33 years of community lead grasslands restoration in NW Cook County, IL

By the Poplar Creek Prairie Stewards

This is the fourth of four introductions to our upcoming field trips for our GRN workshop August 16 and 17. Registration for this year’s GRN closes on 7/31, make sure to get your spot before they are all filled up. https://grasslandrestorationnetwork.org/2022/06/23/1727/

In the northwest of Cook County, the Poplar Creek Prairie Stewards (PCPS) have been working on over 225 acres of grassland restoration of a 4,430 acre protected block of natural area for the past three decades. The Forest Preserves of Cook County (FPCC) purchased a remnant gravel hill prairie and  surrounding agricultural land parcel by parcel throughout  the 1960’s. The gravel hill prairie was dedicated as a state nature preserve in 1965. In 1989, a volunteer group of stewards kicked off with support from The Nature Conservancy and FPCC. The initial goal of the project was to enhance the remnant prairie community and create a botanically rich prairie restoration surrounding the remnant. Early on, the decision was made to restore a large area of diverse, functional prairie plant communities, while balancing the needs of individual animal and plant species.

The Volunteer Stewardship Community found very early on that for a restoration to be successful, the group needed to function in many different capacities. Today, the PCPS has built a sustainable volunteer base that stewards not only the land, but also the community. At the GRN Workshop this August, tour guides will describe how two volunteer led committees oversee the vast restoration project as well as maintain a fun culture of conservation among the volunteer base. The tour will travel through decades of prairie recreation and restoration culminating in the scenic overlook of the Shoe Factory Hill Prairie Nature Preserve. The Stewards in tandem with FPCC Ecologists and Staff maintain original plantings and continue to expand the effort to restore additional swaths of grassland to this expansive corridor.

Topics to be covered during GRN Workshop:

  • Early lessons learned with grassland restoration
    • Use or misuse of tall C4 grasses
    • Strip Planting Technique in which approximately 60 acres were planted among cool season grass with the idea that plantings would eventually invade the cool season dominated areas (see Figure 2)
    • Partnership between FPCC Staff and Stewards
    • Building a community around a restoration
  • Building a Conservation Community around large restoration projects
    • Delegating responsibilities among many leaders
    • The importance of investing in volunteers

Figure 1. Tour Map including Shoe Factory Remnant and Surrounding Grassland Restoration

Figure 2. Strip Planting in Early Years

Figure 3. Poplar Creek Prairie

Figure 4. Shoe Factory Remnant Hill Prairie

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Restoring grassland birds and healthy prairie at Galloping Hill

By Becky Collings, Karen Glennemeier, Justin Pepper, and Daniel Suarez

At the upcoming GRN meeting in Barrington, IL, we will visit a number of local restoration sites, including Galloping Hill in NW Cook County.The focus of this field tour will be our Qualitative Rapid Assessment, described below, but we also wanted to share an overview of the site including the restoration goals and progress and an overview of its management history.

For those that just want the high-level summary of the site, this place is special because it:

  1. Was a first, grassland bird scale, multi-partner restoration aiming for prairie birds in a rich native natural community at the 4000-acre Spring Creek Forest Preserve
  2. Had a strong early grassland bird response, largely sustained for ~17 years
  3. Is becoming a high-quality, dry-mesic prairie restoration with hand collected, local ecotype seed, largely through volunteer stewardship, now expanding from ~20 acres to 60 acres and including wetter habitats surrounding the hill itself.

Management History

In 2005, Audubon, in partnership with the landowner, the Forest Preserves of Cook County as well as Citizens for Conservation, the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the then nascent Spring Creek Stewards volunteer group, launched the restoration of Galloping Hill. The initial size of the grassland restoration project was 110 acres at the heart of the nearly 4,000-acre preserve.

Figure 1. The image above shows the extent of the fragmented 110-acre grassland prior to the project’s start. Note the brush islands in the hay meadow in the NW, the peninsula of brush to the SE of Galloping Hill and the brush on the northwest facing slope of Galloping Hill. Contrast to the following Figure 2. 

Given the scale of the area, habitat restoration at Spring Creek allowed for grassland restorations large enough to be significant for ground-nesting grassland birds. Whereas previous restoration work at Spring Creek had focused on a small remnant prairie, this project was designed specifically with the suite of grassland obligate birds in mind.

Volunteer bird monitors from the Bird Conservation Network were reporting plummeting populations of Bobolinks, Meadowlarks, Grasshopper and Savannah sparrows. So, a project was designed to reduce fragmentation of the grasslands in the immediate term and to begin restoring healthy prairie habitats in the years ahead.

