the calumet region

For at least 40 years the Calumet region has loomed large within the Chicago conservation community as an area with tremendous potential for ecological restoration. On-the-ground revitalization has been stuck on the drawing board until recently, but it’s now starting to happen, and the Wetlands Initiative is playing a central role.

The Calumet region, covering much of Chicago’s Southeast Side and portions of northwestern Indiana, was once one of the most biologically diverse wetland areas in North America. Now it’s a patchwork of remnant habitats; many of them are still important havens for biodiversity but have been degraded by past industrial development.

Recently, organizations have come together to work on transforming the Calumet both economically and ecologically. The Millennium Reserve is one such collaborative, of which TWI is now a partner. At TWI we believe restoring healthy wetland systems in the Calumet’s urban setting after a century of heavy industrialization is the next big challenge for our organization to tackle.

The state-endangered Black-crowned Night-Heron nested in large numbers in the Calumet region until the 1990s and will benefit from restoration of hemi-marsh.

TWI’s Calumet work begins with a strong foundation of partnership. Since 2015 the Wetlands Initiative has been working closely with Audubon Great Lakes, the Chicago Park District, the Field Museum, The Nature Conservancy, and other partners on a rapid assessment of 20 remnant wetland sites in the Calumet. Unlike previous planning efforts in the Calumet region, this assessment work hones in on solving a specific key issue: loss of the valuable hemi-marsh wetland type that’s crucial to supporting many wetland-dependent bird species. 

Rare marsh birds like the Black-crowned Night-Heron were still successfully nesting in the Calumet’s remnant wetlands until the late 1990s. But since then changes in the wetlands’ water levels and an influx of new invasive plant species have been making the habitat unsuitable. Many of these marsh-dependent birds are in sharp decline or have disappeared from the region completely. Restoring hemi-marsh, which has an even mix of dense reed/cattail areas and open water that is preferred by many species, can bring them back while also benefitting a range of other wildlife.

The partners’ assessment work has prioritized a site along the Calumet River called Indian Ridge Marsh, now controlled by the Chicago Park District, as a good place to start reestablishing high-quality hemi-marsh in this highly altered area. Beginning in 2011 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers carried out a five-year effort to restore native vegetation at Indian Ridge Marsh, but certain key work items are still needed.

TWI is working closely with partners on an assessment of remnant wetland sites in the Calumet region and, with Audubon Great Lakes, is now restoring hemi-marsh habitat at Indian Ridge Marsh, a site that was identified as a high priority early in the process. 

In partnership with Audubon Great Lakes, TWI began work in spring 2016 on a portion of the 165-acre Indian Ridge Marsh site where no previous restoration had been done. Our efforts focus on removing invasive plants like phragmites that are choking the habitat and on establishing native species of emergent and submersed wetland plants. Meanwhile, Audubon will organize bird monitoring, develop interpretive signage, and work with community groups to improve public access to Indian Ridge Marsh.

TWI’s expertise is also being sought out for some fascinating new restoration possibilities at other Calumet-area sites in both Illinois and Indiana. Success would not only transform these long-degraded wetland sites but could inspire more restoration work across the vast Calumet region to finally realize its great conservation potential.