illinois is determining exactly how to restore an area. Research conducted by INHS scientists all over the state helps guide these projects. In savanna communities known as oak barrens and flatwoods, INHS research has shown that fire can reduce woody undergrowth enough to drastically increase the diversity of herbaceous understory vegetation. However, the research indicates that other restoration practices, such as selective cutting of trees, will be necessary in addition to burning to create the sunny openings needed by some prairie plants normally found in savannas. INHS research on the population ecology of bird species shows that such efforts benefit not only the savanna and woodland plants, but also promotes greater densities and reproductive success of Red-headed Woodpeckers, Summer Tanagers, and other birds associated with these habitats. Research at Midewin suggests that prairie and savanna restoration should not remove all shrubby growth, however, because some native birds depend on this habitat. On the other hand, birds help spread many shrubs and trees into open prairies by dispersing their seeds. Work at Savanna is attempting to quantify these effects and determine the role of seed predators in controlling woody encroachment in prairies and savannas. Seeds and their production are also a focus of research at Midewin, where the reproductive biology of various prairie plants is being studied to understand how to maintain their populations. Other Survey prairie and savanna restoration research includes collecting baseline data for burning season and frequency experiments, and understanding the prairie plant communities in highly disturbed areas. This diverse array of research makes the Survey a leader in the field of prairie and savanna restoration. Its results are guiding land managers so that the people of Illinois can enjoy the plants and animals that made Illinois the Prairie State.


Watershed Restoration: Illinois Pilot Watershed Program

Hope R. Dodd and David H. Wahl

The staff of the Illinois Natural History Survey along with many state and federal agencies have been involved in the Illinois Pilot Watershed Program. This program addresses watershed issues such as erosion, flooding, and deposition of nutrients and sediment in streams and examines the effects of management practices on improving the entire watershed. As an initial pilot study, four basins across the state were selected in areas with several watershed issues or problems where local interest existed (Embarras, Spoon, Kaskaskia, and Cache basins). Within each basin, a pilot and nearby reference or "control" watershed were selected for baseline comparison purposes. Due to the extensive nature of the program, a number of state and federal agencies along with citizen-based groups are participating in the ecological, economic, and social aspects of this program. In each pilot watershed, planning committees and coordinators, which are made up of local watershed interest groups, along with local agency personnel from the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Soil and Water Conservation Districts, identify concerns and evaluate conservation needs in their respective watersheds. These committees also conduct visits with participating landowners to discuss suitability of best management practices (BMPs--strategies designed to improve the quality of a stream by reducing pollution from agricultural areas) and hold local meetings to address landowner questions.

The focus of INHS's data collection in the first 2 years of this 10-year project was to obtain baseline data with which to measure changes in habitat, macroinvertebrates, and fish after BMP implementation. Our aquatic assessment focuses on in-stream and bank habitat, aquatic insects, and fish. Habitat measurements include stream width, depth, flow, and substrate as well as vegetation on stream banks. Analysis of habitat characteristics will focus on physical and channel morphology as well as bank stability. Benthic macroinvertebrates are collected from riffles (shallow areas with turbulent flow), runs (moderately deep areas with moderate stream flow), and pools (deep sandy or mud bottom areas with slow flow) based on the proportion of these habitat types within each site. Fish are collected from the habitats throughout the stream reach, then measured and weighed. Taxa richness, abundances, similarity in community structure, and assemblage integrity of macroinvertebrates and fish will be monitored throughout the study to determine changes in assemblages due to improved stream conditions.

The Illinois Pilot Watershed Program will act as a starting point for further development of watershed restoration plans in additional stream systems in Illinois. Because agricultural practices are widespread and substantially impact watersheds, management practices that can improve stream quality over both short-term and long-term time scales should be identified. This program will allow managers to assess which, and under what conditions, BMPs will be most effective at improving sport fisheries as well as overall health of the stream community. As a result of the expansive nature of this program, incorporating ecological, economic, and social aspects of the restoration process, we hope that interagency cooperation to deliver watershed restoration plans for Illinois streams will improve and provide standards to be used in planning and assessing watershed management practices.