Initial brush mowing and the removal of trees that had fragmented the grassland occurred over the winters of 2005 and 2006. Bird results were immediate and dramatic, 950% increase of Bobolinks, 650% increase for Meadowlarks in the years immediately following the clearing work. With those encouraging early results, the Spring Creek Stewards, the site’s new volunteer stewardship group, began the decades long project of restoring a diverse prairie. We wanted grassland birds, but in a healthy, native natural community.

Figure 2. In the image above, the initial brush clearing in the haymeadow, on and adjacent to Galloping Hill has been completed. This was a good year for prairie birds at the site. The simple act of restoring grassland structure had immediate results.

Galloping Hill has remained a top priority for seeding within the Spring Creek preserves, even as the Stewards started new restorations (currently managing about 300 acres). Donated by Citizens for Conservation, seed amounts and mixes varied from year to year but were always interseeded into non-native cool season grasses at a very light seeding rate, perhaps averaging 4 lbs per acre. Seeding has been augmented by a few plug plantings through the years, primarily spring ephemerals like prairie violet, violet wood sorrel, Seneca snakeroot, prairie phlox and bastard toadflax. Native cool season grasses including porcupine grass and Lieberg’s and Scribner’s panic grass have also been reestablished.

The focus of the seeding started high and slowly worked down the hill, especially once the drain tiles at this site were mapped and valved in 2011.

Wetland/ Sedge Restoration—Following the 10 Warriors approach, wetland restoration began in earnest in 2018. Since then, more than 10,000 sedge plugs have been planted and reed canary grass has been pursued and treated with grass-specific herbicide.  

Hay Meadow Expansion—in 2020, a 20-acre expansion was initiated in a hay meadow just NW of Galloping Hill which combines with a more recent expansion to the SE to now have about 60 acres under active restoration, not just grassland management.

Figure 3. Though listed as an image from May, I believe this is later in the fall, given the color and the obvious mowed oval in the SE of the image which took place in Sept. of 2021. The extent of the warm-season grasses is evident in the image. The two pocket wetlands are identified, as is the newer planting (Expansion Area 1) volunteers have undertaken and the 20-acre haymeadow (Expansion Area 2) that contractors and volunteers are collaborating on.

Since the initial mechanical work, 90+% of the work has been done by volunteers with support from Conservation Corps, FPCC staff, and occasionally, contractors. The Forest Preserve District has prioritized burning at this site which has been critical to the progress to date. The site has been burned annually since 2005 (16 burns between 2005-2021). Most burns have occurred in the spring with the exception of fall 2009, 2020, and 2021.

How are we doing, and what do we do next?

(a.k.a. Monitoring & Adaptive Management)

Plants – Quantitative Monitoring

Vegetation transects were established early in the restoration and have shown steadily increasing floristic quality, approaching that of our region’s highest quality prairies after just fifteen years of management. 

Figure 4. Two transects have been established at Galloping Hill, Transect 1 is on the south and east facing slope, where turf grass was well established when the project started and Transect 2 is on the north and west facing slow which was much more brush dominated and had thinner turf.
 

The speed and success of the restoration are due to the steady commitment of volunteer stewards, combined with a strong partnership among volunteers, land agencies, conservation non-profits, and contractors. Galloping Hill also has benefited from the experience of earlier restorations including Somme Prairie Grove, Nachusa Grasslands, and Grigsby Prairie.

Plants and overall community – Qualitative Assessment

We have introduced a new approach to adaptive management that we call the Qualitative Rapid Assessment (QRA).  We’ll be sharing this process at our Galloping Hill tour during the conference – here’s the basic idea.  A small group visits an area and begins with 10 minutes of each person individually observing the presence of invasive, conservative and matrix species, as well as the overall diversity and the sense of subjective quality or degradation. Each person assigns a score based on a simple, defined scale.  Then the group convenes and discusses, reaching consensus on a score, but more importantly filling in the reasoning behind that score and, critically, determining what happens next. What’s missing, and how do we bring it back? How is this restoration most likely to go wrong? What’s the management history, does it explain what we’re seeing, do we think our approach needs tweaking? How, if so?

We’ve found that this method produces scores that align with quantitative floristic quality metrics. It deepens participants’ understanding of an area’s condition and management needs. It provides an actionable management to-do list.  And it’s a meaningful, enjoyable exercise for both beginners and experienced restorationists.

Birds

The initial response from the brush clearing was heartening (see Figure 5 below) and while the numbers for individual species have bounced around a bit, Galloping Hill has consistently hosted strong breeding populations of Henslow’s sparrows (14 in 2020) and Bobolinks (34 in 2020).

