The Area at a Glance
Found within the Vermilion River basin is the first prairie restoration nature preserve, the first river nature preserve, the first park reclaimed from strip-mined land and Illinois' only National Wild and Scenic River.
The Illinois portion of the Vermilion River basin is found along the Illinois/Indiana border and includes both the Vermilion and Little Vermilion river systems. The basin encompasses most of Vermilion County and portions of Champaign, Ford, Iroquois, Livingston, and Edgar counties.
The area's land surface is a flat, hummocky plain broken only by low morainal ridges. Valleys and ravines have been carved by the Vermilion River and its tributaries, some 50 to 100 feet deep, with sides so precipitous that little or no vegetation is found on them.
Unusual features of the Vermilion basin include calcareous seep' springs, tulip trees growing in the beech-maple forests of the ravines and adjacent uplands, oak savannas, and the occasional hill prairies on west-facing blufftops.
Today, cropland is the principal land cover in the area, representing 76.7% of the total surface area.
Only 4.3% (41,273 acres) of the area is composed of forest and woodland cover, most of which is concentrated on the steeper sideslopes of the Middle Fork, Salt Fork, and North Fork tributaries.
Wetlands cover only 1.0% (9,438 acres) of the total surface of the area, compared with 3.5% of the total area of the state. The paucity of wetland habitat attests to the extensive cultivation of the area.
Eight streams in the Vermilion River basin are recognized as Biologically Significant because they support threatened or endangered species or have high mussel and fish diversity. These segments, some of which include the entire stream, cover 190.97 miles.
The Middle Fork is Illinois' only National Wild and Scenic River, a designation based on its outstanding scenic, ecological, recreational, and historical characteristics.
Portions of two subbasins, the Middle Fork and the lower subbasin of the Vermilion River, have been designated "Resource Rich" areas because they contain significant natural community diversity.
Two geological time periods are well-represented here, the Pennsylvanian [the age of coal) and the Quaternary [the age of glaciers). The bedrock strata that immediately underlie most of the surficial materials in the Vermilion River area are Pennsylvanian in age, while the landscape features of the area result from the multiple glacial advances across the region. The glaciers left moraines, terraces, kames, an entrenched meander, and sand dunes.
East of Rossville is an area of sand that has been blown into dunes. Sand dunes in the middle of a field might at first glance appear odd, but these are the result of glacial ice. They were caused when the valey of the North Fork filled in with outwash from a melting glacier or with valley train deposits (outwash that has been deposited in a stream valley) from the draining of ancient lake Watseka.
The archaeological database indicates that the region was continuously occupied for the last 12,000 yeors. A total of 913 archaeological sites have been recorded here. In the sites discovered so far two periods dominate: Woodland (1000 B.C-300 AD.) and Mississippian (900 A.D.).
A cluster of Late Woodland settlements and a platform mound covering more than 42 acres (the Collins Site) is situated on a Middle Fork River terrace remnant. It has been identified as a major Late Woodland and Mississippian ceremonial complex and is on the National Register of Historic Places.
The salt works were the nucleus of Vermilion County's First settlements. The first permanent settlement was established at Butler's Point, west of Catlin, in 1821.
In terms of both employment and earnings, the economy of Vermilion County has declined. For the past 25 years employment has fallen an average of 0.2% annually, while statewide it has grown 1.2%.
Vermilion County has 87% of its land in agriculture and ranks sixth in the state in the amount of cropland. Corn and soybeans dominate with Vermilion County ranking in the top ten statewide in the production of both.
Almost one percent (0.66%1 of the Vermilion area has been set aside as state parks, fish and wildlife areas, and forest preserves. County parks total over 8,200 acres while state lands include one state park (2,850 acres) and one fish and wildlife area (4,220 acres). Eleven sites totaling 522 acres are dedicated as Illinois Nature Preserves.
Kickapoo State Park, located west of Danville, was the first park in the nation to be built on strip-mined land.
