How Did We Get Where We Are Today?
Where Are We Today?
Where Are We Headed?
||Like a sculptor shaping a piece
of clay, we humans have molded the Illinois landscape to take the
shape we desire. And we've done more than modestly adjust its features;
we’ve transformed it completely. Many of the underlying characteristics
of the land, such as typography, still exist, but the outward appearance
no longer resembles what was here 200, 100, or even fifty years ago.
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Wildlife: " A Historical Perspective"
In a mere two centuries we've turned vast grasslands
into crop fields and converted forests into shopping malls and home
sites. We've leveed and drained wetlands to dry them up and impounded
wooded ravines to make them hold water. Meandering streams have
been straightened and, in a couple of places (the Chicago and Cache
rivers), we even did what previously only a great earthquake could
accomplish: reverse the flow of a river. We have covered thousands
of acres of Illinois soil with concrete, and we've created our own
version of nature, complete with "hills" and "lakes,"
in our subdivisions and parks. We have created and released pollutants
and introduced millions of exotic visitors"cats, dogs, starlings,
carp, and Eurasian and Mediterranean plants, among others-into the
landscape. Nationally, Illinois now ranks a dismal forty-ninth in
the amount of intact natural land.
Yet our landscape transformation has not occurred
because of some statewide blueprint or systematic plan. Instead
it happened piece by piece-a wetland drained here, a patch of grassland
plowed up there, a few more acres paved over every month. As William
R. Edwards observed in Man, Agriculture, and Wildlife Habitat A
Perspective, "We tend to think of wildlife habitat in a 'then
and now' context-then we had it, now we don't. We have been losing
habitat for a long time and the effects are cumulative. . . . Because
changes in habitat have accrued slowly relative to our individual
perspectives, we have been slow to notice their cumulative effects."
As we begin the twenty-first century, we have gained
an unprecedented understanding of these cumulative effects on wildlife.
The good news is that much of the patchwork elimination of habitat
can be reversed. To some degree, the landscape can be restored and
reconstructed piece by piece-if Illinois landowners all do their
parts to reverse the 200-year-old trend.
Those who plan to join this great protection and
restoration effort must understand how our various wildlife populations
reached their current status and where they're headed. This chapter
provides some insight.
Human history is inextricably linked to the state's
natural resources. Without the bountiful flora and fauna, the fertile
soils, and the extensive network of rivers and streams, our history
books would tell different tales. And yet people across the generations
have typically taken these resources for granted. For the most part,
the decisions humans have made regarding the landscape haven't been
intentionally malicious. Pioneers on the land that became Illinois
reaped harvests of plants and animals. They believed these resources
were truly infinite. Who in 1800 could have imagined that, two centuries
later, twelve million people would call this state home?
From the early pioneer settlement period through
about 1900, humans made use of wildlife, in numerous ways, from
food to fashion. There were no legal limits on the number of ducks,
rabbits, deer, and other game animals that could be taken for the
dinner plate or the marketplace. Egrets and herons were killed by
the thousands in the late 1800s, their feathers sought for adorning
hats and purses. Fur-bearing animals, including beavers and foxes,
supplied a booming fur trade.
Around the turn of the century, some people became
aware of and concerned about the dramatic loss of wildlife. Conservation
organizations and agencies were created, and their members and staff
worked diligently to regulate the harvesting of wildlife. For some
species, such as the passenger pigeon and Carolina parakeet, the
protection came too late. But for others, like the white-tailed
deer and wild turkey, both close to extirpation, the concerted efforts
eventually paid off.
As laws were being written to regulate wildlife
harvesting, an even more serious threat emerged. The animals themselves
would now be protected from overexploitation, but their homes were
not. The numbers of humans and their technical capabilities were
rapidly increasing; this meant more and more extensive use of the
land and its flora for human purposes. While most wildlife species
could potentially have recovered from the problem of over-harvesting,
the effects of altered and lost habitat would prove to be much more
During the time that wildlife were being taken
without limit, plant resources, especially trees, also were being
exploited. It is estimated that during the 1800s, Illinois lost
two-thirds of its forests. And after the self-scouring steel plow
was invented by John Deere in 1837, nearly all of the state's prairies
were transformed into crop fields and pastures.
Wetlands, too, began a downward spiral in the 1800s.
The first Illinois drainage district was formed in the mid-1870s.
By the early 1900s, many prairie wetlands had been drained, and
bottomland swamps and floodplain wetlands had been leveed off and
drained. Pollution in many forms, such as untreated waste from Chicago
that was dumped into the Illinois River, began infiltrating the
river's wetlands in the late 1800s.