Monitoring has continued since the project started, but since it has occurred under different protocols, we are not presenting an unbroken sequence of results.

Figure 5. Initial grassland bird response following brush clearing in the winters of 2004/2005 and 2005/2006.

Eastern Meadowlarks, Savannah and Grasshopper Sparrows have declined from high counts in the first 5 years of the project. These three species have also shown significant population declines regionally, as recently reported by the Bird Conservation Network so it is unclear how much of this decline is a local versus regional issue.

Grasshopper Sparrows would benefit grazing or other means to return to early successional habitat, but 2022 was the year of the Grasshopper Sparrow as they were found in multiple places within Spring Creek where they had been absent for years, this includes at least 4 at Galloping Hill.

The decline of Savannah Sparrows and Meadowlarks is a bit more of a puzzle and we welcome thoughts from others on this.

Addendum: The Qualitative Rapid Assessment is available here: https://tnc.box.com/s/t1amflh005fs30yywx2ac65e6l2q9bew

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Monitoring vegetation with GIS Field Maps

By Bill Kleiman

Arc GIS Field Maps, known previously as Collector, is a powerful phone app. The app is free, but you do need a GIS online program to run it, which typically means you need your employer to support you. On this image you see random round dots of a few colors, each color represents a different invasive weed. There are green diamond shapes which are native plant occurrences, which represent cool plants we want to remember to come back to, perhaps to pick seed. This morning, I noted starry campion for seed picking later.

These dots/waypoints/geo-referenced points….whatever you call them….are really handy. For instance, they help us see the pattern of infestation of weeds where sometimes a strategy can come to mind. Over time we hopefully have fewer weed dots.

Now differently, note the east west line of red dots. Each dot represents at least one birdsfoot trefoil, BFT, Lotus corniculatus. I started on the east end of this field and used my phone compass to aim west and found a district tree to aim for. I took a step, looked down for BFT. If there was a plant, flowering or not, big or small, I dotted it. There was a plant sometime every step, sometime every two steps, but rarely could I go more than 5 steps without a plant within three feet of my boots. This transect took about 45 easy minutes. I tore the plants out that I found as I did not want to carry a sprayer.

Why walk a line instead of recording all occurrences in this field? I don’t have time to record every BFT in this field. That would take a week. The point of monitoring with quadrats, whether on a transect or randomly placed, is to help us understand a field by sampling a small part of it.

I know this field rather well. In the 1980s the farmer planted birdsfoot trefoil in this pasture. The soil became full of BFT seed. Three decades ago I started to boom spray the former pasture. After this decade of boom spraying we erred in deciding to plant prairie in this field. Then we had about two decades of hard labor of back pack spraying BFT, but you can see the BFT is still there. I did this monitoring transect after we had been through the field for eight hours with seven people with packs. So these are the plants we missed. Sigh.

Lesson learned: Do not plant prairie into ground that has invasive weeds.

This method of monitoring with Field Maps is intuitive, visual, easy to understand, and stored automatically with your other data. I don’t need to write a report about these weeds. You can see the pattern as well as I can.

Here I zoom out for a more complete sense of our preserve and its weed occurrences. We spend a lot of time on these spots. How can we get to treating the weeds faster and with less time, but without doing more harm than good? No easy answers, as you know.

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Grassy Lake GRN workshop field trip

by Kelly Schultz, Stewardship Ecologist, Lake County Forest Preserves

This post is an introduction of one of four hikes we have for our upcoming GRN workshop.

This 700-acre preserve is home to a high quality sedge meadow, prairie, and mesic woodlands, but you wouldn’t have known that 12 years ago.  Two incredibly dedicated volunteers took on this preserve and have now improved 100 acres, removing mature buckthorn thickets and the tedious small stems, managing cattails, spraying invasive plants, and adding seeds and plants to bring back the missing flora.  Staff and contractors joined the ongoing land management, providing more extensive wetland management, Rx burning, seeding, and planting.  Wildlife staff have rounded out the restoration efforts with deer management, jumping mice, and loosestrife beetles.  Birds flock to Grassy Lake; snipes and orchard orioles have come to call it home.  Tiger salamanders and frogs also live in this preserve, and are thankful for the removal of buckthorn and its emodin.

Much of the work is also thanks to the Barrington Greenways Initiative partnership!  BGI workdays are responsible for several big planting projects, not to mention sowing, collection, and buckthorn workdays.  The BGI restoration crew has been a regular asset in land management and the jointly funded Technician has been working to expand volunteer efforts at this preserve.   

