Illinois Department of Natural Resources

PRAIRIE RIDGE STATE NATURAL AREA
4295 North 1000th Street
Newton, IL 62448
618-783-2685

E-mail: scott.simpson@illinois.gov

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Site Objectives | History | Wildlife | Vegetation | Partnerships | Facilities | Directions | Site Maps | Professional and Reviewed Publications | Prairie Chicken Viewing | Photo Gallery |

PRAIRIE RIDGE STATE NATURAL AREA

Prairie Ridge State Natural Area is one of the best sites in Illinois for observing rare species of grassland wildlife. Whether your interests are bird watching, nature study, photography, or simply enjoying the prairie vistas, Prairie Ridge SNA is a great place to visit.

The core site for the Prairie Ridge State Natural Area (PRSNA) was acquired in the early 1960's following the drastic decline of the greater prairie-chicken due to habitat loss. This 4101 acre state natural area provides grassland and wetland habitat for 36 species of special concern, including 16 state endangered, eight state threatened, five watch list, and six area sensitive species. It is the only large grassland habitat complex in the entire Southern Till Plain Natural Division of Illinois.

Prairie Ridge is unique in that, while the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) manages the entire 3,500 acres, nearly 200 acres remains under ownership of the Illinois Audubon Society and has been developed as grassland/wetland habitat and an environmental education area. About 200 acres owned by AmerenCIPS adjacent to nearby Newton Lake State Fish and Wildlife Area have been placed by the company under management of IDNR. Of the land IDNR owns, 567 acres are dedicated nature preserves and 2814 acres are registered as land and water reserves.

Management of this area includes the development of grassland plant communities of introduced grasses and native prairie species. Wetland communities have been constructed to provide habitat for 15 state threatened and endangered wetland dependent species. The site contains a mosaic of habitat types including cool season grasses, restored native grasses, wetlands, native remnant prairies, habitats prepared by annual discing for brood-rearing of prairie-chickens and other birds, woodlands/old fields, cropland being converted into grassland, and miscellaneous areas such as buildings sites and waterways.

Prairie Ridge has the distinction of having the state's largest breeding population of northern harriers, short-eared owls as well as the only population of greater prairie-chickens - all of which are state endangered grassland birds.

Swallowtail on Liatus

Short Eared Owl

Barn Owl 

In 1995, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service identified 17 birds dependent on grasslands or wetlands associated with grasslands in a region that includes Illinois and seven other Midwestern states as species of special management concern. This status is due to: 1) documented or apparent population declines; 2) small or restricted populations, and/or 3) dependence on restricted or venerable habitats. Fifteen of those 17 species occur at Prairie Ridge and 12 are known to breed at this site, giving regional importance to this grassland habitat complex. (see below)

Status

a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service species of Special Management Concern in the Midwest, 1995;
b Population trends estimated form Breeding Bird Survey data and surveys for endangered species.
* Not considered because non-migratory.

Species USFWSa Illinois Estimated Population Trend in Illinois, 1967-1997b

Northern Harrier

SMC

Endangered

too rare

Greater Prairie Chicken

0

Endangered

-80%

Upland Sandpiper

SMC

Endangered

-20%

Short-eared Owl

SMC

Endangered

too rare

Loggerhead Shrike

SMC

 

-90%

Dickcissel

SMC

 

-70%

Field Sparrow

SMC

 

-65%

Grasshopper Sparrow

SMC

 

-85%

Henslow’s Sparrow

SMC

Endangered

too rare

Eastern Meadowlark

SMC

 

-65%

Site Objectives

The main objective at Prairie Ridge is development of a grassland ecosystem capable of maintaining viable populations of grassland species, including permanent resident and migratory species, with emphasis on threatened and endangered species. Secondary goals includes the development of a prairie preserve characteristic of the presettlement flora of the Southern Till Plain Natural Division of Illinois and providing opportunities for ecological research, education and wildlife viewing.

History

In all of modern America, there is no more lost, plaintive, old-time sound than the booming of a native prairie-chicken, wrote John Madson in his tribute to tallgrass prairie, Where the Sky Began. "Booming" is the sound male prairie-chickens produce during their communal courtship display on a lek or booming ground. The males inflate their orange air sacs (tympani), erect their black neck feathers (pinnae), stomp their feet and emit the three noted booming sound, 'who-OOM-oom.' The sound has been likened to blowing over the mouth of an empty jug and can be heard up to a mile away. This annual ritual was nearly eliminated from the Prairie State.

