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Illinois hunting and fishing

An American white pelican takes flight over the restored wetlands at The Emiquon Preserve. Chris Young/The State Journal-Register.

Wildlife conference stresses science

December 12, 2009 at 09:25 AM

Springfield State Journal-Register

One might have expected an academic meeting filled with only nuts and bolts science when hundreds of wildlife and fish professionals gathered in Springfield this week.

The 70th annual Midwest Fish and Wildlife Conference was in Springfield for the first time in about 20 years. Attendees met at the Hilton in downtown Springfield from Sunday through Wednesday.

There was a lot of straightforward information, from identifying the tiny plants and animals consumed by fish as they grow to the ecology of bobcats in Illinois.

But behind the research papers, raw numbers and long hours gathering data were hints of how much the work means to the scientists who attended.

Stephen Havera, director emeritus of the Forbes Biological Station of the Illinois Natural History Survey near Havana, closed a series of 11 presentations on the restoration of Emiquon with an emotional remembrance.

Havera’s task was to recount the history of the area from a productive backwater lake to its more recent history of being drained and farmed. He told about the efforts — starting just after World War II — to somehow return the Emiquon floodplain to its former state as a haven for fish and wildlife.

That vision took almost 60 years to come to fruition.

Today, The Nature Conservancy owns about 7,100 acres, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service controls 2,000 more. Restoration is well under way.

The site has become a popular stopover for various migrating birds, not just waterfowl.

“If I had one wish, it would be to come over Norris Farms Hill with Frank Bellrose and Glen Sanderson — my mentors for decades — and see this,” Havera says.

Sanderson died in 2008, and Bellrose died in 2005.

“But I believe they are up there smiling, as are generations of Native Americans,” says Havera, who received the Wildlife Society’s Meritorious Service Award during a ceremony Monday.

Early inhabitants of Illinois also were drawn to the site in search of fish and game, and an American Indian village is under excavation on the bluff overlooking Emiquon. Today’s scientists have their own challenges — ones never dreamed of by their predecessors. What follows is a smattering of issues covered in the dozens of symposia and a poster session highlighting a wide range of research.

Adaptive management

Ken Williams of the U.S. Geological Survey outlined a process of adjusting management strategies based upon what is learned as the process unfolds. Known as adaptive management, Williams says it amounts to “improved management based upon better understanding.”

That doesn’t mean hit-or-miss or throwing seeds over the shoulder and just waiting to see what happens. Rather, adaptive management is a systematic process.

What land managers face is “pesky uncertainty,” he says. “You know some things, but you don’t know everything you need to know.

“It’s an opportunity to apply learning. And the value (of the project) is higher as you learn more.”

Land managers can test hypotheses, monitor results and make decisions based on the new information and how it fits with management objectives. No habitat restoration projects are the same or have the exact same goals.

“One size doesn’t fit all.”

Common carp

One sticky issue is the prevalence of invasive species. Fisheries biologists spoke of the effects of carp — both common and the more recently introduced Asian species.

Rob Hilsabeck, Illinois Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist, says a few young common carp were captured at Emiquon this year. He said they likely survived efforts to kill rough fish in drainage ditches before restoration began.

“Hopefully, we’ve established a strong enough native population to keep these carp at bay,” he says. “It’s a fight, and you’ve got to get your guys (native predators such as largemouth bass) on board quick.”

A wetland restoration at Hennepin-Hopper lakes near Hennepin (a town along the Illinois River southwest of LaSalle) had to be restarted this year when common carp became so numerous they ruined water clarity and uprooted underwater vegetation crucial for many species of migrating waterfowl.

Hennepin-Hopper had to be restarted after eight years. At Spring Lake, biologists are going on 30 years with their fingers crossed.

Illinois hunting and fishing

Biofuels and biomass

For decades, prairie grass was plowed under, and the fertile soil it helped build was used to grow high-yield crops. With the loss of grasslands that covered the mid-section of the nation, populations of birds that relied on this habitat plummeted.

Then government programs, such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Reserve Program, were implemented to take marginally productive land out of crops and provide rental payments so farmers could plant grass or trees.

“CRP has done a pretty good job reversing trends and stabilizing populations,” says Jeffrey Brawn of the University of Illinois.

Now, the search for alternative energy may create new demands for prairie grass originally planted to control erosion and provide wildlife habitat. And there is concern about how harvesting grasses would affect grassland birds.

There are two ways to turn grass into energy. Biomass simply means the grass is harvested and burned. To make biofuels, grass must be turned into ethanol.

“This is a new player for demands on the landscape,” he says. Couple that with a reduction in CRP acres — especially in North and South Dakota, where many ducks breed — and conservationists of all stripes are concerned.

“Grass won’t replace crops, but it may replace other land uses,” Brawn says.

Prairie cemeteries

Some small cemeteries established between 1830 and 1880 memorialize early settlers and the prairie landscape they tried to tame.

But preserving the character of these tiny sites — as little as one acre — is difficult due to their isolation and the fact that most people don’t view cemeteries as places where vegetation grows unchecked.

“They weren’t mowed in 1880,” says Angella Moorehouse, a regional biologist with the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission.

Still, the idea that cemeteries should be neatly cared for is strong.

There are 29 pioneer cemeteries on the state’s natural areas inventory. Nineteen of them are state nature preserves. They average only 2.2 acres in size. Overall, they harbor hundreds of plant species — the vast majority of those are native to Illinois.

“We’re trying to protect the cultural heritage as well as the national heritage,” she says.

Looking to the future

Of course, it’s all for naught if today’s youth don’t seek careers in conservation or become active in outdoors recreation.

Warren Gartner, conservation education supervisor for the Indiana Division of Fish & Wildlife, says kids under age 13 play only 30 minutes a week outside, on average.

He points to the development of No Child Left Inside legislation and the adoption of state environmental literacy plans that are needed to qualify for federal funds.

John Epifanio, a fish biologist with the Illinois Natural History Survey, says about 240 attendees at this week’s conference were students, and four sessions were directed toward mentoring, networking and working in team environments.

“All of our projects require incredible cooperation,” he says. “That is as important as the basic biology. That’s why these meetings are important to get people together.”

Others also recognized colleagues and mentors who influenced their work.

“It’s an old adage,” Epifanio says. “If I am able to see farther, it is because I stand on the shoulders of giants.”

Conference notes

The North Central Division of the American Fisheries Society gave the Illinois chapter its most active chapter award.

Conference co-chairman John Epifanio says Illinois Department of Natural Resources employees “did a yeoman’s job” despite the fact that many staff members were deployed to the Chicago area to work on the project to kill fish in the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal in an effort to control the spread of Asian carp.

DNR biologist Diane Tecic says Illinois will receive a second grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to help restore hill prairies, rare prairie openings on steep hills and bluffs. The first grant was $300,000 with an equal match from the state in the form of cash, labor and in-kind contributions. That grant runs through this summer. A second, similar grant is scheduled to pick up where the first one left off this summer and fund work for the next three years.

Epifanio, a fish biologist with the Illinois Natural History Survey, says a total of 658 people attended, including 240 students.


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