Today you can find dozens of sedges – Carex stricta, pellita, lasiocarpa, interior, lupuliformis, lacustris – rushes – including the state endangered Scirpus microcarpus and more common bulrushes – alongside ferns, yellow and purple loosestrife species, gentians, pale spike lobelia, several milkweed species, and many other pollinator favorites.  The namesake lake is now visible from the trail.  The woodlands have been transformed with brush removal, seeding, planting, and deer management.  The volunteers’ dedication was the impetus for changing our brush pile burning policy across the District (formerly staff only), they have been an inspiration & beneficiary of the BGI partnership, and they were recipients of a national award for outstanding volunteers. 

Come visit this site at GRN!

Interested in registering for the workshop? There may be space. Look at this post with the details: https://grasslandrestorationnetwork.org/2022/06/23/1727/

Before stewards Carol Hogan and Wesley Wolf started work
After a decade of care by the volunteers and Forest Preserve staff
Grassy Lake

Tiger salamander

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Warrior Sedge Wetland Restoration by Citizens for Conservation at Flint Creek Savanna

By Kevin Scheiwiller

Kevin Scheiwiller

Goals of Project:

  1. Find a technique that can be used to sustainably rebuild streamside marsh, sedge meadow, and seeps in areas formerly dominated by wetland invasives through small trial areas (<1 acre)
  2. If trial plots appear effective, then use this technique on a larger scale (≥ 3 acres) to reclaim wetlands lost to Reed Canary Grass, Cattails, and Phragmites

Measures of success:

Success is defined as the elimination or heavy reduction (>95%) of wetland invasives, with establishment of a diverse matrix of native sedge meadow species.

Technique:

Areas with heavy infestations are herbicided using a 3% glyphosate mixture in the Fall (September through November) of the year prior to planting. Project area is burned in the dormant season after initial herbicide application to remove thatch and flush seed bank. Area is then sprayed a second time with the same mixture in April.

After site prep, areas are planted during volunteer workdays using the 10 warrior sedges (List Below) based on the perceived moisture gradient of the site. Each plug is planted on 2-3 foot centers, tighter if budget allows.

In the Fall (November) areas are then seeded with custom “Sedge Meadow” and “Marsh” seed mixes. All mixes purposely keep native grass species out. This allows for the follow up of the site with a grass specific herbicide.

Two to Five years after original planting, project areas are spot treated for remerging wetland invasives. Reed Canary Grass is sprayed with a 1% Clethodim Solution during Mid-April through May. As no native grasses are present, this allows for quick application with fairly effective results (see GRN post about Clethodim vs. Glyphosate). Cattail and Phragmites are hand wicked in July and August using a 20% Glyphosate solution.

Project Area:

 Plantings over the last 5 years are found on the following map and table. 2017-2020 are considered smaller trial plots. 2021 is considered a larger planting as outline in the Goals section.

PlantingSize of Area (ac)Approx. plugs installed*Overseeded in:Approx. total amount of seed since planting (lbs)**
20170.352018, 2019, 202028.75
20180.182,1662018, 2019, 202028.75
20190.381,9002019, 2020, 202119.15
20200.432,1662020, 202121.41
20213.3811,096202192.78
*only includes plugs purchased, additional “rescued” sedges
 and volunteer propagated added to areas as well
**seed weights include some amount of chaff, not PLS

Topics to be covered during Grassland Restoration Network Workshop

  • Visiting each “stage” of a planting from newly planted to 5+ years establishment
  • Successes and challenges presented by each planting area
  • Evaluation of the technique and discussion on the practicality of using it on a large scale
  • Future uses, Erosion Control, and use on incised creeks  

Warrior Sedges

  • Wettest
    • Carex lacustris
    • Carex aquatilis
    • Carex utriculate
    • Carex stricta
  • Intermediate
    • Carex sartwellii
    • Carex trichocarpa
    • Carex atherodes
    • Carex emoryi
  • Driest of the wet
    • Carex buxbaumii

