Ghosts of the Prairie

For me, the football season ended January 23 when the Packers beat the Bears 21-14 in a game that wasn’t as close as the final score indicated. And so I venture out to Midewin for a quiet walk on Super Bowl Sunday.

Since my last visit, a little more than 20 inches of snow has fallen in the Chicago area – the third largest snowfall on record. Added to that is what looks like another couple of inches of fresh powder that has just fallen today on South Patrol Road Prairie.

Even with such an unusual amount of snow on the ground, it’s hard to imagine what Midewin may have looked like 20,000 years ago. That’s about the middle of the last ice age when glaciers covered much of North America, including the northeastern third of Illinois. The snow today is about two feet deep. I stand a little shy of six feet. The tallest prairie plants top out around 12 feet.

The bur oaks in Prairie Creek Woods rise to about 100 feet into the air. The last glacier to cover this area may have been as much as 700 feet thick – as tall as the 52-story IBM building in downtown Chicago.

ibm building

(If you’re wondering, the IBM building is the 20th tallest structure in Chicago. The Willis Tower – formerly Sears Tower – is #1 at 1,451 feet.)

The glaciers are long gone, of course. The last one retreated out of Illinois about 13,500 years ago. Gone, too, are the mammoths and mastodons, ground sloths and giant beavers that once roamed the tundra of Illinois. And as tundra gave way to prairie, then came wolves, bears, elk, mountain lions and bison that one by one were hunted down or otherwise pushed far to the north and west as prairie gave way to farmland and towns.

A few mile walk on such a cold, snowy day leaves the impression there is no wildlife left at Midewin at all. The rich abundance of amphibians, birds and assorted small mammals is either hunkered down until the skies clear or hibernating until warmer days return. Or not yet returned from wintering grounds elsewhere.

And then I spy the coyote. Like other native, top-of-the-food-chain predators, coyotes largely disappeared from our state in the 19th and 20th centuries, but have recently made an extraordinary comeback. Even so, these “ghosts of the prairie” come by their nickname honestly – they are rarely seen.

But that hasn’t kept many in our region – fearing that coyotes prey on pets and small children – from calling for their re-elimination. (Here’s a good website for debunking a lot of fears and misconceptions: http://urbancoyoteresearch.com.)

The myths of many Native American cultures reveal coyotes as tricksters, alternating between cleverness and buffoonery; wisdom and lechery; equal parts imp and hero; “a rebel against authority and the breaker of all taboos…turning quickly from clown to creator and back again…representing the sheerly spontaneous in life, the pure creative spark that is our birthright as human beings and that defies fixed roles or behavior.”

After glimpsing the coyote at Midewin, that night I would dream that a coyote was loose in a neighbor’s backyard. I took a shovel and chased it, swinging wildly, trying to beat it to death, but always missing. Exhausted, I retreat to my own back yard – a tiny natural oasis, with a pond and lots of native prairie plants. The coyote creeps into my backyard, along with another and another. Before my eyes, each of them transforms into the kind of young man I used to be. Or wish I’d been.

Cavorting with the Enemy

white tail deer 1

This past weekend I attended a state-sanctioned Hunter Safety Training course, a first step toward going on my first deer hunt next fall at Midewin. In some circles, this makes me a traitor. A Benedict Arnold. Hunters are the enemy. They’re not nature lovers. They’re killers.

The fact is, most everyone involved in natural areas restoration is a killer of some kind. While some may limit their activities to monitoring birds or butterflies or planting native plant plugs, many saw, chop and lop down invasive plants – including some aggressive native species such as gray dogwood – and treat the stumps with a heavy concentration of herbicide to kill the plants at their roots. Many participate in prescribed burns, setting controlled fire to natural areas, which kills off undesirable plant species along with a fair number of native insects and other critters that fail to escape the flames.

deer browse lineMany restorationists likewise understand that excess populations of native white-tailed deer must be killed in order to restore the health our woodlands. Drive by most forest preserves in Northeastern Illinois and you’ll see a distinct browse line, with deer having consumed virtually everything on the ground and on trees up to a height of about five feet. At Midewin, nine-foot chain link fences now surround the native plant seed beds to keep out deer that previously mowed through the beds like a plague of locusts. However, few restorationists actually take up a gun and do the deer killing themselves. But that often doesn’t stop them from looking down their noses at the hunters they rely upon to do the dirty work for them.

