May 2, 2022
Photo by Dan Kirk.

The Division of Natural Heritage: A collaborative effort towards conservation

By Samantha Scalice, Isabella Newingham

Imagine you have been transported back in time thousands of years; what would you see? Vast prairies, mature woodlands, thriving wetlands, and abundant diversity were once found plentifully throughout the state. Now, anyone who lives here can tell you that these areas have widely been replaced due to urbanization and other major land-cover changes. Previously bursting with high-quality natural areas and inhabited by remarkable plants and animals, Illinois has since faced many challenges that drastically diminished these resources. To meet the needs of humans, Illinois’ landscape was converted to what we see now. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) Division of Natural Heritage works throughout the state to protect, maintain, and restore natural areas, endangered and threatened species, and other vulnerable plants and animals that represent Illinois’ natural heritage. This includes the preservation and restoration of native plant species assemblages and natural communities, protecting and restoring the habitat of endangered and threatened species, and tracking and working to recover imperiled populations. In collaboration with other divisions of IDNR, the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission (INPC), the Endangered Species Protection Board, the Illinois Natural History Survey, and many others, the Division of Natural Heritage works tirelessly to monitor, maintain, and steward natural resources. 

Heritage’s field staff, program staff, and GIS professionals work together to understand, identify, and manage the components that make up our state’s terrestrial and aquatic natural areas. The Database Program tracks the resources collected by Heritage field staff and other partners in conservation in the Illinois Natural Heritage Database. This database is a collection of natural features that have statewide significance including listed species occurrences, INPC sites, Illinois Natural Area sites, high-quality natural communities, geological features, and unusual concentrations of flora or fauna. The accessibility of this data allows for conservation areas to be prioritized, project-related impacts to be examined, research and monitoring to be conducted, and increased public awareness of Illinois’ rare natural features. The Database is constantly being updated with new features including location information for acoustic bat data, windfarms, and river mile markers. Consistently working to expand the dataset available through the Illinois Natural Heritage Database allows for the Division to improve methods used to protect, maintain, and restore our state’s Natural Heritage.

Two individuals in yellow and green flame retardant gear start a prescribed fire on a hillside. To the right of the hill is a paved road and a small four wheel all-terrain vehicle. A blue sky is in the background.
Photo by Angella Moorehouse.

The Division of Natural Heritage aims to maintain and enhance native plants, wildlife, and natural community assemblages through inventorying, protecting, recovering, and stewarding natural resources. Stewardship can be thought of as land management actions that maintain and support the ecological integrity of natural areas. Field and program staff work collaboratively to implement stewardship actions on natural areas across the state and to work towards recovery goals for at risk species. The Endangered Species Program directs the protection and recovery of endangered and threatened species, and the State Wildlife Action Plan is responsible for the recovery of Species of Greatest Conservation Need (SGCN). The purpose of the recovery process is to deliberately and strategically engage in species management efforts to maintain or enhance wildlife and plant populations in Illinois. 

Furthermore, the defense of natural resources is implemented through a consultation process that requires a review of the land and recommendations from IDNR to aid in the protection of areas identified as significant for the state. The Illinois Endangered Species Protection Act (IESPA), the Natural Areas Preservation Act, and the Interagency Wetland Policy Act of 1989 require that potential impacts to sensitive natural resources are evaluated. State agencies or other units of local government are required to consult with IDNR before conducting any project that they authorize, fund, or conduct themselves. Private parties are not required to consult with IDNR for projects occurring on their own land, however they are still liable and prohibited to take any listed animal or adverse impact to a dedicated Nature Preserve or registered Land and Water Reserve. Because of the data compiled in the Illinois Natural Heritage Database, consultation can make recommendations that avoid, minimize, or mitigate impacts to important natural resources that would otherwise have not been known during a project’s planning. In addition, the Incidental Take Authorization Process also represents a mechanism for protecting endangered and threatened species in the state by guiding minimization and mitigation. 

The IESPA states it is unlawful to possess or take any plant or animal species that occurs on the Illinois List of Endangered and Threatened Species unless you have first obtained the proper permit from IDNR. Additionally, it is the state’s responsibility to protect listed species through both the consultation and the Incidental Take Authorization (ITA) process, following the guidance of the IESPA. Projects proposed on land that may impact a species listed as endangered or threatened in Illinois are recommended to obtain an ITA. The first step in the ITA process is to submit a conservation plan. These conservation plans include pre-project species monitoring, identification of avoidance and minimization opportunities, mitigation to benefit the species potentially impacted, and post-project minimization and mitigation effectiveness monitoring. Pre- and post-project monitoring brings great value to the Division. Monitoring programs allow us to fill in data gaps for species and inform analysis of rareness and recovery objectives. Post-construction monitoring helps the Department assess the effectiveness of minimization and mitigation practices, which helps inform guidance for future ITAs. Post-construction monitoring occurs in the years following the project to track impacts on the species and its habitat over a duration of time, as impacts often have delayed effects.

A black turtle with a yellow chin and yellow underside rests on some fallen gray cattails in a wetland. In the background are some both gray and green cattails.
Blanding’s turtle. Photo by Christina Feng.

Grant programs facilitated by the Division of Natural Heritage are also essential in conserving Illinois’ natural resources. The Natural Areas Stewardship Grant Program utilizes the Natural Areas Acquisition Fund, which was established by the Open Lands Acquisition and Development Act. The goals of the Natural Areas Stewardship Grant Program include increased stewardship of dedicated Illinois Nature Preserves and registered Land and Water Reserves, and an increased stewardship capacity within the local Conservation Land Trust. Therefore, only projects conducted on state registered Nature Preserves and Land and Water reserves are eligible for this grant. Some stewardship actions funded by these grants include prescribed fire, wetland restorations, exotic species control, and replanting or seeding. The State Wildlife Grant program targets federal and matching funds to address conservation needs identified in Illinois’ Wildlife Action Plan. State Wildlife grant projects are focused on maintaining and enhancing populations of SGCN and the habitats that they require.

How does the Division of Natural Heritage work to conserve Illinois’ native flora, fauna, and natural communities? Through collaboration. It requires collaboration between the Department of Natural Resources, other state entities, outside partners, and federal agencies to progress Illinois into a more native natural state. Ultimately, there are many complexities and challenges to restoring and preserving Illinois’ natural areas. Still, by working within the Division and with outside partners, the staff composing the Division of Natural Heritage makes bits of progress each and every day.

Samantha Scalice works for the Natural Areas Program at the Illinois Department of Natural Resources as a Graduate Public Service Intern. She is currently finishing up her master’s degree in Environmental Science at the University of Illinois Springfield. Before moving to Illinois, she attended Purchase College in New York and worked on a shorebird monitoring team at a local state park.  

Isabella Newingham is the State Wildlife Action Plan and Aquatic Ecology GPSI intern at the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. She graduated with a B.S. in Biology from Millikin University in 2020 and is pursuing an M.S. in Environmental Sciences with a concentration in Sustainable Development and Policy from the University of Illinois Springfield.