Carex pellita

Seed Mixes Used in 2021, most other years feature a similar mix

Sedge Meadow 

Anemone canadensis Meadow Anemone 
Angelica atropurpurea Great Angelica 
Arnoglossum plantagineum Prairie Indian Plantain 
Asclepias incarnata Swamp Milkweed 
Calamagrostis canadensis Blue Joint Grass 
Carex “Wetland” Misc. Wetland Sedges 
Carex hystericina Porcupine Sedge 
Carex vulpinoidea Brown Fox Sedge 
Chelone glabara White Turtlehead 
Eupatorium perfoliatum Common Boneset 
Euthamia graminifolia Smooth Grass-Leaved Goldenrod 
Eutrochium maculatum Spotted Joe Pye Weed 
Hasteola suaveolens Sweet Indian Plantain 
Helianthus occidentalis Western Sunflower 
Hypericum ascyron Great St. John’s Wort 
Liatris spicata Marsh Blazing Star 
Lobelia cardinalis Cardinal Flower 
Lobelia siphilitica Great Blue Lobelia 
Lycopus americanus Common Water Horehound 
Lysimachia quadriflora Narrow-Leaved Loosestrife 
Lythrum alatum Winged Loosestrife  
Oligoneuron riddellii Riddell’s Goldenrod 
Pedicularis lanceolata Fen Betony  
Pycnanthemum pilosum Hairy Mountain Mint 
Pycnanthemum virginianum Common Mountain Mint 
Rumex orbiculatus Great Water Dock 
Rumex verticillatus Riverbank Dock 
Schoenoplectus pungens Chairmakers Rush 
Schoenoplectus tabernaemontani Great Bulrush 
Scirpus atrovirens Dark Green Bulrush 
Scirpus cyperinus Wool Grass 
Scutellaria lateriflora Mad-Dog Skullcap 
Spartina pectinata Prairie Cord Grass 
Symphyotrichum puniceum Bristly Aster 
Teucrium canadense Germander 
Thalictrum dasycarpum Purple Meadow Rue 
Verbena hastata Blue Vervain 
Vernonia fasciculata Common Ironweed 

Marsh 

Acorus americanus Sweet Flag 
Alisma subcordatum Common Water Plantain 
Bidens cernua Nodding Bur Marigold 
Bidens trichosperma Tall Swamp Marigold 
Boehmeria cylindrica Swamp False Nettle 
Juncus effusus Soft Rush 
Mentha canadensis Wild Mint 
Persicaria hydropiperoides Mild Water Pepper 
Sagittaria latifolia Common Arrowhead 
Scirpus microcarpus Reddish Bulrush 
Scutellaria galericulata Marsh Skullcap 
Sium suave Water Parsnip 
Solidago patula Swamp Goldenrod 
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2022 GRN Workshop

Here is the registration link: https://citizensforconservation.app.neoncrm.com/eventReg.jsp?event=102&

Agenda:

Tuesday August 16th 

8AM – 9AM: Networking and Coffee

9AM- 9:30AM: Introduction and Overview of Barrington Greenway Initiative and the GRN workshop

10AM – 12PM: First Tour Rotation: Four concurrent tours

(We will have four rotations over two days so everybody gets to do all four tours)

12PM – 1:30PM: Lunch and driving to next site

2PM – 4PM: Second Tour Rotation. The same four concurrent tours

5PM -7PM: Pizza, beer, Keynote Speaker: Philip Juras on painting the prairie. See https://www.philipjuras.com/artwork/

Wednesday August 17th

8AM – 9AM: Networking and Coffee

9:30AM – 11:30AM: Third Tour Rotation: The same four concurrent tours

12PM – 1PM: Lunch and driving to next site

1:30PM – 3:30PM: Fourth Tour Rotation: The same four concurrent tours

We have these four tours and guests will be able to participate in all tours on a rotating basis

The four tours:

  • Flint Creek Savanna – Citizens for Conservation – Restoring functioning sedge meadow using the 10 warrior sedges
  • Grassy Lake Forest Preserve – Lake County Forest Preserves – Volunteer-led effort to restore one of the largest remnant sedge meadows in Lake County
  • Spring Creek Forest Preserve – Forest Preserves of Cook County – Large-scale grassland restorations will be evaluated using the “Qualitative Rapid Assessment,” a tool designed for adaptive management and constructive feedback for stewards and land managers.
  • Poplar Creek Prairie – Forest Preserves of Cook County – a remnant gravel hill prairie surrounded by large grassland restorations accomplished over 30 years of community stewardship.
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Invasive Reed canary grass control

By Bill Kleiman

As described in Plants of the Chicago Region, “Phalaris arundinacea, reed canary grass, is introduced from Eurasia. This grass is planted by farmers for pasture and erosion control. It is very common in marshes and other moist ground, often forming nearly pure stands…”

A past post by Bryon Walters describes how to slowly and methodically apply glyphosate mixed with imazapyr on RCG to limit off target damage. https://grasslandrestorationnetwork.org/2019/06/05/control-of-reed-canary-grass/

Below are two photo of recent treatment of RCG at Nachusa Grasslands.