Of course, the hunting community is hardly short of individuals who return the favor by disparaging the entire environmental community as a bunch of “tree huggers” and “Bambi lovers.”

I didn’t have to attend hunter safety training in order to apply for a hunting license in the State of Illinois. Anyone born before 1984 is exempt. However, never having hunted before, it seemed to me the common sense thing to do, just as last fall I had enrolled in a course to be certified to assist with conducting controlled burns.

In truth, there was a significant degree in common between the two training courses. Both of them lasted about the same amount of time over two days. More importantly, both emphasized safety, safety, safety. Hunting and burning are activities that can have beneficial effects, but both involve no small amount of risk. To property. To human life.

For this reason, hunting and burning also share in common a fair amount of opposition. In part because some fundamentally oppose them, no matter their positive effects. Or for moral and ethical reasons. Or because they don’t understand the why’s and wherefore’s of each.

I’ve never hunted in my life. Never had the least desire to do so. The closest I’ve come is holding a trapped squirrel over a big bucket of water to drown it. Over the years, I’ve trapped a hundred or more squirrels in my backyard and transported them to various forest preserves. The main reason I do so is to keep squirrels from taking up residence in my attic as they have done on several occasions, repeatedly chewing through the wood soffits on my historic home. On one occasion, a squirrel some how got into my house while I was out of town and tried to get out by chewing through the sashes of my newly-installed historic replication windows. In the end, I couldn’t bring myself to drown even a squirrel that caused significant damage to my home. So it will be interesting to see if I can pull the trigger on a deer that causes significant damage to a treasured natural area.

The two-day hunting safety course was good. In addition to firearm safety, a great deal of emphasis was placed on being a responsible and ethical hunter. Quoting Aldo Leopold, “the father of wildlife management,” the instruction manual stressed “ethical behavior is doing the right thing when no one else is watching – even when doing the wrong thing is legal.” Doing the right thing includes respecting natural resources, landowners, hunters and non-hunters alike. It includes obeying the law, exercising good judgment, safe judgment. It includes the concept of “fair chase,” a concept first purportedly developed in the Middle Ages and formalized in this country by the Boone and Crockett Club (founded by the conservation president Teddy Roosevelt) and woven into the laws of many states.

For all the information about doing the right thing ethically, there ran through the comments and conversations of the 60 or so people taking the course, and even occasionally among the instructors, a polite but pointed undertone of “us” against “them:” we need to do the right thing because “environmentalists” want to take away our sport; the government wants to take away our rights. Or, as one camo-clad dad of two young kids preparing for their first hunt chimed in unapologetically, “Democrats suck.”

hunter safety card

When I explained to a few folks why I was taking the course, they appreciated that someone from the “other side” would bother to walk in their shoes (or Gore-Tex hunting boots) for a change. “No one understands nature better than a hunter” was a common refrain. Come next November, I’ll see for myself. Between now and then, however, as I learned from the course, I’ve got a lot of practicing with a firearm to do so I can go into the field confident, prepared, safe and responsible.

A Thorny Issue

It’s another cold morning with a sharp wind out of the west. But once you get lopping, you’re plenty warm. Hewing down Osage orange shrubs is rather like tangling with an octopus crossed with a mad cat. Each of several long arms is littered with sharp thorns, whose scratches feel particularly delightful on chapped cheeks. Even more fun are the Osage oranges intertwined with multiflora rose. Double the prickles (the correct, if silly-sounding scientific name for thorns.) Double the fun.

