A bald eagle gathering.

November 2, 2020

The Journal is Growing—Welcome IDNR Division of Natural Heritage

Photos by Michael R. Jeffords

We are broadening our scope to include bald eagles and Indiana bats, and monarchs and grass pink orchids, and high-quality seeps and glades and much more.

Notice a slight change in the title of this ezine? We are pleased to announce that the scope of OutdoorIllinois Wildlife Journal is expanding with the addition of content from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Natural Heritage. Along with the stories that you have come to know and expect, the new OutdoorIllinois Journal will bring richer content and a broader view of Illinois’ natural resources.

A little background on the Division of Natural Heritage will help in understanding what you can expect with each edition of the Journal.

A orange, black, and white monarch butterfly nectars on a purple flower.

One of four Divisions within the Illinois Department of Natural Resources’ (IDNR) Office of Resource Conservation (the others are the Divisions of Wildlife Resources, Fisheries and Forestry Resources) the Division of Natural Heritage works throughout the state to protect, maintain, and recover natural areas, endangered and threatened species, and other vulnerable animals that represent Illinois’ natural heritage.

One current project for the Division of Natural Heritage entails working to prevent one iconic species—the monarch butterfly—from being listed as a federally endangered species. Division of Natural Heritage Chief Ann Holtrop describes this as an ‘effort of love.’

“Monarchs are everywhere, and everyone cares about them,” she said. “The monarch is one of the few species that even young children can identify, and as our state insect it is iconic.”

On September 28, 2020, four state agencies—the Illinois Departments of Natural Resources, Transportation and Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency—finalized the Illinois Monarch Action Plan, which details protections for monarch butterflies and other pollinators whose numbers are dwindling. The plan calls for 1.3 billion new stems of milkweed in the central United States. Illinois’ contribution is 150 million stems by 2038.

A black and tan moth nectars on a pale pink cluster of flowers. Green leaves and stems surround the flower and moth.

“So many people want to do the right thing for monarchs and not see this species go extinct or become extremely rare within our lifetime,” Holtrop remarked. “This is something that everyone can embrace—from the backyard gardener to the agricultural landowner and those managing rights of way, railroad corridors and natural areas. This landmark agreement sets a course for all types of partners to have a role.”

Working to manage and recover the more than 400 species of plants and animals classified as either endangered or threatened within Illinois entails biological research, habitat improvement/creation, and, in some instances, species reintroduction. Often Division staff work late at night or early in the morning. Sometimes they must work in difficult-to-reach places. Other projects require working in confined quarters.

“Many endangered or threatened species exist in remote areas and are active beyond the normal nine-to-five workday,” Holtrop explained. “It takes a lot of work to find these rare species, and staff certainly make every effort to be in the right place at the right time.”

“Our duty to manage endangered and threatened species entails active habitat work,” she continued, “but behind the scenes we work with species experts—and our counterparts in adjacent states when appropriate—to develop recovery plans and determine what recovery actions are possible.”

An image of a grassy hilltop with rocky cliff sides is interspersed with shrubby trees. A blue sky is in the background.
Fults Hill Prairie Nature Preserve.

While Division of Natural Heritage staff work with other scientists and land managers within the agency to manage many habitats, the active and intentional management of rare and unique natural communities, such as a high-quality natural areas—prairies, seeps, woodlands and more—falls to the Division.

Holtrop elaborated by saying “A significant amount of staff time is dedicated to active stewardship to maintain healthy and diverse natural communities. Often it is hands-on management—long, physically exhausting days cutting invasive species or implementing a prescribed fire. The workload is enormous, as sites must have routine applications of techniques and the amount of property in need of management is enormous. As a result we often work with contractors to help manage areas. Last year alone, beyond the work that staff undertook, contractors handled more than 150 projects.”

Habitat management requires a lot of office prep work—developing a plan and receiving all necessary approvals, coordinating with partners and receiving the necessary training to safely do their work.

“Staff are extensively trained in the use of prescribed fire,” Holtrop explained. “Developing a burn plan takes considerable effort and on the day of the fire if the burn boss feels conditions are poor and a fire is risky they know to say ‘today’s not the day.’”

The use of pesticides or herbicides also requires that staff obtain professional certifications, and staff also need to be trained on chainsaw safety and first aid.

The vast array of information accumulated by these efforts is captured in the Natural Heritage Database. Central to the collection of information for natural resource reviews of development projects, the database guides the issuance of endangered and threatened species incidental take and possession permits; identifies high priority areas for protection; and prioritizes public land acquisition.

Lush yellow flowers grow in a wetland.
Marsh marigold in Forest Glen Seep Nature Preserve.

The Division partners with the Illinois Nature Preserve Commission (INPC), to protect these unique natural areas through formal designation as Nature Preserves, Land and Water Reserves, or Natural Heritage Landmarks. Additionally, the Division works closely with the Endangered Species Protection Board (ESPB) to officially designate species as endangered or threatened and provide guidance on their long-term management and recovery. These partnerships provide a strong foundation for the implementation the Division’s mission to conserve Illinois’ native flora, fauna, and natural communities through inventory, protection and stewardship.

Also fundamental to the work of the Division is the Illinois Wildlife Action Plan (IWAP). In 2001 the U.S. Congress created the State Wildlife Grants Program and charged states with developing proactive Wildlife Action Plans to conserve wildlife before they become more rare and costly to protect. Development of the Illinois plan entailed a planning process involving more than 150 agencies and organizations comprising scientists, sportsmen, conservationists and government agencies. Additional information on the IWAP is available in the articles The Illinois Wildlife Action Plan and TITLE/LINK (article being prepared on the 20th anniversary).

With the 20th anniversary of the State Wildlife Grant Program approaching, a new iteration of the Illinois Wildlife Action Plan is under way. New to this version will be the inclusion of plants.

“The only plants mentioned in the original IWAP are those that are hosts for specific species of wildlife,” Holtrop explained. “Recognizing that plants are essential components of the habitats where animals live you really can’t talk about the health of animals without talking about the health of the habitat.”

Holtrop identified one aspect about the Division that most people don’t realize—their regulatory role.

“We are the entity responsible for the issuance of permits to handle or research these rare species, as well as permits allowing for the incidental take of listed species,” Holtrop pointed out.

A brown, black, and tan timber rattlesnake is curled up near a fallen log. The snake is surrounded by leaf litter.
Timber rattlesnake.

Unlike many states that have no way to authorize the incidental take of species, Illinois has a mechanism to work with businesses, such as pipelines, and are able to get conservation benefits for listed species as a result of this permitting process. This process has allowed for the acquisition and restoration of land and research on listed species, such as the Indiana bat, Illinois chorus frog and timber rattlesnake. Such measures would not have been possible otherwise.

“The incidental take regulatory permitting process is a great example of how we can support business and development in the state while also getting good conservation for the species,” Holtrop concluded.

The protection and management of the unique plants, animals and habitats that are the nature of Illinois is a role the Division of Natural Heritage staff eagerly embrace.

Kathy Andrews Wright is retired from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources where she was editor of Outdoor Illinois magazine. She is currently the editor of Outdoor Illinois Wildlife Journal and Illinois Audubon magazine.

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