A riffle with RCG treated with glyphosate and imazapyr a few weeks back. This herbicide mix is approved over water.
Glyphosate & imazpyr on RCG along Wade Creek. Sedges and forbs dominate this section of stream which also has marsh marigold, skunk cabbage, riddel’s goldenrod, and grass of parnassus.

Those who follow this blog (easy to do by clicking the “Follow the GRN” button) will remember a post by Julianne Mason comparing clethodim (a grass only herbicide) to glyphosate (all green plants controlled) on reed canary grass. https://grasslandrestorationnetwork.org/2020/04/30/herbicide-treatments-to-reed-canary-grass-clethodim-vs-glyphosate/ The following images are from recent applications of grass herbicide on RCG at Nachusa.

The bright green plant is not a grass but a sedge. The yellowing reed canary grass is hurt by the clethodim herbicide, but not sedges, rushes, forbs, shrubs, trees. But…most of us conclude some of the grass roots will still be alive and slowly emerge next year. Of late we are adding ammonium sulfate and a non ionic surfactant to the clethodim mix. If we knock back the invasive grass can the sedge meadow hold its own?
Clethodim sprayed on RCG. At first glance you see just yellowing reed canary grass, but look for the tall thin bright green sedges that are unaffected. I saw those sedges and felt confident that a quick spray of this entire RCG patch would next year show sedges and forbs starting to dominate the ground. This is the attraction of a grass herbicide.

From 2020, RCG yellowing while sedges are bright green with some sedges seeding. A missed RCG is bolting in the back ground.
We use backpacks too, but this 50 gallon sprayer on the back of the 30 hp tractor is quite nimble for getting access to modest size patches for spraying RCG. The hand nozzle on the sprayer is used much more often than the boom-less tips on the back.
A JD-9 nozzle allows spot spraying from the tractor cab or on foot with the hose on the reel.

Jim Alwill shares this image of showy goldenrod plugs in a propagation setting where clethodim suppresses the cool season grass sod.

Why we push back against invasive RCG: A 2007 image of a meadow at Nachusa dominated by plantain (Arnoglossom plantagineum) and culver’s root

A 2007 image with volunteer steward Kevin Kaltenbach in the same sedge meadow with those plantains in the distance.
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Can We Create a Copse of  Low Juneberry for a Remnant Restoration?

By Bernie Buchholz

A thriving copse of low juneberry is an attractive feature on several remnant knobs at Nachusa Grasslands. These dense clusters of identical plants offer a strong visual contrast to the lovely chaos of diverse prairie surrounding them.  

In our sandy soils Amelanchior humilis, aka low juneberry or shadblow, grows about 18 inches tall in dense copses about 30 feet across.  Prescribed fire tends to burn only part way into the cluster and fire only top-kills the perimeter plants.  

Could we create a copse on the highly degraded, but recovering, Fame Flower Knob that we’ve been restoring since 2006? We had previously planted scattered low juneberry plugs and none survived, probably due to repeated prescribed fire. 

Below photo #1: Shadblow on Doug’s Knob remnant; copyright Charles Larry. 

The Flora of the Chicago Region by Wilhelm and Rericha says the species occurs in mesic to dry-mesic woodlands and savanna. At Nachusa, copses of low juneberry  are found in upland sandy soils underlain with sandstone, arguably in both historic open prairie and historic savanna habitats.  It is promising that our remnant seed source is thriving on the same soil types as our target plantings on both remnant and adjacent planted prairie areas. 

Larry Creekmur of Creston, IL grew three trays of 38 plugs each and generously assisted with the plug planting on October 26, 2014.  We targeted one site on the remnant with the same northeast exposure as the seed source and two sites immediately adjacent to the remnant in a 2012 planting. We tried three elevation levels on the knob.  The moisture levels appear similar. 

Photo #2: Larry Creekmur with planted plugs protected with plastic cylinders. 

At each of the three planting sites we planted 38 plugs on 6-inch centers to mimic the dense growth of existing copses. To deter predation while the plants were establishing, we placed a translucent plastic tube around each plug, each supported by a metal stake. After the first winter, the survival rate was about 85%, although we did not do an actual census.   

Photo #3: Finished installation. 

Our management practice has been to burn the remnant and surrounding plantings almost annually during active restoration. We believed, however, that prescribed fire posed a considerable risk to the shrubs’ survival while the plugs were getting establish. We tried to protect the plugs from prescribed fire in different ways: by reducing adjacent plant matter within 5 feet; heavily wetting just before fire; and with fire retarding foam, also just before prescribed fire.  

