Post-restoration surveys at Lobelia Meadows find huge increase in wetlands, biodiversity

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. The results of the 2016 plant surveying, compared with data from the start of the project in 2012, show dramatic gains in plant diversity and wetland habitats over the four-year restoration effort.

Before and after: Over the past four years of TWI’s restoration work at Lobelia Meadows, infrastructure, bare ground, and weedy species have been replaced with healthy wetland and prairie habitats and a great diversity of wildflowers.

When TWI began restoring Lobelia Meadows in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service at Midewin in July 2012, the site was extensively degraded by years of drainage, farming, and development. The 160-acre tract once held a sewage treatment facility used by the U.S. Army when Midewin was the site of the Joliet Army Arsenal. The land was crisscrossed by agricultural drain tiles and also contained gravel berms, rock piles, parking pads, and concrete foundations. With all this disturbance, invasive plant species had gained a foothold and threatened to crowd out the remaining pockets of native grasses and wildflowers.

Over the past four years, TWI worked with the Forest Service to remove the remaining infrastructure, brought back the site’s natural water patterns to the extent possible, and used a field crew to control invasive plant species and to plant many thousands of native plugs (seedlings) and hundreds of pounds of native seed. Now it’s all paid off: While just 13% of Lobelia Meadows could be characterized as wetland habitats in 2011, roughly 72% was wetlands by 2016, an increase of 550%.

In 2012 when restoration began, TWI staff used GIS technology to divide Lobelia Meadows into 95 squares and to mark a randomly selected point within each square. TWI ecologists and our senior GIS analyst then visited Lobelia Meadows to locate these 95 points on the ground. They put down a meter-square guide at each point and recorded all the plant species present within that boundary, along with their percent coverage (the extent to which that species covered the square).

TWI Senior GIS Analyst Jim Monchak (left) and Senior Ecologist Dr. Gary Sullivan (right) collecting post-restoration monitoring data with a meter-square guide at Lobelia Meadows in summer 2016. Photo by Vera Leopold/TWI.

Because the points were marked with GPS, we were able to return to collect data at each point four years later—but this time, rubber boots were needed! With the data gathered from each point TWI ecologists were able to calculate many different measures of biodiversity and ecosystem health at the site and how they had changed since 2012. The presence of wetland-adapted plants allowed them to determine how much of the site was covered by wetland habitats.

In addition to the expansion in wetlands on the site, native plant diversity at Lobelia Meadows has gone way up. The total native species found in the surveying plots increased from 63 to 116 over the four-year period. The percent cover of native species more than doubled, from 37% in 2012 to 76% in 2016. The average floristic quality index (FQI) score for the plots, a measure of habitat quality, also more than doubled from 3.3 in 2012 to 7.2 in 2016.

After four years the Lobelia Meadows restoration has fulfilled its name. Many areas of the site are covered with native lobelias: cardinal flower (red), great blue lobelia, and pale spiked lobelia (not pictured here). Photo by Gary Sullivan/TWI.

“The monitoring data shows just how much has changed at Lobelia Meadows since our work there began, but it also shows that the site has a ways to go in terms of diversity. This was expected because native plant communities develop over very long time scales,” said TWI Senior Ecologist Gary Sullivan. “The Forest Service will now take over long-term management of Lobelia Meadows as part of Midewin, and we’ll continue to monitor the site’s progress.”

Meanwhile, TWI plans to share the evaluation findings, along with successful strategies and lessons learned on the Lobelia Meadows restoration, at a variety of regional conferences. TWI Restoration Specialist Trevor Edmonson, who led the field crew at Lobelia Meadows from 2014 to 2016, gave the first of these talks at Chicago’s biennial Wild Things conference in February 2017.

In 2017, we’re starting this process all over again at Midewin on a much greater scale with a 1,800-acre restoration that will be completed over the next seven years. With this huge effort getting underway and the return of a bison herd to the prairie, Midewin has many more “after” photos in its future!