Around 1820, about 85% of the Vermilion River area was prairie and 15% was forest/savanna. The total area of presettlement wetlands was belween 42-45%; the majority of these lands were prairie potholes and wet prairie.
Within the entire Vermilion River area, only 185.1 acres, 0.019% ,remain in an undegraded, high-quality, ecological condition. Habitat loss for prairie and we and have exceeded the rates for the state as a whole, while forest habitat loss has occurred at the same rate.
Three remnants of high quality prairie total 8.6 acres, 0.001% of the basin.
Of the original system of timber belts that followed the Vermilion and its tributaries, 5.2% (49,278 acres) remain. One hundred and twentyfour acres of high quality mesic upland forest remain, 11.7% of the statewide total.
One percent (9,438 acres) of the area is wetlands, but only 15 acres are high quality and undegraded. These 15 acres occur as seeps, wetland communities characterized by a constant diffuse Row of ground water. One of these is a calcareous (alkaline) seep and is home ta Wolf's bluegrass, an endangered species.
A plant community not normally found is the eroding bluff community, a vertical exposure of eroded material, such as glacial drift, maintained by the erosive action of streams. Four and a half acres of this community, representing 15% of the undegraded eroding bluff community in Illinois, are associated with the Salt Fork.
Twenty-eight percent of the state's flora [908 taxa] grow in the Vermilion River area. Four state-threatened [fibrous-rooted sedge, drooping sedge, W,lldenow's sedge, and false hellebore] and two state-endangered plants (Wolf's bluegrass and queen of the prairie) are found here.
At least 270 bird species regularly occur in the basin, 90% of the 300 bird species known to occur In Illinois. Of these, 140 breed or formerly bred here. Currently four stateendangered species [northern harrier, upland sandpiper, short-eared owl, and Henslow's sparrow] and five state-threatened species [pied-billed grebe, least bittern, red-shouldered hawk, brown creeper, and loggerhead shrike) breed here.
The wild turkey, once extirpated, has been successfully reestablished, especially along the Middle Fork and Big and Little Vermilion River valleys where it nests in shrublands and prairies adjacent to forest.
Forty-six (78%) of the state's 59 mammal species are known from the basin and two of these are listed species - the federally-endangered Indiana bat and the state-threatened river otter.
Twenty-three amphibian and 27 reptile species occur here, representing 57% of the amphibians and 45% of the reptiles that regularly occur in the state. The state-endangered silvery salamander (the Middle Fork Woods Nature Preserve harbors the state's only native colony), and the state-threatened four-toed salamander are known to exist here.
The status of the state-threatened Kirtland's snake is uncertain, but the state-endangered eastern massasauga has been extirpated from the area due to the draining of prairie wetlands.
The Vermilion River and its tributaries support a large diversity of aquatic species: 97 species of fishes, 45 species of mussels, 16 species of large crustaceans, and 540 species of aquatic macroinvertebrates.
Listed species include the statethreatened river red horse and the state-endangered bigeye chub, bigeye shiner, river chub, northern madtom, Iowa darter, eastern sand darter, and bluebreast darter. The bluebreast darter is found in Illinois only within the Vermilion River area and is the westernmost location known for this fish.
The North Fork Vermilion River supports the greatest concentration of rare, threatened, or endangered mussels in Illinois and its protection is crucial to the continued survival of those species.
A ten square mile area in Vermilion County supports as many freshwater mussel species as the entire Illinois River. Ten endangered mussel species are still thought to be present in the drainage; many of these are found nowhere else in Illinois.
While serious ecological problems still threaten the Iongterm maintenance of biodiversity in the area habitat fragmentation, habitat degradation, exotic species invasion, and fire absence - several groups are working on restoring habitat and rehabilitating the area. For example, The Nature Conservancy's Volunteer Stewards, the Vermilion County Conservation District, and Grand Prairie Friends hold work days to implement exotic species control and to conduct prescribed burning in nature preserves and natural areas.
Area farmers use conservation tillage to control soil erosion more often
than farmers do statewide. In