We were very frustrated when fire repeatedly burned through our defensive efforts. We finally had success in fall 2020 by erecting used corrugated steel panels, but we only had the resources to protect the remnant site which was about 6’ x 5’. 

Photo #4: Corrugated protection. 

After eight years only the remnant planting site shows the making of a copse.  There are now about 150 stems of various sizes compared to the 38 stems planted. The perimeter of the cluster, however, is not noticeably larger than the original planting. 

Photo #5 Remnant location after 8 years. 

Observations about the process:

  • Planting plugs in close together seems like a sound strategy. 
  • Fire will likely penetrate, but not kill the copse for years to come.   
  • We might have planted all 114 plugs in one location creating a larger starting copse.
  • Only metal panels protected the new plugs from fire.  
  • The other two planting sites were not protected from fire and are much less vigorous and less dense. 
  • Effective protection from fire might have accelerated the plugs’ development. 
  • We might have done simple soil cores to possibly find a planting site with “depth to sandstone” like the source site. 

It looks like it will take at least another decade or two before the planted copse is wide enough and dense enough to act as a barrier to prescribed fire, thereby protecting its core. 

We think this effort will ultimately succeed. Check back in a decade, but don’t wait to try it yourself. 

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Tom Mitchell inducted into the hall of fame

By Bill Kleiman

Tom Mitchell is famous. We all have fame within various sized communities in which we live. Tom is certainly known in Monroe Wisconsin as he was the captain of his high school basketball team when they won all 26 games and then won the state championship in 1965. This September Tom will be inducted into the Wisconsin Basketball Hall of Fame.

1968: Tom Mitchell at University of Wisconsin

Tom is also famous at Nachusa Grasslands for being a really active and effective volunteer steward. With his wife, Jenny, they would volunteer a few days a week at Nachusa from about 1998 through about 2008, a decade of energy and fun. Tom and Jenny started off joining the Saturday morning workdays, and quickly ended up as unit stewards who created four really nice prairie plantings. They also cared for an important remnant prairie. Tom was on many prescribed fires, led many VIP tours, and mentored new volunteers.

2001: Tom Mitchell
2002: Tom Mitchell
2006: Mary Scott, Tom Mitchell and Jenny Mitchell with Mary’s treats.

Tom says he was mentored by Bill Kleiman and Jay Stacy. But below is a 2005 photo with fellow super stewards Hank Hartman and Chris Hauser, who also worked hard and loved to share ideas.

So Tom and Jenny retired from Nachusa to move back to their beloved Monroe Wisconsin where Tom immediately became the most active volunteer steward in the area, volunteering with The Prairie Enthusiasts. Tom and his cohorts care for the 135-acre Muralt Bluff Prairie, and several other sites nearby. Before Tom, the volunteer group had been meeting once in a while to do some work. Now with Tom doing stewardship 7 days a week the group is getting a ton done.

Tom is famous. All of us are famous in our various circles.

2022: Tom Mitchell

Cool bonus: A wonderful five minute NPR radio piece featuring Tom and others with photos is here: https://youtu.be/-tABkRbXzPI

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A new illustrated handbook for ecological restoration

A book review by Daniel Suarez

A Healthy Nature Handbook. Illustrated insights for Ecological Restoration from Volunteer Stewards of Chicago Wilderness. Edited by Justin Pepper and Don Parker. Available at Island Press https://islandpress.org/books/healthy-nature-handbook and here is a 20% coupon code HNH2021

Daniel Suarez

Aldo Leopold once wrote that “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.”

Written nearly a century ago, Leopold’s words still ring true for many. In places like Chicago, where prairie was converted to farms and then homes, subdivisions, neighborhoods, and one of the largest metropolises in the United States over 100 years ago, we struggle to find the scars of past sins on the landscape. However, for nearly half a century, everyday people have taken up Leopold’s challenge and accepted that the consequences of science are their business, that there are marks of ecological decay all around us, that in fact communities can make a difference. These everyday people have congregated on weekends and weekdays, in the heat and mosquito-ridden humidity and in the piercing cold to begin putting small fragments of our ecological heritage back together. They’ve come from backgrounds as schoolteachers, pharmacists, lawyers, artists, and activists, learning from established professional experts but most importantly from each other. The result is a network of highly-motivated, generous individuals who are driven by the idea that to restore an ecological community, a human community must be formed around the cause.

For many, however, this network is inaccessible. Chicago, while highly manipulated and fragmented, does have an abundance of parks and preserves that set it apart from many large metro areas. In more rural areas, or areas lacking access to nature, finding like-minded individuals and progressive institutions that value the contributions volunteers can be exceedingly difficult.