It wasn't until the late 1800s that concerned citizens
began to develop the concept of land preservation. Exploitation
of the land was taking its toll, and with wildlife newly protected
from over consumption, conservation agencies and organizations turned
their energies in a new direction. Thus began the effort to conserve
Illinois wildlife and natural resources through habitat protection
and management-work that continues to this day.
Government agencies began preserving land through
acquisition, while many of the private groups focused on public
education. Biologists with the Illinois Department of Conservation
(since 1995 the Illinois Department of Natural Resources) realized
in the 1940s that with 95% of Illinois land in private ownership,
successful conservation efforts would have to include these landowners.
The department initiated a program to assist landowners with wildlife
habitat restoration on their properties. It seemed that with land
acquisition and public education, wildlife populations could only
While Illinois wildlife would certainly be in worse
shape today without these efforts, unforeseen factors continued
to hamper habitat protection and restoration progress. Conversion
of wildlife habitat to human uses continued unabated, far outpacing
conservation efforts. Although some prairie-dwelling birds were
devastated by the loss of the prairie grasslands in the 1800s, many
adapted to the non-native pasture and hay grasses that replaced
the prairie. But between the 1930s and 1960s, intensified farming
transformed most of these agricultural grasslands to row crops.
Planted to corn and soybeans, these acres left little habitat for
grassland wildlife. Additional farm policy changes in the early
1970s encouraging maximum land usage for row crops led to even more
elimination of habitat. This time the victims were the woody fencerows
and other odd areas adjacent to crop fields.
As Illinoisans became ever more mobile with the
increased use of the automobile, they required more roads; as their
numbers and relative wealth increased, they sought more and bigger
residential areas and shopping outlets. Woodlands and wetlands were
replaced with concrete and steel. And while industry-generated (point
source) pollution had been reduced by regulations, non-point source
pollutants, such as agricultural and household pesticides, increased
Today, our burgeoning human population continues
to threaten the remaining bits and pieces of wildlife habitat in
Illinois. The sheer number of people demanding living space, food,
fiber, and recreation sites creates competition with wildlife for
the land. And it is not just an increase in the amount of land we
humans seek but the pattern of our dispersal across the state that
is greatly affecting what is left of the natural world. Rather than
occupying some sections of Illinois and leaving others wild, we
have transformed nearly every region to varying degrees.
The construction of homes and accompanying services
and amenities in many rural towns and outlying areas shows no sign
of ceasing. As farms compete with commercial and residential development
for our finite land base, wildlife and their natural environs seem
destined to be eliminated. Humans, rather than being an integrated
part of the natural world as we once were, are now truly the dominant
force on the landscape.
Before European settlement, the Illinois landscape
contained at least eighty-five distinct natural community types
within fourteen natural divisions. These communities ranged from
post oak flatwoods to dolomite prairie to cypress swamp, each containing
a unique plant assemblage that provided habitat for a variety of
animals, some of them unique to one or two of these specific communities.
Most of these community types exist today, but many have been reduced
to small "museum" relics of just a few acres. Others are still fairly
well represented on the Illinois landscape but are degraded or fragmented
into small, scattered islands. Because of the reduction and fragmentation
of our wildlife habitat and the many negative influences impacting
existing habitat, our natural communities have lost some of their
These factors-less habitat, poorer quality habitat,
habitat fragmentation, fewer habitat types, and reduced biodiversity
within habitats-are the primary problems faced by Illinois wildlife
The acreage of every habitat type except cropland
is a small percentage of what it was 200 years ago. These decreases
have correspondingly reduced the numbers of many Illinois species.
Some species that inhabit specialized or historically less abundant
habitats (for example, those that occupy sand prairies, like the
state-endangered Illinois mud turtle ) have suffered extreme declines
or disappeared altogether. Likewise, some historically abundant
species that require large tracts of one habitat type have declined
as a result of elimination or fragmentation of their habitats. Examples
are upland sandpipers, which need expansive grasslands, and ovenbirds
and hooded warblers, which need large forest tracts.
Many species have adapted to our human-created
landscape, and some are believed to have even larger statewide populations
now than existed 150 years ago. The red-winged blackbird, the horned
lark, and the white-tailed deer are examples of such adaptable species.
