Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie near Joliet, Illinois, is undeniably huge. Clocking in at 20,283 acres (more than 31 square miles!), this U.S. Forest Service site is the largest prairie restoration east of the Mississippi. But there’s more going on here than just bringing back the site’s native prairie–wetland ecosystems. Archaeologists, historians, and others are also hard at work at Midewin, exploring the powerful influences both natural and human that have shaped the site over thousands of years.
The striking black-and-orange monarch butterfly, once a common sight flitting through American backyards, has sharply declined in numbers in recent years. With a new two-year grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Monarch Butterfly Conservation Fund, the Wetlands Initiative will give this charismatic insect a helping hand in Illinois through habitat restoration at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie and a special seed production effort at both Midewin and our Dixon Waterfowl Refuge.
With this summer’s Gulf of Mexico “dead zone” officially declared its largest ever, solutions to nutrient runoff are urgently needed in the Midwest. The Wetlands Initiative has been advancing the use of one such solution in the form of small constructed wetlands on farms designed to naturally remove the excess nutrients leaving through tile drainage. The first two farm-based wetlands have been built on properties in Bureau County, Illinois, and TWI is building new partnerships to get the word out on these wetlands’ ability to improve water quality.
Two hours southwest of Chicago, the Wetlands Initiative’s Dixon Waterfowl Refuge is a year-round attraction. There’s no month when our flagship restoration site doesn’t boast some seasonal feature nature lovers can enjoy. Spring and fall play host to remarkable migrations, while winter brings a fresh, alien landscape that’s quiet and peaceful. Summer, however, is unmatched in engaging opportunities that bring the site to life for visitors.
Spring is the season for planting plugs (seedlings), an essential activity during the early years of a restoration to reintroduce native species. This year the Wetlands Initiative had three projects at this early stage of restoration, and lots of volunteer help was needed to get all the plugs in the ground. Over the course of three volunteer days in early June—one at each of the projects—more than 90 volunteers helped TWI plant almost 8,000 plugs by hand.
Over the years of restoration at our Dixon Waterfowl Refuge in north-central Illinois, you haven’t heard much from us about shrubs and trees. Until now, that is. The 283-acre Hickory Hollow tract on the southeast side of the Refuge, acquired in December 2014, is the first area at the site to require extensive planting of native shrubs and trees as part of its restoration. More than 1,000 have so far been planted in this new upland area of the Refuge.
There’s nothing like a “before and after” to show the transformative results of a period of hard work. This past September, with support from Ecolab and the Grand Victoria Foundation, TWI was able to capture just such a snapshot by collecting post-restoration monitoring data at our Lobelia Meadows site at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie.
Water is at the heart of what we do as an organization; “wet” is even in our name! So naturally, the Wetlands Initiative had a strong showing at the biennial Illinois Water Conference in Champaign this fall. On October 27, TWI’s farm-based wetlands project in north-central Illinois and our new restoration work in Chicago’s Calumet region were featured in back-to-back conference sessions.
This past summer, 12 organizations came together in the name of water quality during construction of the second farm-based wetland in Bureau County, Illinois. As part of the Wetlands Initiative’s “Growing Wetlands for Clean Water” project, the Illinois chapter of the Land Improvement Contractors of America (ILICA) built the 4.8-acre wetland designed for nutrient removal on Bonucci Farms between August 29 and September 1.
The U.S. Forest Service’s Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in Will County, Illinois, is big in every sense of the word. At 20,000 acres, it’s the largest prairie restoration effort east of the Mississippi River, as well as the largest public open space in the Chicago metropolitan region. In fall 2015, it got some very big new inhabitants when bison were reintroduced. And starting in 2016, TWI will be part of a major restoration expansion at Midewin that’s bigger than anything ever done there before.
Ever wanted your name to go down in conservation history? Well, now may be your chance. On Sunday, August 21, 2016, the Thismia Centennial Hunt will take place at Indian Ridge Marsh in Chicago’s South Side Calumet region. The hope is to rediscover Thismia americana, a unique plant species last seen in Chicago in 1916 and thought to be extinct.
The new Marquis Oak Ridge Trail at TWI’s Dixon Waterfowl Refuge at Hennepin & Hopper Lakes is now officially open for visitors to explore.
Refuge site manager Rick Seibert couldn’t believe his eyes on April 6 when he saw a group of five-foot-tall white birds standing in a farm field less than a mile from TWI’s Dixon Waterfowl Refuge. “I nearly ran off the road,” he said. “There were five right there, clear as day… It was just incredible.”
The Wetlands Initiative recently had the pleasure of meeting Brownie Troop 21242, or as they call themselves, “The Rainbow Troop.” Inspired by their “WOW! Wonders of Water” curriculum, this troop of home-schooled seven- to nine-year-olds on Chicago’s North Side decided they wanted to donate a portion of their Girl Scout cookie sales to support wetland wildlife, and troop leader Charisse Antonopoulos contacted TWI through our Facebook page.
The Wetlands Initiative is happy to welcome Lauren Tisdale as a 2016 summer intern. Lauren will be working on a new research project at TWI’s Dixon Waterfowl Refuge that is examining benefits to water and soil quality from restoring longtime farmland back to prairie and savanna at the Refuge’s new Hickory Hollow tract.
The Wetlands Initiative is working closely with Audubon Great Lakes, the Chicago Park District, and other partners on a conservation action planning effort that will inform restoration and management of important remnant wetland sites in the Calumet area.
Here at TWI we celebrate wetlands every day of the year, but February 2 is an opportunity for everyone to raise a glass of water to wetlands and the valuable ecosystem services they provide for people and the environment.
Though the landscape looks barren, new prairie and savanna plants are quietly waiting to spring to life at Hickory Hollow once the weather warms. With a major seeding effort and other first steps, the Wetlands Initiative has kicked off restoring rare habitats on the 283-acre parcel that TWI acquired to expand our Dixon Waterfowl Refuge at Hennepin & Hopper Lakes in late 2014.
It was a warm morning on Tuesday, September 1, with the sun rising over Hennepin & Hopper Lakes at about 6:30 a.m. The kiosk by the boat launch was stocked with permit applications and maps, ready for eager anglers. This day was long awaited by many: the reopening of public fishing at TWI’s Sue and Wes Dixon Waterfowl Refuge after Hennepin & Hopper Lakes had been closed for several years to address an invasion of common carp.
The Wetlands Initiative had a role in sessions covering both conservation and outreach at this year’s Illinois River Conference in Peoria on October 27–29.