For a change, we’re working on the east side of Midewin today. Since Midewin was established in 1996, most of the restoration work has been concentrated on the west side of Route 53 – the former Route 66 – which divides the 20,000-acre site roughly in half. Over the years, I’ve spent many an hour cutting brush, pulling garlic mustard, planting seedlings, even damming up a troublesome culvert in the six west side restoration areas: South Patrol Road Prairie, Drummond Prairie, Blodgett Road Prairie, Grant Creek and Little Grant Creek Prairies, Prairie Creek Woods, and a prairie area located directly opposite of Midewin’s welcome center.

On the east side, there are only three restoration areas: Doyle Lake and Iron Bridge Prairies and a small patch around the welcome sign. All told, across both the east and west sides, there are about 2,000 acres under active restoration. That leaves about 18,000 acres – or 90 percent of Midewin – awaiting restoration. But that doesn’t mean that the land lies fallow or unmanaged.

Today, for instance, we’re cutting brush along an abandoned rail line in the middle of a cow pasture. At least that’s the way it might look to some. Actually, what we’re doing is more accurately described as helping to protect some of the most endangered birds in the world.

midewin logo

As farmers plowed the vast Illinois prairie into one big farm, many grassland birds adapted to life in soy bean fields and hay pastures. But as farm fields have given way to more and more subdivisions and shopping malls, many species of grassland birds have found themselves on the threatened and endangered list. The eastern meadowlark, for instance, a common grassland bird that graces the logo of Midewin, has declined by 72 percent over the past 40 years. As a New York Times editorial pointed out, “this is not extinction, but it is how things look before extinction happens.”

Until such time as more of Midewin can be reclaimed as prairie, modern-day cattle play the historic role of bison, keeping the land free of weedy vegetation. Keeping volunteers and staff on lopper patrol along former arsenal-era rail lines helps keep invasive trees and shrubs at bay, allowing for the wide open habitat that grassland birds require. (Trees and shrubs tend to harbor predators that prey upon grassland bird nests, which are on the ground.)

meadowlarkSo, yes, it’s cold, hard work. And I’m sure to be picking some imbedded prickle tips out of my legs when I get home. But it’s worth it. Beyond my modest membership contributions to conservation organizations, I can’t directly save the rainforests where birds spend the winter, or protect critical “layover” habitat along the thousands of miles of their migration routes. But what I can do is spend an occasional winter morning cutting brush to ensure that critically-imperiled grassland birds have a home here. To feed. To breed. To raise their young. And to return after year to fill our skies with song.

The Need for Seed

When Midewin was established in 1996, less than three percent of its 20,000 acres remained in native vegetation. Re-establishing prairies and wetlands on such a vast scale requires an initial 10 to 25 pounds of native seed per acre, depending on the kind of habitat. That’s a lot of seed, especially considering that there are limited sources for a limited number of native plant species.

Today’s volunteer stewardship day was all about cleaning seed, seed that had been harvested from Midewin seed beds, natural area remnants, or other approved natural area sites. Since it had been about a year since last I ran the seed cleaning machines, Jennifer, Midewin botanist, gave me quick review of the two machines I’d be running. The first was a brush machine. Think twin rows of soft scrub brushes revolving within a hard mesh drum. It’s good a good first-step instrument for breaking down the likes of smooth white lettuce.

smooth white lettuceSmooth white lettuce (Prenathes racemosa) is not threatened or endangered in Illinois, but it is uncommon enough that it is not listed in any of my native wildflower guides. Nor does it appear in the on-line database www.illinoiswildflowers.info. I’ve never seen this plant in the wild, but according to a 1914 manual about weeds, it is a native prairie plant – “of very stately appearance, with a stout stalk, two to six feet or more in height” with dense clusters of pale purple florets.

Once dried, those florets first need to be separated from the stalks. Into the top of the brush machine they go, like raw meat into a meat grinder. A revolving metal blade first breaks up the stalks, then the revolving brushes dislodge and break up the florets against the side of the hard mesh drum. One output contains mostly broken stems. The other output contains a mix of chaff and seed.

