Illinois hunting and fishing

Cliff onions grow in cracks along the edge of a bluff in Monroe County. Chris Young/The State Journal-Register

Steep hills hide prairie treasure

November 17, 2008 at 11:01 PM

They sometimes call them goat prairies, and it’s easy to see why.

It helps to be part goat when navigating some of the steep hillsides where native prairie vegetation still clings to life on bluffs 200 feet above the blacktop. Sometimes a stubborn sumac — firmly rooted — is a hiker’s most supportive friend.

“After you climb up and catch your breath, your breath is taken away again because the views are so stunning,” says Illinois Nature Preserves Commission field biologist Debbie Scott Newman. “And depending on the quality of the prairie — and whether or not you have burned — the wildflowers can create a canvas that will take your breath away, too.”

Old photographs show a continuous strip of prairie all along this bluff line in Monroe County.

Today, trees have slowly invaded, reducing the area covered by prairie and cutting parts of it into smaller and smaller fragments.

That’s why Newman has brought here for a tour landowner Charlie Frederick and representatives from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Landowner Incentive Program.

She’s trying to cobble together enough interest and resources to help restore the prairies and bring back the diversity of plant and animal species — some normally found in western states — that still thrives here.

“I just love nature,” Frederick says. “If we can do something to help with it or preserve it — let’s do it.”

Frederick farms about 71 acres in the parcel that includes the strip of bluff and some accompanying forest ground.

Growing out of the cracks in the limestone, cliff onion and Drummond’s goldenrod bloom in complementary shades of pink and yellow. Rough blazing star and cylindrical blazing star, along with many other wildflowers, also are present.

Since being introduced to the uniqueness of the hill prairie on his property by Newman, Frederick has become quite taken by it.

“We named the prairie after our granddaughter,” he says. “We call it Angela’s Prairie. She loves nature, too.”

Illinois hunting and fishing

Stan McTaggart of the Landowner Incentive Program is an experienced climber, and the heights don’t bother him a bit. Newman shudders as McTaggart peers over the edge of the bluff, looking for unusual plants.

The glaciers didn’t get this far south 18,000 years ago, but the effects still are visible today.

South of St. Louis, these bluffs are capped with loess, wind-blown dust and remnants of rocks pulverized during the advance of the last glacier. When the glaciers retreated and riverbeds dried up, wind carried the loess far and wide, depositing the bigger grains close to the rivers and the finer silt farther inland.

Illinois is one of only three places in the world where loess hill prairies occur. The others are in western Iowa and in China. And just up the road from Frederick’s property is Fults Hill Prairie, a state nature preserve of 532 acres.

Hill prairies are rare because they often become overgrown with trees in the absence of periodic fires. Many simply have disappeared, while others survived only because they are too steep for farm machinery.

McTaggart is trying to put together funds to help pay for the work to open the prairie.

“We are going to do as much tree and brush clearing as (Frederick) is comfortable with, as well as some follow-up spraying next year to treat any re-sprouts,” he says. “And then we’ll get it set up so the landowner can continue the management on his own.”

The bluffs extend about 35 miles, roughly from north of Valmeyer south to Prairie du Rocher.
Newman says the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission already has 2,353 acres enrolled in one of its programs at 17 sites.

In addition to that acreage, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources owns 390 acres, for a total of 2,743 acres in the bluffs corridor under some form of protection.

The hill prairie owned by Frederick and the neighboring Brickey-Gonterman Memorial Hill Prairie State Nature Preserve were recognized for their value back in the 1970s.

These are included on the Illinois Natural Areas Inventory because of rare reptiles and amphibians found only in Monroe and Randolph counties in Illinois. Additionally, three threatened and endangered plants thrive in the cliff-edge habitats.

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Private citizens are joining government to protect the rare prairies.

The CLIFFTOP Alliance — Conserving Lands in Farm, Forest, Talus or Prairie — has a core of about 15 members, according to Frederick.

“Their basic aim is to protect that bluff,” he says. “The theory behind it is to preserve as much of that bluff as possible so it will never be destroyed. That’s their goal.”

As Frederick learns more and more about how the area used to look, he has expanded his vision beyond the bluff top to the flood plain below that stretches about a mile to the Mississippi River.

Looking down one day after a particularly heavy rain, Frederick says he could see where the natural wetlands probably had been.

“It’s awesome, I tell you what,” he says. “I was there looking out — we’d had some heavy rains — and there were thousands of ducks and geese down there.

“And that’s how we found our duck club.”

Frederick’s brother-in-law bought land to recreate wetlands and upon his death, Frederick took over the property.

“We tried to put it back to as close as it was back in the 1800s,” he says. “It’s amazing the amount of shorebirds and waterfowl that have been attracted back to that place.”

On the day of the tour, flocks of pelicans circling the wetlands along with wading great egrets and snowy egrets were clearly visible in their brilliant white plumage.

Newman says the vast flood plain likely was a mosaic of forest, marsh, wet prairie and other habitats.

She says working to save remnants of Illinois’ natural heritage is rewarding.

“Every time I visit one of these prairies, I am smiling much more because I feel like I have found a little Illinois treasure.”