A restored hill prairie with a Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program sign. Photo by Michael Budd, USFWS.
Remarkable Responses from the Illinois Hill Prairie Partnership
Of all the different varieties of prairie in the “Prairie State,” the Illinois hill prairie remains one of the rarest, and least disturbed by human activity. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) estimates there are less than 600 acres of hill prairie in Illinois, almost all of which were never plowed.
Hill prairies formed on the upper slopes of steep, rocky river bluffs that were coated with layers of wind-blown soils. Over time, unique grasses and flowers made homes on these slopes. Robert A. Evers observed 394 species and varieties of flora within Illinois hill prairies in his 1955 research for the Illinois Natural History Survey Bulletin.
The hill prairie ecosystem is characterized by grasses, such as little bluestem, Indian grass and side-oats grama, as well as many showy forbs, including prairie dock, Indian paintbrush, stiff gentian and downy phlox. These plants provide critical habitat for key species, including Acadian flycatchers, red-headed woodpeckers, bobwhite quail, migratory tree-roosting bats and monarch butterflies.
Hill prairies have been in major decline in Illinois since the 1950s, victims of encroachment by invasive woody vegetation that crowds out native species and diminishes nesting areas. Ecological restoration consists of removing red cedar, autumn olive and other trees and shrubs, then bringing prescribed fire back to the landscape.
Recent monitoring of restoration sites shows that increasing sunlight to the ground layer substantially increases the number of insects and floral resources while also increasing available nesting and overwintering locations. Due to their locations, hill prairies are relatively protected from agricultural pesticides and as such provide excellent habitat for pollinators.
You might think that with a limited number of small sites, restoration of hill prairies could be accomplished quickly and easily. However, steep slopes makes accessing sites challenging, and many sites are in private ownership.
In recent years, a group of private non-profit organizations have teamed up with IDNR and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to bring attention and resources to hill prairie restoration through the Illinois Hill Prairie Partnership. Working together to leverage resources and expertise, the group has had great success engaging private landowners through the USFWS’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program. Within a focus area near Arenzville (Cass County), interested landowners control a block of almost 1,000 acres of land.
The partnership tackles educating and engaging private landowners; developing management plans and cost estimates for each site; identifying qualified contractors; and developing landowner agreements to ensure the restoration endures over time. While this work takes time, the partnership and participating landowners are excited about the rapid response of the landscape after treatment.
Wes Hendricker was one of the first landowners to partner with the Illinois Hill Prairie Partnership. Throughout 2022, extensive woody species removal, prescribed fire and native seeding were conducted on his project area. While much restoration work remains to be done, Hendricker is looking forward to seeing the prairie plants respond this spring.
“The hill prairie project on our farm is very exciting to me,” Hendricker noted. “I have lived on this farm since 1957 and I remember when the prairie grasses were prominent enough to graze cattle on. It is going to take a lot of hard work to bring this land back to where the prairie grasses were during my youth, and I credit every agency, contractor and resource provider involved in the process for working very well together. My hope is to leave this land, at the end of my life, in as good or better shape than it was 65 years ago. I am very grateful for this opportunity and hope more of my neighbors will agree to participate in the future.”
Along with neighbors in the restoration focus area, corporate partners are jumping on board. Apex Clean Energy and TC Energy Foundation have both made recent contributions towards hill prairie restoration. And the Illinois Electric Co-Op has contributed tree removal within power line rights-of-way. These welcome partners help meet the demand for restoration activity, and we welcome additional partners to join in this remarkable and rewarding effort.
“Apex, through our Conservation Grant Program, strives to ensure that our renewable energy projects further benefit both the environment and our host communities by preserving and restoring natural resources in the surrounding areas,” said Jennie Geiger, Director of environmental at Apex Clean Energy. “We’re thrilled to support the hill prairie restoration project located approximately 8 miles west of our Mulligan Solar facility. Our private donation is matched with public dollars and volunteer efforts to create high-quality grassland habitat. This visible and meaningful work is something we can all be proud of.”
If you have dense stands of cedar, osage orange and other woody species growing on steep hill sides in the Illinois River Valley, you might have a hill prairie. Contact Emily Hodapp with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at email@example.com or at (217) 341-9176 to develop a restoration plan.
Emy Brawley is Illinois State Director and Great Lakes Regional Director for The Conservation Fund. As part of the Fund’s Midwest team, she serves as representative for the region to help offer the full array of the Fund’s programs and services to its conservation partners. This includes strategic conservation planning, technical assistance, species mitigation, real estate services and acquisition financing. Brawley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Emily Hodapp is a Private Lands Biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Illinois. Hodapp works with conservation partners and landowners throughout the Illinois and Mississippi rivers areas to produce more duck food while also promoting Boltonia decurrens, a federally threatened plant species. In addition to her work on the rivers, she tackles hill prairie restorations which benefit the monarch butterfly, pollinators, northern bobwhite, migratory songbirds and more. Hodapp can be reached at email@example.com.