Confirmed sightings of bobcats have come from 90 of the 102 counties of Illinois in recent years. Double-crested cormorants were rare migrants through this region just a few years ago. Now they are regular nesters with growing breeding colonies. As a result, the Illinois Endangered Species Protection Board is proposing to remove both of these animals from the state’s list of threatened species.
This good news is unfortunately balanced by bad news. Bachman’s sparrow and the yellow rail have been recommended for removal from the list of endangered species because both birds have been extirpated from the state.
These changes–and several others–will be considered by the board when it meets on August 21 at the Illinois State Library in Springfield. The Illinois Endangered Species Act requires the board to conduct a thorough review of listed species every five years. The last such review was completed in 1993.
The news on bobcats is especially heartening. Predators are vulnerable animals because the ironclad rules of the second law of thermodynamics dictate that there is much less energy available for those at the top of the food chain than for those at the bottom. Even in healthy natural communities, the rabbit population is likely to be a few orders of magnitude larger than the bobcat population, so you don’t need to lose very many bobcats to know the species is in trouble.
Here in Cook County we have had tantalizing reports of possible bobcat sightings. Chris Anchor, chief wildlife biologist with the Cook County forest preserves, thought he had found one just a few years ago, but a closer look proved it was a large Manx, a tailless variety of house cat. Last winter there were some interesting tracks and a sighting reported by someone living near the Des Plaines River. If they’re out there, somebody will see one sooner or later.
Several of the proposed changes reflect the beneficial effects of the ban on DDT. The almost universal presence of DDT in the environment–even antarctic penguins had some stored in their body fat–was a catastrophe for fish-eating birds. Several once common and widespread species nearly became extinct between the end of World War II and the early 70s. The double-crested cormorant was one of those affected, as was the red-shouldered hawk, a bird of floodplain forests that eats fish, frogs, and other aquatic animals. In recent years several new nesting populations have been discovered in the state. The board proposed to upgrade its status from endangered to threatened.
The most famous fish eater among those nearly destroyed by DDT is the bald eagle. The lower-48 population of the national bird was down to a few hundred individuals at one point. The species did not qualify for listing in Illinois, because we had no breeding population. The bald eagle was a winter bird along the Mississippi and Illinois rivers and was almost never seen elsewhere. But as post-DDT populations grew, the bird began to nest in this state again. It was then listed as endangered. The number of nesting locations in the U.S. has now grown to 24. Populations appear to be growing, and the Endangered Species Protection Board is proposing to change the bald eagle’s status from endangered to threatened.
Bald eagles have not nested in northeastern Illinois in this century, but we do seem to have suitable habitat for them. No one would be too surprised–and everyone would be delighted–to see them nesting here once again.
Blanding’s turtle is a small reptile that favors marshy ponds and muddy-bottomed streams. These turtles wander, slowly and not very far by our standards, but they do wander. A female captured at Spring Bluff Preserve in northern Lake County was outfitted with a radio tracking device that allowed investigators to follow her north to a pond on Chiwaukee Prairie, just across the state line in Wisconsin. She moved 765 meters, about half a mile. She also moved from a state where she was on a watch list into one where she was considered threatened. Now the Illinois Endangered Species Protection Board is proposing to join with Wisconsin in considering the Blanding’s turtle a threatened species.
The habits of the Blanding’s turtle point to the importance of protecting even very small wetlands. A tiny marsh that could not support a breeding population of these turtles might nonetheless be a necessary feeding ground at some point during the summer.
Opponents of the protections provided by endangered species laws are given to loud guffaws or apoplectic outrage when species that are unlikely to show up on heraldic shields are given protection. Their belief seems to be that endangered species laws are like the legal protections given landmark buildings. The criteria should be primarily aesthetic. If an animal is not beautiful or large or stately or otherwise imposing, it should not be on the list.
It is obvious that these people were not paying attention during Biology 101. As a result they are not ready to understand the message contained in endangered species lists. Consider the mussels. The current state list includes no less than 33 endangered or threatened bivalves. The proposed changes would add three more while eliminating two that have been completely wiped out.
Once upon a time mussels had considerable economic importance in Illinois. Harvested for their meat and for their shells–which were fashioned into buttons and other decorative items–they supported large numbers of people and provided substantial amounts of food. Pollution, siltation, and overfishing combined to reduce the mussel harvest to a tiny fraction of what it once was. Now the introduction of the zebra mussel has added a new threat. The black sandshell, a species of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, is proposed for addition to the threatened list largely because zebra mussels are having a major negative impact on it.
Mussels are major organisms in aquatic ecosystems, even if the things they do are not readily visible to someone standing on the shore. They are also major indicators of how badly we have messed up our waters. If we could clean up our rivers to the point where we could take mussels off the list because their populations were increasing instead of vanishing, we could make things better for furry little cuties like the river otter, a species even a Republican could love.
The river otter is enjoying a modest comeback in Illinois, and the improvements in water quality that we have achieved over the past 25 years are certainly contributing factors. We don’t have any residents in northeastern Illinois yet, but occasional wanderers are reported. The Fox River would be the likeliest area for them, and they could move in there anytime. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources also has a reintroduction program that is showing some success. The Endangered Species Protection Board has proposed upgrading the status of the river otter from endangered to threatened.
The sandhill crane is slated for a similar change in status. These birds have been expanding their nesting range from Wisconsin into northern Illinois for about 20 years. Prior to that they were not listed in Illinois because they were considered gone from the state. The first nesting records were from Chain o’ Lakes State Park. The birds have gradually moved south into Du Page and northwestern Cook County. This summer we have reports of an immature sandhill crane in the Palos area, strong evidence that these stately avian giants are continuing to expand their nesting range.
Two species of birds, the sharp-shinned hawk and the long-eared owl, have been recommended for removal from the endangered list even though they are neither wiped out nor increasing in population. The sharp-shin, a small hawk whose diet is mainly songbirds, is a rare nester in the state, but all the historical information we have suggests that it has always been a rare nester. In other words, factors such as habitat loss or environmental degradation don’t seem to be contributing to the rarity of this animal. Similarly, the long-eared owl is uncommon, but existing breeding populations do not seem to be declining.
Four species are recommended for the move from threatened to endangered. One is the alligator snapping turtle, an impressive and rather scary creature with huge powerful jaws that could take your foot off if they caught you just right. The biggest alligator snapping turtle ever weighed tipped the scale at 316 pounds. They used to live in the lower Illinois and in the Mississippi as far north as the Quad Cities, but they are known to survive in only one location in the state at the present time.
The coachwhip is a long–the record is over eight feet–slender snake, fast moving and very active, currently known to be in only three locations in the state.
The yellow-crowned night heron and the king rail are both birds of wetlands, and wetlands are not very hopeful places to live in these days. Both species are getting rapidly rarer.
Biologists often use rare species as indicators of environmental quality. The Endangered Species Protection Board draws on the best information available on the status of these animals in our state. Their current proposals suggest that we are holding on in some areas, and actually showing some improvement in others, but overall continuing to decline. It would be nice to see some serious reductions in the number of listed species rather than the one step forward, one step back situation where one species comes off the list and another comes on. We have a lot to do.