That is why books like the A Healthy Nature Handbook: Illustrated Insights for Ecological Restoration from Volunteer Stewards of Chicago Wilderness, edited by Justin Pepper and Don Parker, are so needed. Breaking down the barriers for access to some of the most forward-thinking, hard-working volunteer stewards in the region, this volume will help connect isolated individuals with the thought processes, ingenuity, and innovation that are hallmarks of the volunteer stewardship community in the Chicago Wilderness region.

As a college graduate during the Great Recession of the late 2000s, I found myself in a difficult situation. Armed with a dual degree in Art History and Religion, I was unable to find work in galleries and museums, leading to a less-than-ideal job of bagging groceries at Whole Foods. I felt lost, stuck, and in need of a new direction. Someone turned me on to the idea of volunteering at the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore (now National Park), and I fell in love with the idea of becoming a National Park Ranger. Having grown up never camping, hiking, or even visiting a National Park, I didn’t have a grasp on what exactly I could accomplish or what I could learn. After making the long weekly trek to the Dunes on the South Shore Line for almost a year, I was tipped off that there were actually opportunities to volunteer doing habitat restoration closer to home. I attended one workday at Somme Prairie Grove with Stephen Packard, one of the volunteer stewards highlighted in A Healthy Nature Handbook, and my life was never the same.

Stephen and the Somme volunteers lit a fire under me. I had a radical awakening that challenged everything I thought I knew about nature, Chicago, and humans’ ability to restore what was lost. I immediately started spending my days off and time before or after work at Somme and other preserves, meeting stewards, asking questions, tagging along to mark areas for future workdays, collecting seeds of rare species, or hand-pollinating endangered orchids. It wasn’t easy or comfortable, and I was pushing myself outside of my comfort zone to spend time with unfamiliar people in unfamiliar places. However, before long I had established a strong network of teachers and mentors. This privilege afforded me the opportunity to eventually get an internship doing prairie restoration at the Chicago Botanic Garden, which developed into a temporary job with the Plants of Concern community science project, and eventually a career with Audubon Great Lakes, where I have worked for the past eight years.

What does my story have to do with A Healthy Nature Handbook? As I read through this impressive volume, I found myself with that familiar feeling I first felt at Somme. Hearing about innovations in restoration directly from the people that developed them, I felt that fire being lit under me again. And I know that others in the Chicago Wilderness region and beyond will feel the same.

The book focuses on particular restoration techniques, like the oft-duplicated Sedge Warrior process innovated by Tom Vanderpoel and Citizens for Conservation, or the backyard seed propagation efforts of Rob Sulski and the North Branch Restoration Project. Peppered throughout are nuggets of wisdom that are useful not only to those in the Chicago Wilderness region, but beyond. That’s because the conversational style of teaching that volunteer stewards excel at is faithfully reproduced throughout the book. Therefore, even if you’re restoring Longleaf Pine forests in Georgia, you can learn about the thought processes and can-do attitude that resulted in a regionally significant rare plant propagating effort and apply them to your own geography.

Similarly, one does not need to be able to identify Henslow’s Sparrows or Bobolinks to be able to understand Jenny Flexman’s ability to “see ecosystems in 3D” and thus change their observational skills to interpret restoration through the lens of savanna or woodland birds. The book provides specific information that some may benefit from, and general ways of viewing ecosystems and the challenges of restoration that everyone can apply to their local habitats. This, in turn, should spawn creativity and experimentation from a new generation of stewards, which are sorely needed in our age of rapidly-declining biodiversity.

The visual format of the book will appeal to everyone, especially younger stewards who are familiar with bite-sized pieces of information that are rich with graphics that mimic social media and blog posts. The authors imply that one of their goals was to build a Cook’s Illustrated for habitat restoration; the book acts not like a traditional recipe book that teaches you how to cook a specific dish, but rather teaches you how to build skills and techniques so that you can cook a great dish using the ingredients you happen to have on hand.

A Healthy Nature Handbook will surely influence a new generation of stewards. I know I’ll be sharing this volume with future Audubon interns and volunteer stewards – both in and outside of Chicago – for years to come. Tools like this help build more ecological literacy, which is essential if we are to combat the biodiversity and climate crisis at hand. One doesn’t become a steward overnight. It requires patience, curiosity, hard work, and access to innovative teaches and ideas. A Healthy Nature Handbook takes the onus off of the individual to make those connections and helps fast track the development of ecologically-literate communities that can help us reimagine a brighter future for nature and humans.

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