Many existing wildlife habitat parcels, both
large and small, are subject to a variety of negative human influences,
thus reducing their benefits to wildlife. An analogy could be drawn
to an aging city. There may be plenty of housing units and homes
available, but many have deteri rated to the point that they're
uninhabitable. The invasion of exotic plant species, increased populations
of non-native predators (especially domestic dogs and cats), pollution,
mowing, excessive logging, increased noise, the presence of humans-all
of these contribute to an inhospitable environment for wildlife.
While some species tolerate such negative influences, or are seemingly
unaffected by them, most wildlife survive best in habitats more
closely resembling those of pre-European settlement, in locations
with few or no human intrusions.
As human dispersal and intensive land use patterns
continue, the pieces of remaining quality habitat have come to resemble
islands isolated in oceans of human altered land. While some species
are not affected by this fragmentation, a great many are. This is
especially true for the less mobile species-amphibians and certain
reptiles and small mammals. If a given parcel of habitat becomes
too small and isolated, these species cannot perpetuate their genetic
diversity and will eventually disappear. And even the more mobile
species are increasingly susceptible to premature death, when they
are forced to travel between natural habitats without protective
The fragmentation of larger tracts into smaller
ones allows predators, both domestic and wild, easier access to
species that use the habitat interior, thus altering the predator-prey
balance. Forest fragmentation creates a higher proportion of forest
perimeter to forest interior, allowing the edge-dwelling brown-headed
cowbird, a nest parasite, more access to nests of other birds in
which to lay its eggs. Most Illinois forest-nesting birds have not
evolved with the cowbird and do not effectively deal with its parasitism.
And small forests and grasslands do not provide optimum cover from
severe weather, such as high winds and deep snows, because these
environmental elements can more readily penetrate their interiors.
While the human-generated factors affecting habitat
may have decreased the populations of many wildlife species, research
has shown that for some groups of animals, such as birds, the statewide
population has held fairly stable this century. What has changed
is the composition of the animal community. Where there used to
be a large diversity of birds and other wildlife, now there are
large numbers of a few species-those readily adapted to the "new"
landscape- and small numbers of many other species tenaciously,
and sometimes tenuously, hanging on. A good example of this change
can be found in the results of the annual Illinois Spring Bird Counts,
where the numbers of both individual birds and bird species are
compiled. The past several years have shown that out of the more
than 265 species recorded, the ten most common-among them red-winged
blackbirds, Canada geese, and the non-native house sparrows, starlings,
and pigeons-make up 45% to 50% of the total numbers of birds counted.
The loss of biodiversity in Illinois and around
the world is of grave concern to biologists and conservationists.
Nature is based on an intricate web of interconnected and interacting
organisms. It may have been a surprise to you to learn in the introduction
that Illinois has more than 27,000 mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians,
fish, insects, mussels, and other invertebrates within its borders.
And more than 3,200 plant species have been recorded in the state.
The average Illinois citizen may be familiar with only a few native
species. But just because the other creatures or plants aren't seen
or familiar to most of us doesn't mean they are not important to
the Illinois environment.
Unfortunately, many species that fill a specific
niche or provide an important food source for other animals disappear
with little human notice. It is especially important that we reduce
our systematic elimination of insects and other invertebrates to
keep the web of life healthy in Illinois and to keep intact populations
of what many consider their favorite wildlife-game species, songbirds,
and the like. It is also important to protect our remaining natural
communities and to restore and reconstruct the complex mosaic that
once composed the Illinois landscape.
The Changing Illinois Environment: Critical Trends,
a report produced by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources
and The Nature of Illinois Foundation, summarizes the dilemma succinctly:
"There is evolving a trend toward a generic Illinois environment,
populated mainly by 'generalist' species able to exploit simplified
We need to take action to conserve our state's
biodiversity, because the few species that are adaptable, such as
white-tailed deer, Canada geese, grackles, and red-winged blackbirds,
have come to typify our state's fauna, and vegetation such as bluegrass,
fescue, corn, and soybeans have become the dominant plants - a relative
landscape monoculture, considering Illinois' rich natural heritage.
So what's wrong with deer, red-wings, and Canada
geese? Actually, these native species are valuable, but they have
done so well that in some places they're regarded as nuisances.
In healthy ecosystems, nature takes care of surplus animals and
plants and keeps the populations of others healthy enough to ensure
long-term presence. Our goal should be to reconstruct, restore,
and protect healthy ecosystems so that nature can function as close
as possible as it did prior to pre-settlement times.