The greater prairie-chicken, a grouse native to Illinois, was listed as common to abundant prior to European settlement. Prairie-chickens occurred on the 21 million acres of native prairie that existed in Illinois; about 60 percent of the state's total area. Peak prairie- chicken numbers of 10 - 14 million birds probably occurred from about 1850 - 1860 at the time when there was a patchwork of prairies interspersed with grain fields, creating optimum habitat for prairie-chickens. By 1900, only about 1 million acres of the original prairie and marsh remained in Illinois. Prairie-chickens still existed in 92 counties by 1912. The prairie-chicken hunting season was permanently closed in 1933 when there was an estimated state-wide population of 25,000 birds. Agriculture intensified and by 1940 the range of the prairie-chicken was limited to 50 square miles of sand prairie along the Green River in Lee County, about 2600 square miles of “gray prairie” (so-called for the lighter soils than the “black prairie” of northern and central Illinois) in southeastern Illinois, and a few poorly drained areas of the Kankakee drainage. At this time, the need for publicly owned refuges was stressed and two were purchased; the Green River Conservation Area in 1939 and the Iroquois County Conservation Area in 1944. Unfortunately, prairie-chickens disappeared form both areas by 1960.

The gray prairie soils of Southeastern Illinois were poorly drained, acidic and low in productivity. The chief crop was redtop grass which was grown principally for seed. By the early 1900's, redtop seed was an important money crop in southeastern Illinois, an area which maintained the title "Redtop Capitol of the World"until after WWII. In 1934 about 85% of the world production and 95% of the U.S production of redtop grass seed were grown in southeastern Illinois. Redtop grown for seed production provided nesting cover for prairie-chickens and was responsible for maintaining prairie-chicken populations in this region of the state. After WWII, redtop farming was being phased out in favor of grain farming, due to the use of agriculture limestones and fertilizers. Yet, various federal farm programs continued to provide critical nest cover in the 1960's. A census of prairie-chicken flocks in a 20-county area in southern Illinois in 1962 revealed 179 flocks containing approximately 2000 birds. A survey of prairie-chickens by the Illinois Department of Conservation in 1959 and 1962 led to the selection of the management areas in Jasper and Marion counties.

In response to the drastic decline of the prairie-chickens due to the loss of grasslands, the Prairie-Chicken Foundation of Illinois was organized in 1959 with the single purpose of preserving the prairie-chicken in Illinois. In 1961 the first sanctuary of 77 acres was acquired in Jasper County. Between 1961 and 2003 in Jasper County, 12 tracts totaling 2346 acres were developed as grasslands in Jasper County, mostly by private groups and individuals working in cooperation with the Prairie-Chicken Foundation of Illinois, The Illinois Audubon Society, The Nature Conservancy, the Illinois Natural History Survey, the IDNR and AmerenCIPS. In Marion County, seven tracts totaling 1207.5 acres were purchased between 1967 and 2001 for prairie-chicken management. These grasslands currently support the last remaining Illinois prairie-chicken populations.

Wildlife

Prairie Ridge State Natural Area not only prevented the extinction of the prairie-chicken in Illinois but also provides critical grassland habitat for 15 other state endangered and eight threatened grassland species. Nine threatened or endangered bird species are know to breed at Prairie Ridge. Northern harriers, short-eared owls, upland sandpipers, Henslow’s sparrows, loggerhead shrikes are some of the rare birds regularly found at this site. Barn owls have been found to nest here occasionally. Prairie Ridge hosts a diversity and abundance of other grassland birds such as dickcissels, eastern meadowlark, grasshopper sparrows, savannah sparrows and Bell’s vireos. About 250 bird species have been recorded at Prairie Ridge.

Several wetlands have been developed to attract species requiring open prairie marshes. King rails, least bitterns and American bitterns have been documented to nest near these wetlands. Yellow rails are seen each year during migration. Many species of waterfowl use these wetlands during migration while mallards and blue wing teal nest here. On spring evenings, the calls of amphibians resonate from the marshes, including the unique call of Northern crayfish frogs.

Numerous prairie insects occur on tracts with native prairie vegetation. Of these prairie insects, there are several which have rare or restricted occurrence in Illinois. The most notable is the prairie cicada, which is perhaps the rarest large insect in Illinois. Another interesting find was made in 1995, when researchers discovered a previously undescribed species of leaf hopper.

Visitors may encounter various mammals such as cottontail rabbits, coyotes, deer, mink and muskrats. Large wintering concentrations of raptors are common at this site due to high densities of small mammals such as southern bog lemmings, prairie and meadow voles, and deer mice.

Vegetation

Government Land Office Survey notes of 1820 indicate that 87% of the site that is now Prairie Ridge was dominated by prairie, with the balance in forest. Following European settlement of Jasper and Marion counties, these prairie areas were converted to agriculture. The Walters’ Prairie (Jasper County) was cropped until the mid 1950's and since that time has remained fallow, allowing for colonization by native prairie species. About 178 native plant species have recolonized these former crop fields. The Soldner tract (Marion County) also has a five-acre prairie remnant with many native prairie plants. Lead plant, compass plant, blazing stars and a few species of orchids can be found growing on these prairies. Throughout Prairie Ridge1000 acres have been restored to native prairie vegetation.

Also, Twelve-Mile Prairie, a railroad remnant prairie which boasts 472 species of native plants, is adjacent to the Marion County area. The remainder of the grasslands on this site were seeded into cool season grasses such as redtop, timothy and brome to mimic the redtop seed production era which maintained the prairie-chicken for many years.

