20th Anniversary of State Wildlife Grant Program
In 2000, the State Wildlife Grant Program was created by Congress to provide funding for the conservation of wildlife and their native habitats across the United States. During this time, Illinois’ State Wildlife Grant (SWG) Program has provided funding to 129 projects to benefit at-risk species and their habitats. Through land acquisition, research, and stewardship State Wildlife Grants have been used to benefit Species of Greatest Conservation Need (SGCN) and the habitats that they rely upon.
Land Acquisition and Stewardship
Acquiring and maintaining land allows for the direct protection of at-risk species habitat. Since the SWG Program started, five land acquisition and 35 stewardship projects have been funded. With the funding, the Lower Apple River INAI Mussel Site Protection & Restoration Project was able to complete a 120-acre land acquisition in Jo Daviess County. This project ended up preserving and creating habitat for 34 SGCN including the barn owl, bald eagle, and the American river otter. Once the land was acquired, grant-funded workers enhanced the habitat to make it a more suitable environment for SGCN. A common predicament is that invasive species will spread throughout a sect of land, disrupting the natural community. When these invasive species are plants, this means an alteration of the plant community, in abundance and composition, and affecting wildlife by changing the availability of food sources and shelter.
The Restoration of King Rail Habitat Project removed 79 acres of invasive brush and cattails through the use of controlled burns; thus, creating open areas that help the bird to forage as well as closed vegetation for discrete nesting. After completing the project detection and capture of the marsh bird was almost exclusive to restored areas.
Birds as SGCN
There are currently 82 different species of birds that are considered SGCN in Illinois. With that, there have been 20 SWG funded projects with a species focus on those birds. The Evaluation of Non-Game Bird Conservation in Illinois project conducted a comparative study on how bird habitat availability and quality have changed over the past 100 years and how that has altered bird distributions in Illinois. The evaluation discovered that more than 50 percent of grassland birds exhibited downward population trends over the last 50 years. An extreme example of this would be the upland sandpiper. In the 1950s, the bird had an estimated population of about 200,000. Since then, the bird population has declined by more than 99 percent, with likely far less than 1,000 nesting pairs remaining. The primary stressor impacting bird populations is the change of the state’s prairies, wetlands, forests, and other natural habitats into towns, cities, and agricultural areas. More importantly, these agricultural areas have changed from rotational farming (pastures, small grains, etc.) to row crops such as corn and soybeans. As stated in the IWAP Farmland & Prairie Campaign Chapter, this results in a disconnect within native populations through habitat fragmentation, which can eventually cause local extirpations. One initiative combatting fragmentation would be the Important Bird Areas project that initially identified and established 66 (now 91) official areas across Illinois deemed most critical for bird conservation. Through this project the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) has been able to develop databases containing crucial data on bird populations and habitat.
Fish as SGCN
Modifications of watersheds and stream channels have had a detrimental impact on fish populations in Illinois waterways. State Wildlife Grants have been used to fund 18 projects with a species focus on the 80 SGCN fish throughout Illinois. Comprehensive conservation of SGCN fish requires knowledge of the status, stressors, and other previous research of the fish. There is also a need to study habitat choices and timing for fish spawning to provide data for preservation. The creation of the Status Revision and Update for Illinois Fish Project met these conservation needs. The Project re-evaluated stressors to indicate environmental conditions that impact the distribution and abundance of all SGCN fish in Illinois. It also estimated population trends to predict current status. With various habitat, community, and population stresses, the redspotted sunfish had reached state-endangered status. The Illinois SWG Program sought to change this by funding a project focused on Redspotted Sunfish Reintroduction to Illinois Sites of Historical Distribution. In the first year of the project, workers stocked around 175 fish into Mansion pond and around 4,000 fish into Emiquon pond. Over the next two years, they added 4,500 more fish into Emiquon. Subsequent surveys of the ponds continue to show healthy populations of redspotted sunfish.
Invertebrates in the Plan
Like other species, invertebrates need a healthy habitat to thrive. The project Insects as Indicators of Habitat Quality, Ecological Integrity, and Restoration Success sought to use native species to evaluate sites of conservation interest. This project developed a Butterfly Quality Index to measure habitat quality by using the diversity and abundance data of butterflies. In preparation of updating the State Wildlife Action Plan Illinois’ SWG Program funded a Review and Update of Non-mollusk Invertebrate SGCN which assessed 563 taxa and proposed 166 of them as SGCN. The Project also created a list of conservation actions, mainly focusing on surveying areas to monitor the status of invertebrates. Information gaps identified during this project have inspired more SWG funded invertebrate surveys and research. These include on-going studies of Bumblebees, Dragonflies, Cicadas and many more.
Recovery Efforts for Endangered & Threatened Species
Funding recovery efforts is a direct way for the SWG Program to benefit endangered and threatened species. In A Plan for the Recovery of the Endangered Barn Owl in Illinois, a plan was drafted to promote partnerships with public and private landowners for more sustainable land stewardship and locate prime habitats for the barn owl to inhabit. Nest boxes were then constructed for the birds to adopt. Careful monitoring of the nest boxes shows an increasing population and a more extensive range of distribution of the barn owl in Illinois.
For reptile SGCN, the Blanding turtle has reached endangered species status in Illinois due to a fragmentation of habitat leading to high nest predation rate, vehicle mortality, and pollution. The Recovery of the Blanding’s Turtle at Spring Bluff Nature Preserve project aimed to restore and monitor the species population. The study determined that 83 percent of unprotected nests in the preserve were predated. However, out of the nests that technicians were able to locate and protect, none faced predation. The project also increased the turtle population through headstarting and release. Over the three years of the study, 312 eggs were harvested and reared in captivity, 69 hatchlings were released into the wild, and 122 hatchlings were being raised in a safe environment prior to release.
During the past 20 years, 129 Grant Projects have been initiated through the State Wildlife Grant Program in Illinois. These efforts continue to enhance and maintain natural communities and native species throughout the state.
Arthur Hadley-Ives is an undergraduate intern for the State Wildlife Action Plan Program in the Division of Natural Heritage of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. He is currently pursuing a degree in Environmental Science from the University of Oregon.