INHS Restoration Ecology Projects

Large Rivers

Long-term Illinois River Fish Population Monitoring Program
T. Koel, R. Sparks


Long Term Resource Monitoring Program on La Grange Reach, Illinois River and Pool 26, Mississippi River
T. Koel, K. Blodgett, R. Sparks


Effects of dredged material placement on macroinvertebrate communities
T. Koel, K. Stevenson


Peoria Lake HREP fish monitoring
R. Sparks, K. Blodgett, T. Koel


 Upper Mississippi River Environmental Management Program, Lake Chautauqua HREP post-construction biological response survey--zooplankton production 
 J. Stoeckel, T. Koel


Importance of floodplain lakes as fish nurseries in the lower Kaskaskia
D. Wahl, D. Thomas


Evaluating the effects of reducing water levels in Pool 13 backwater habitats during midsummer: implications for larval fish production
D. Wahl, J. Dettmers, B. Herwig


 Use of stable isotopes to examine food webs in the Illinois and Mississippi rivers
D. Soluk, D. Wahl, B. Herwig 


Social conflict, local knowledge, and the development of river ecology
D. Schneider


Inventory of invertebrates occupying a wetland/sand prairie ecosystem
R. Cosgriff, J. Tucker


Reproductive biology of Lobelia spicata 
B. Molano-Flores


Reproductive biology of Eryngium yuccifolium 
B. Molano-Flores


Monitoring of several threatened and endangered species at the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie  
 B. Molano-Flores


Location of the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie scrapes 
B. Molano-Flores


Vegetational changes in dry-mesic upland forest after controlled burning in the Mississippi Palisades State Park, Carroll County, Illinois 
W. Handel, S. Neuendorf (IDNR)


Baseline and reference data collection for sand prairie restoration at the Savanna Army Depot
A. Symstad


Hudsonia tomentosa mortality from wildfire at Ayers Sand Prairie Nature Preserve
A. Symstad


Seed bank composition of degraded sand prairie and its implications for restoration
A.J. Symstad


Measuring blowout dynamics in northwest Illinois sand prairies
A. Symstad


Vegetation monitoring and comparative analysis of community integrity indices in habitat restorations at Nachusa Grasslands
J. Taft, C. Houser, K. Robertson


Effects of two experimental treatments, prescribed fire and leaf-litter removal, on a disjunct population of Collinsia violacea, an endangered species in Illinois
J. Taft, E. Smith (Division of Natural Heritage, IDNR)


Vegetation response to prescribed fire in an isolated and degraded prairie grove in central Illinois 
 J. Ebinger, R. Larimore, J. Taft


Plant diversity and composition patterns associated with nitrogen-fixing shrubs in tallgrass prairie remnants
J. Taft, J. Dawson (NRES), A. Symstad


Assessment of the reintroduction potential of federally endangered and threatened plant species to managed sites in Illinois
L. Phillippe, S. Gehlhausen, K. Robertson, J. Ebinger


Effects of annual burning on populations of Cassia fasciculata (Fabaceae: Caesalpinioideae), with a review of its systematics and biology
K. Robertson, D. Gardner (lay conservationist)


Frequency-dependent nest predation: implications for prairie management
C. Whelan


Bell's Vireo (Vireo bellii) reproductive ecology and habitat selection
C. Whelan


Response of woodland birds to removal of woody understory 
C. Whelan


Seed dispersal, seed predation, and woody invasion of grasslands 
D. Wenny


Migrant stopover point counts (with TNC/INHS/UI and volunteers) 
D. Wenny


Watershed-scale effects of best management practices on stream quality
S. Kohler, D. Wahl, G. McIsaac (Univ. of Illinois), D. Roseboom (Illinois State Water Survey)


Effects of best management practices on stream fish and invertebrate populations in the Illinois Pilot Watershed Program
D. Wahl, H. Dodd


Development of a community-based water quality monitoring program, Ayuquila Watershed, Jalisco, Mexico
D. Schneider, L. Henne


Bioassessment of stream integrity
R. Smogor, S. Kohler, D. Austen, B. Hite, A. Holtrop

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