The seed is brown, slender and less than half a centimeter in length. It is attached to a straw-colored pappus – think funnel-shaped dandelion fluff. One could remove each pappus by hand, rather like nipping the end off a miniature cocktail umbrella. Or more efficiently turn to another cleaning machine to tackle the job en masse. The second machine uses a combination of mechanized sifting, aspiration and gravity. The chaff/seed mix gets sprinkled on a top screen that shimmies back and forth, allowing the seed to drop down to a second, finer-grade shimmying screen. From there, remaining heavier chaff is sifted to away and lighter chaff is siphoned off by a gentle vacuum, allowing cleaned seed to drop into a bin at the very bottom of the machine.

seedIt can take a couple of runs through this machine and trying different grade screens to achieve the desired goal of a “clean” batch of seed. Even then, the seed must be viewed under a microscope to ensure that it is viable, meaning that it is capable of germinating. The last time I looked at anything under a microscope was in high school biology class. If memory serves (high school was a long time ago) I wasn’t much impressed by what whatever magnified algae or frog part I was looking at. Some 30-plus years later, I was enthralled by the beauty and complexity of a tiny seed. What looked like a nondescript splinter in a petri dish became a cocoa brown torpedo deeply scored with vertical lines along its entire length. It took a while to master the tweezer point that became a 2 x 4 under the microscope, but I eventually managed to scrape away a bit of seed husk to reveal the “meat” of the seed beneath. This compared favorably to my microscopic examination of seed from various chaff outputs. To the naked eye, this seed looked no different than any other, but under the microscope it was clear that the “meat” was gone, leaving nothing but shattered husks.

From start to finish, it took about three hours to clean two small batches of stalks, resulting in a grand total of maybe five teaspoons of viable seed. If this sounds tedious, crazy, not worth the trouble, well, truth is it’s fun. As someone who makes his living largely sitting behind a computer, it’s fun learning how to operate machinery. I’m not without experience when it comes to working with my hands (I’ve rehabbed two historic homes), but in learning the various steps involved to operate the brush cleaner, for instance, a part of me felt a little bit like Cliff Robertson in the 1968 film Charley being challenged to operate the bread making machine. (That is, after he started receiving the experimental treatments to improve his intelligence.) Install correct mesh drum. Install correct brush set. Set brushes to proper contact with mesh drum. Attach top cover. Attach end plate. Bolt it in place. Attach vacuum hose. Set level of air flow. Set level of output for door one. Put on protective eyeware. Put on dust mask. Turn on machine. Insert stalks one at a time in input. Check outputs. Make any necessary adjustments. Repeat entire process if necessary.

It’s fun to listen to the hum of well-oiled machines, an echo of the many, many machines that once hummed ‘round the clock at the former Joliet Arsenal, churning out a billion pounds of TNT and nearly a million bombs, mines, shells, detonators, fuzes and boosters.

It’s fun to be entrusted with an important step in the return of an uncommon plant species to the wilds of Midewin. Perhaps most fun of all is the cultivation of patience, for it well may be a few years before the descendants of the seed I cleaned blossom on the prairie. The next step for my smooth white lettuce seeds is to propagate them indoors, with the ensuing seedlings to be planted in Midewin’s seed beds. It may take a couple of years before enough plants are established well enough to generate a sufficient amount of seed, which, in turn, would still need to be collected, cleaned and only then used to seed wet prairie restoration areas at Midewin.

Tracking Leopold

After a morning of seed cleaning followed by a quick lunch in nearby Wilmington, it’s treat time. Since my last walk at South Patrol Road Prairie, there have been a few inches of fresh snowfall. This affords me the opportunity to walk in the footsteps of Aldo Leopold. In “January Thaw,” the first sketch in A Sand County Almanac – the bible, for many preservationists – he describes the joy of following the tracks of various animals in the snow. “January observation can be almost as simple and peaceful as snow, and almost as continuous as cold. There is time not only to see who has done what, but to speculate why.”

And cold it certainly is today, with temperatures in the upper teens and a sharp wind out of the west. The thick skies threaten more snow. The upside of such harsh weather is that there is not another human being to be seen. Not so much, even, as a booted footprint other than my own.

