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Illinois hunting and fishing

Two years of above-average moisture should have prairie grasses towering overhead again this summer. Chris Young/The State Journal-Register

Wet years lead to growing

April 04, 2009 at 07:45 PM

Springfield State Journal-Register

One of the first outdoor lessons kids learn is that the age of a tree can be determined by counting its rings.

And among the small discoveries in this process is that some rings are closer together than others.

When a tree growing today is felled someday, its rings might show 2008 and 2009 as pretty good growth years.

After cycles of drought, destructive wind and ice storms, trees in central Illinois have been getting a bit of a break in the guise of two back-to-back years of above-average moisture.

Trees aren’t the only beneficiaries.

* Prairies, although adapted to survive dry conditions, have been lush. Wildflowers have bloomed in profusion. Tall grasses tower above one’s head.

* Temporary wetlands brim with water, and the calling of frogs this spring has been almost deafening.

At Goose Lake Prairie State Natural Area near Morris, the state’s largest native prairie remnant is coming to life.

“From what I have seen, our prairie is doing good,” says volunteer Art Rohr. “We can find green sprouts of most of the prairie plants, but it’s going to take awhile before I can identify them.”

Site personnel burned about 400 acres two weeks ago. Prairie plants are adapted to periodic fires, and the burns help rejuvenate prairies by letting the sun more easily warm the ground to foster plant growth.

“It was a very good year,” Rohr says about last year’s bloom. “I can’t think of anything that was actually hurting because of the moisture, although we had a couple of things that came in a little bit late. Overall, I hope the same for this year.”

At The Nature Conservancy’s Emiquon Preserve in Fulton County, just across the Illinois River from Havana, Thompson and Flag Lakes have grown to more than 3,300 acres.

“There’s a lot of water out there,” says the conservancy’s Jason Beverlin.

Even though the water is high, the conservancy planned for occasional high water levels by planting above a mark that still is about four feet above the current elevation.

“We anticipated this when we did our restoration work,” Beverlin says. “But we want it to be a wetland, not a lake. For that, you need both shallow and deep water. If you wind up with only deep, it changes the composition of plants that you have.

“Normal flood pulse events — those are good.”

If water levels don’t fluctuate, some species can take over if they find a wetland to their liking. Cottonwoods, for example, like moist areas, but don’t want their feet wet.

“Cottonwoods can dominate a floodplain,” Beverlin says. “If you can flood those out during the right times of year when they are young, they can die back.”

Too much of a good thing can be just as detrimental as not enough.
Large, mature cottonwoods can withstand some flooding, but younger trees cannot.

Even trees adapted to forested wetlands can’t hold up in standing water forever.

“But if they are native to those sites, they can sit in the water for a month, even if they are totally leafed out,” says Petersburg arborist and author Guy Sternberg.

But small trees — such as those planted as part of conservation projects — can die if the water covers their foliage.

One rule of ecosystems to remember is that change always is part of the equation.

The species composition of prairies and woodlands will reflect yearly differences in precipitation and temperature. They also will react to the presence or absence of fire. They will change depending upon the age of the stand.

“Even small changes in elevation can make a difference in water retention,” Sternberg says.

Weather conditions may also affect insects, fungi and other organisms that are closely associated with trees.

“None of us totally understands all the subtleties that are going on,” he says. “It’s not basic arithmetic. It’s calculus. It’s high math by comparison.”

And the results of that equation and its varied inputs means new discoveries for those interested in exploring this spring and summer.
“It’s always interesting to walk into the prairie every week — or even more often than that,” Rohr says. “And I’ll spot things one week that I didn’t see the week before and wonder, ‘How did I miss that?’”

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