A Historical Perspective


How Did We Get Where We Are Today?

Where Are We Today?




Reduced Biodiversity

Where Are We Headed?

Suggested Reading


  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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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.


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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 disastrous.

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 improve.

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 by mid-century.

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.

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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 biological diversity.

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 today.

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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.

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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.

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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 cover.

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.

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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 ecosystems."

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.

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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 habitat.

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 landscape.

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.

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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 Preserves Commission.

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.

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For more information about the Illinois Conservation Wildlife Plan, please contact:

James Renn
Illinois Wildlife Action Plan Coordinator
Illinois Department of Natural Resources
Watershed Protection Section
One Natural Resources Way
Springfield, Illinois 62702-1271
Telephone: 217-785-5907
FAX: 217-782-9175


Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Office of Resource Conservation    One Natural Resources Way Springfield, IL 62702-1271