Partnerships

The Prairie Chicken Foundation of Illinois (PCFI) was organized in 1959 by the Department of Conservation, Illinois Natural History Survey, Illinois Audubon Society, Izaak Walton League, Federation of Sportsman’s Clubs and The Nature Conservancy (TNC) with a single purpose: preserving the prairie chicken in Illinois. The PCFI purchased five tracts totaling 297 acres between 1962 and 1967 in Jasper County. In 1965 the Illinois Chapter - The Nature Conservancy formed a special Prairie Grouse Committee (PGC) to raise additional funds for land acquisition for prairie chickens. The PCFI was disbanded in 1973 and it’s assets were transferred to the PGC. The Illinois Chapter of the Nature Conservancy was active for many years at Prairie Ridge State Natural Area serving to pre-acquire land for the Department of Natural Resources. TNC maintained ownership on nearly 1200 acres until 2000 when their land holdings were sold to the Department of Natural Resources. TNC now lists Prairie Ridge as a Priority Site for their Eco-Regional Planning Process. Since 1999, the Illinois Audubon Society (IAS) has become very active at Prairie Ridge State Natural Area and has purchased nearly 700 acres, of which 160 acres remains under their ownership. The IAS in cooperation with IDNR , developed their land holdings as additional grassland/wetland habitat and also developed an environmental educational area. The IAS remains active at Prairie Ridge to assist with acquiring additional habitat for grassland wildlife and securing grants for numerous management and educational projects.

The Illinois Natural History Survey, Illinois Nature Preservers Commission and Illinois Endangered Species Board remain active in providing management recommendations at Prairie Ridge. Most recently these agencies in cooperation with IDNR have developed a Plan for the Recovery of the Prairie Chicken in Illinois. The Jasper and Marion County Soil and Water Conservation Districts have been actively pursuing Conservation 2000 grants to provide additional grassland habitat on private land through Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) Incentive Payments. Eastern Illinois University and the University of Illinois have been involved in numerous wildlife research projects at Prairie Ridge.

Facilities

Prairie Ridge State Natural Area is a unique site in Illinois, dedicated to conserving the rarest members of Illinois’ native tallgrass prairie and marsh communities. It offers one of the most spectacular viewing opportunities for grassland wildlife in Illinois. The number of endangered species found at PRSNA is very high, and great care is taken to ensure the continued protection and presence of these species. As a result access to the interior portions of this site is restricted and wildlife viewing is limited to roadsides. Roadside viewing is often excellent for prairie-chickens, loggerhead shrikes, northern harriers, short-eared owls and dickcissels. A wildlife viewing guide and check list of birds are available upon request. By arrangement, groups and individuals can be given a tour of the site by site staff. The Illinois Audubon Society’s environmental educational area, known as the Robert Ridgway Grassland Nature Preserve, is open on an daily basis for wildlife viewing and hiking. This area has been restored to prairie and has a self guided interpretive trail and a wildlife viewing platform over looking a wetland surrounded by native prairie plants.

The acquisition and establishment of Prairie Ridge State Natural Area were due to successful cooperation between private, governmental and commercial groups working together to protect a unique natural resource. Scientific and educational use of the area is allowed by permit, issued by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. Hunting, trapping and fishing are not allowed at this site. For more information about the area, contact Site Manager, Prairie Ridge State Natural Area, 4295 North 1000th Street, Newton, IL 62448 (618) 783-2685 or the Illinois Audubon Society, P.O. Box 2547, Springfield, IL 62708 (217) 544-2473 or www.illinoisaudubon.org

Directions

Office

Driving east from Effingham or west from Newton on State Highway 33 turn south on Bogota Road (990 N 900E) and go 4 miles to first curve in road. Go straight off curve to crossroads (600N 900E), turn left (east) for 1 mile or first crossroad (600N 1000E) then turn right (south) and go 1 3/4 miles to white house with wire fence.

From State Highway 130: Turn west at St. Marie road (600N 1390E) and go 4 miles to (600N 1000E) and turn south (left) and go 1 3/4 miles to white house with wire fence.

Robert Ridgway Grasslands Nature Preserve

From Prairie Ridge's Office continue south to first crossroads (400N 1000E) and turn left (east) and travel 0.6 miles to parking lot.

Prairie Chicken Viewing:

The best booming ground for viewing is behind the office complex. The best viewing is from ½ hour before sunrise, to 1 hour after on a calm day from late March to 15 April. The birds are approximately 300 yards from the office yard, so bring a spotting scope and tripod. Park in the office drive, climb over gate (or pull in if open) and walk to the northwest corner (directly behind office) of fenced office facility. Stand behind plywood fixed on fence and view northwest and birds will be on tilled area. Please stay behind fence or the birds will flush. Blind viewing is by reservation only.

Site Maps (pdf)

Jasper County

Marion County

 

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