Today, land-preservation efforts continue, with
the goal of protecting high-quality remnants of Illinois' historic
natural communities. Governmental agencies and private groups have
also saved thousands of acres of other habitat from the saw and
plow, the homesite and pollution. State and federal biologists,
hunting and fishing groups, birdwatching and hiking enthusiasts,
land-protection groups, and other conservation organizations and
advocates continue to effect positive change on the landscape. A
recent trend has emerged to address the need for larger blocks of
quality habitat. Projects are underway to convert sizeable tracts
of marginal farmland to wildlife habitat, such as with the 10,000-acre
Emiquon National Wildlife Refuge on the Illinois River near Havana
and the Cache River project in southern Illinois. The closing of
military properties such as the Joliet Arsenal and the liquidation
of utility and mining company lands-and subsequent transfer to state
and federal conservation agencies-have provided thousands of cres
of land that are now being restored or reconstructed as wildlife
But the land protected and managed by government
and nonprofit groups is merely a teaspoonful in a bathtub of water.
Private landowners hold the key to the future of Illinois wildlife.
Unfortunately, though, private lands will continue to be a focus
of competing land-use issues. The mass conversion of woodlands to
homesites near cities and towns threatens every corner of Illinois.
Although regulations restrict destruction of wetlands, they continue
to be drained and filled for shopping areas and residential developments.
And the associated activities that accompany development, such as
destroying woodlands to build homes and ponds, providing trails
for off-road vehicles, and introducing pets, further stress the
While we're unlikely to see a significant decline
in Illinois' human population and its demands, the future for our
state's wildlife need not be hopeless. If residents can be educated
and motivated to address the pertinent problems, most wildlife species
stand a reasonable chance of continuing to reside in Illinois. The
Illinois Department of Natural Resources' Acres for Wildlife program
has long been popular; hopefully the number of landowners committed
to managing their property for wildlife will continue to grow.
The exploitation of natural resources in our state
points to no one generation or segment of the population. Activities
have occurred as a result of each generation's knowledge and needs.
The Changing Illinois Environment illustrates this point: "Perceptions
about the Illinois environment vary enormously across eras and social
groups. Change begets change; as each generation of Illinoisans
alters the landscape, later Illinoisans see and feel differently
about the land, and thus act differently regarding it."
Because we have begun to appreciate the value of
our flora and fauna and we understand the importance of balancing
our needs with those of the natural world, the responsibility for
caring for wildlife lies firmly in our hands.
A Sand County Almanac with Essays on Conservation.
A. Leopold. 2001. Oxford University Press, New York, NY.
A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and
There. A. Leopold. 1987. Oxford University Press, New York, NY.
Comprehensive Plan fir the Illinois Nature
Preserves System. Part 2: The Natural Divisions of Illinois. J.
E. Schwegman. 1973. Illinois Nature Preserves Commission.
Endangered and Threatened Species of Illinois:
Status and Distribution. Volume 1: Plants. Volume 2: Animals. Edited
by J. R. Herkert. 1991. Illinois Endangered Species Protection Board.
Habitat Management Guidelines fir Amphibians
and Reptiles of the Midwest. B. Kingsbury and J. Gibson. 2002. Partners
in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation.
Man, Agriculture and Wildlife Habitat: A Perspective.
W. R. Edwards. 1985. Illinois Natural History Survey.
Prairie Establishment and Landscaping. W. E. McClain. 1997.
Division of Natural Heritage Technical Publication #2, Illinois
Department of Natural Resources.
Strategic Plan fir the Ecological Resources
of Illinois. G. Bonfert. 1995. Illinois Department of Natural Resources,
Illinois Endangered Species Protection Board, and Illinois Nature
The Changing Illinois Environment: Critical
Trends. Volume 3: Ecological Resources Summary Report of the Critical
Trends Assessment Project. 1994. Illinois Department of Natural
Resources and The Nature of Illinois Foundation.
The Crisis of Wildlife Habitat in Illinois
Today. Illinois Wildlife Habitat Commission Report, 1984-1985. Illinois
Department of Natural Resources.
The Essential Aldo Leopold: Quotations and
Commentaries. Edited by C. Meine and R. L. Knight. 1999. University
of Wisconsin Press, Madison.
Where The Sky Began: Land of the Tallgrass
Prairie. J. Madson. 1995. Iowa State University Press, Ames.
For more information about the Illinois Conservation Wildlife Plan, please
Illinois Wildlife Action Plan Coordinator
Illinois Department of Natural Resources
Watershed Protection Section
One Natural Resources Way
Springfield, Illinois 62702-1271