110207 hedgerow 2

There are plenty of other signs of life, however, along a work road that leads into the heart of the largest restoration are at Midewin. Wide enough to accommodate the heavy equipment that’s lately been used to remove more miles of hedgerows, the snow-covered road lies before me like a book. Criss-crossing the road are mounded, sub-snow tunnels of prairie voles. In healthy environments, there may be as many as several hundred voles per acre. Judging by the number of tunnels, or “runways” as ecologists call them, this prairie restoration looks to be well on its way toward a healthy condition – not a bad accomplishment considering it was fallow farm field a decade ago. Since then, the USDA Forest Service, working in partnership with a number of nonprofit partners including The Wetlands Initiative and Corlands, has spent several years removing miles of drainage tiles, filled drainage ditches, leveled a railroad berm and recontoured a landscape that had been in agricultural production for generations. More than 100,000 prairie “plugs” have been planted, including wild onion which I helped plant by hand last year.

The ensuing patchwork quilt of prairie and wetland communities has provided a good home for our native voles. And our native mice, judging by the similar number of tracks upon the surface of the snow. And while they might be the bane of farmers and homeowners – Google “vole” and most of the front-loaded entries have to do with exterminating them – these native critters are a vital part of the prairie food chain, evidenced by a set of coyote prints. In sharp contrast to the random windings of the vole runways and mice tracks, the coyote prints run in a measured, straight line until they erupt in a concentrated flurry. Over the course of a mile, I come across a dozen such skirmish sites, which makes the road seem more like a buffet line.

northern harrier

And coyotes aren’t the only ones partaking of this mid-winter smorgasbord. Here and there are little splashes of dirt and snow, evidence of some hawk, or what Leopold called “feathered bombs,” dropping out of the sky for a meal. There are several species of hawks that remain year-round at Midewin, but the likely culprits in this treeless, 450-acre expanse are northern harriers. Unlike red-tailed hawks, which typically hunt from the perimeters of such open areas – they prefer elevated perches, such as trees, from which to swoop down and seize prey – northern harriers hunt by gliding slowly above open grasslands. They fly low, relying as much upon sound as sight.

And what a sight they are today, with nearly a dozen on the hunt – more than I’ve seen anywhere else. Another strong indication that this prairie recovery is working. Northern harriers are endangered in Illinois, a victim first of disappearing prairie and wetlands, and more recently of open farm fields giving way to suburban housing developments.

A little further down the path lies what’s left of one of those hedgerows that had to go so that harriers and other grassland-dependent birds could return. Where just a couple of months ago there was an impenetrable tangle of Osage orange trees, Japanese honeysuckle and multi-flora rose – non-native species all – there now remains nothing but a small mountain of mulch. Oh, and a couple dozen stacked trunks of cottonwood trees. The cut trees provide the opportunity to inhabit yet another sketch in A Sand County Almanac. It’s not yet February, I’m not here to saw the trees into firewood, and cottonwood is certainly not “Good Oak,” but I can count tree rings. I can surmise, as did Leopold with his fallen oak, how these cottonwoods came to grow here and use the tree rings as a timeline to chart the changes to the landscape over their lifetimes.

In truth, it’s tough to count tree rings in the soft wood of cottonwood trees, the saw blades having left obscuring scars. But as far as I can tell, most are roughly the same diameter and the most readable examples average 66 rings. That dates them to 1945, five years after the federal government acquired 36,345 acres of farmland to establish the Elwood Ordnance Plant and the Kankakee Ordnance Works, which came to be known collectively as the Joliet Army Ammunition Plant.

The cottonwoods in this hedgerow were likely “volunteers,” with the purposefully planted Osage orange providing a suitable nursery to catch wind-blown seed and harbor seedlings. Before the army took over, farmers likely would have kept the cottonwoods at bay so they didn’t shade or divert water from cropland. During the arsenal years, the army likely let the hedgerows run wild, with adjacent land largely used for the pasturing of cattle, which would have benefited from the shade of tall trees.

As much as I’d love to take an historical sleuthing through all of the tree rings as Leopold did, that biting wind and the start of a stinging snow makes me think better of it. For now.

Restoring a Bedside Table-Worth of Prairie

A light dusting of snow is falling as I leave the house at 8 a.m. Traffic is light, but the skies thicken as I head southwest from Chicago. Within a mile of Midewin, the light dusting turns into a near squall, with big, fat flakes coming down fast and furious in a swirling wind.

010127 bunker 1

But that doesn’t keep 14 volunteers from heading out to cut brush. We caravan to a sight immediately west of where I did my grassland bird monitoring last year – part of a 350-acre parcel that includes a former bunker field. Throughout Midewin, there are several bunker fields. Built of reinforced concrete and covered with mounded earth, the Quonset hut-like structures – also know as “igloos” – were used to cure TNT or store munitions during the Joliet arsenal years. Today, the constant temperatures within the bunkers make them ideal for overwintering native prairie plant seedlings. But in the swirling snow, it would take little imagination to see them as Hobbit hollows if only a little wood smoke escaped from their vent stacks.

Until such time as the bunker field can be returned to prairie, it has been regularly mowed to keep invasive plant species at bay. Soon, the entire site will be herbicided to kill off all of the non-native weeds and grasses, providing a clean slate for prairie plugs and seeds. However, here and there are a few pockets where rare native prairie species have hung on in spite of all the changes to the landscape over the years. To protect these rare species, such pockets will not be blanket herbicided. Rather, it’s our job today to cut invasive brush by hand and then dab each cut stump with herbicide that kills only the intended target.

And so we get to work on multiflora rose, autumn olive and some kind of willow. Left untended, these non-native invasives will form thickets that crowd out native species. Fortunately, other work crews have done the heavy lifting before us. What’s left for us to do is nip sprouts that have sprung from seed or resprouts from insufficiently treated stumps. Pencil-thin, the sprouts and resprouts are easily snipped using hand pruning shears. For the occasional thicker stems, a pair of loppers makes short work. We snip and lop in teams, with one or two cutters trailed by a state-certified herbicide applicator, who “paints” each six-inch stem with garlon dyed a deep blue so it’s easy to see what’s been treated.

sullivants coneflower

Without an application of herbicide, invasives will only resprout, often more vigorously than before, crowding out such rare prairie gems as Sullivant’s coneflower (Rudbeckiafulgida var. sullivantii.) Found in just a few counties in Illinois, this native forb – a flowering plant that dies down to the ground over winter – is one of several varieties of coneflower. In the dead of winter, it’s merely a branched stem of spent seed heads. But come next August, it will burst forth with deep yellow flowers to rival those of black-eyes Susans; a species with which it is often confused. In a conservation assessment for Sullivant’s coneflower published in 2004, Midewin’s horticulturist, Eric Ulaszek, identified several remnant populations on site, including its occasional colonization of bunker fields such as the one we’re working in this morning.

In brief, our goal in cutting brush is to help native prairie species such as Sullivant’s coneflower successfully compete. Prior to human settlement, naturally-occurring fires largely kept competition from woody species – trees and shrubs – from overrunning the prairie landscape. Once humans suppressed fire, trees and shrubs crept across the landscape almost as aggressively as the farmer’s plow. And if that one-two combination wasn’t enough, the introduction of fast-growing non-native species all but killed off the prairie. A survey conducted in the late 1970s revealed that seven-hundredths of one percent of quality native prairie remained anywhere in Illinois.

cw report card

As I pointed out in The State of our Chicago Wilderness: a Report Card on the Health of the Region’s Ecosystems (http://www.chicagowilderness.org/pdf/cw_report_card_summary.pdf), to get a sense of how little that is imagine a 2,500 square-foot home. Seven-hundredths of one percent equals 1.75 square feet – about the footprint of a small bedside table. Now imagine that table broken up into hundreds of smaller pieces and scattered throughout the house. That’s about the state of our prairie in the Prairie State.

Once Midewin’s 20,000 acres are restored – and it’s going to take many years to undo the changes wrought over the past century and a half – they will constitute nearly enough prairie to equal that bedside table – all in one place – in a 2,500 square-foot home.