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When Doug Wade was organizing the first Northern Illinois Prairie Workshop one of his biggest problems was figuring out how much food to prepare. The year was 1975. Outside of a few prescient spirits like Doug, hardly anybody in Illinois knew what a tallgrass prairie was. It was impossible to predict how many guests would show up for a daylong meeting on the subject of prairies.
The uncertainty upset the cooks at the Laredo Taft Campus of Northern Illinois University in Oregon, Illinois, where Doug taught and where the workshop was held. They told Doug they couldn’t cook at all unless he could guarantee a minimum of 40 for lunch. Doug took a chance and said he could. When the list of registrants neared 150, the cooks were so overwhelmed they refused to take any more reservations. Some who registered late were told they could come but they would have to bring their own lunch.
That sort of uncertainty is unlikely to bother the organizers of the ninth Northern Illinois Prairie Workshop, which is scheduled for April 1 at Northeastern University in Chicago. Thanks in large part to pioneers like Doug Wade, people who love prairies are now organized into networks. Communication among them is rapid and frequent, and guesses about workshop attendance are a bit easier to make.
There are other changes too. That first workshop featured a series of informal question-and-answer sessions and no formal papers. This year’s session offers no less than 41 papers and panel discussions, to be presented at one morning and two afternoon sessions. There will also be a keynote address, a closing address, and a lunchtime presentation on prairies by Bill Kurtis of WBBM TV.
The subject matter of all these presentations shows other changes since the early days. At the beginning of the prairie revival, the emphasis was almost entirely on plants. There were very good reasons for this. For one, the discoverers of Illinois’ prairie remnants, people like Floyd Swink of the Morton Arboretum and Robert Betz of Northeastern, were botanists by training or inclination.
Even more important is the fact that prairies are primarily a creation of plant life. It is the plants that produce the distinctive prairie soils. It is the plants that provide the food and shelter that sustain the animals of the prairie. So plants were the focus of attention. Students of prairies looked at community structure and variation, at which plants grew on black-soil prairies and which were confined to gravel-hill prairies or sand prairies or wet prairies.
As the restoration of degraded prairie–or of cornfields that had been prairies 150 years before–spread, the restorers searched for the most efficient ways to propagate prairie plants.
But as experience in restoration and management grew, as more remnants were identified and studied, a shift in emphasis began. After all, ecosystems include both plants and animals. If you want to preserve or restore the prairie, you have to think about regal fritillaries and smooth green snakes as well as blazing stars and Indian grass.
Ron Panzer’s work on prairie insects helped stimulate this shift. Panzer, site steward at the Gensberg-Markham Prairie, found several species of butterflies, moths, and leafhoppers that lived on prairie remnants and nowhere else. Monitoring of insect populations, using volunteer monitors trained by Panzer, is now a part of management and restoration efforts at several northern Illinois prairie and savanna sites.
This move toward closer study of prairie and savanna animals is reflected in the program at this year’s workshop. Beetles, birds, butterflies, turtles, salamanders, frogs, ants, grasshoppers, spiders, and snakes are among the creatures whose habits and distribution will be discussed by various speakers.
Jon Duerr of the Kane County Forest Preserve will be reporting on his research on beetles. Duerr is a plant ecologist by training and an interested amateur as an entomologist. His background helped him figure out a sensible scheme of fieldwork and it helped him research the relevant literature, but with no formal schooling in the subject, he has had to learn to identify beetle species on the job.
So far, his research has raised lots of questions and provided few answers. “There is very little research on the habitat of these insects,” he told me. “The early naturalists were mainly interested in describing the species. They paid very little attention to what kind of plants they were found on.”
Insect-plant associations are the sort of thing that particularly interests ecologists. Duerr has found one species of rose weevil that seems to live only on Rosa carolina plants and not on any of the other three kinds of roses native to prairies. Is it an obligate species, a species capable of living only on one sort of plant? The literature contains no answer, so Duerr will have to look for one himself. He has also found beetles who spend their lives in anthills and who are, therefore, dependent on particular kinds of ants for their continued existence.
Ants are the special interest of Mark DuBois, another speaker on the program. DuBois is an ant systematist by training, who spends his research time classifying species. He has completed systematic studies of two major genera and recently did a study called “The Ants of Illinois.”
There are about 20,000 species of ants in the world, and only about half of them have been described by scientists. It is conceivable that you could discover a species new to science in your backyard. DuBois once found a new one in exotic Central Michigan.
He is currently studying the ecology of Illinois ants, learning what species favor forests or prairies or savannas. Although scientists have been poking around in Illinois for a century and a half, nobody has ever systematically studied this question before.
Kenneth Mierzwa will be reporting on his studies of Chicago area herps. “Herps” is biologists’ shorthand for reptiles and amphibians. The word comes from the Greek word for creeping and it is also the root of herpetology. Mierzwa’s talk carries the title “Using Amphibians and Reptiles as Indicators of Presettlement Vegetation.” It grew out of collecting and surveying work he was doing in Lake County. When he mapped the ranges of various species as his research had revealed them, and laid the map over a detailed map of presettlement vegetation prepared for the Lake County Forest Preserve by Robin Moran, he discovered an almost perfect correlation. Species such as milk snakes and brown snakes lived on land that was once oak savanna or along the edges of woodlands. Plains garter snakes and smooth green snakes occupied places that had once been prairie.
“We are dealing with animals with very short legs–or in the case of snakes, with no legs at all,” Mierzwa says. “They rarely move more than a few hundred meters in their lifetimes.”
Their immobility has been reinforced in recent years by all the roads, parking lots, railroad tracks, and other obstacles we have created. Unlike mobile creatures such as birds and the larger mammals, herps stay put, and that is why they can help us reconstruct past conditions.
Mierzwa has tested his ideas in Will County, where there is no detailed map of presettlement vegetation. He found that his woodland and savanna species are confined to the hilly ground of the Valparaiso Moraine and to the woodlands along the Des Plaines River. South and west of the moraine, where prairie probably dominated, he now finds only prairie species.
Ken Mierzwa typifies a dominant strain in the prairie movement. He was a business major. Herps were his hobby, but he has devoted so much time and study to them that he is widely recognized as an authority even though he doesn’t have the right degrees. Lately, he has begun to combine work and hobby by doing studies of herps on a contract basis with various public and private agencies who have natural land to manage.
The importance of amateurs in the prairie movement shows up plainly in the list of speakers scheduled for the workshop. The Nature Conservancy has put together a large and active group called the Volunteer Stewardship Network to care for natural areas of all kinds–prairies, savannas, woodlands, and wetlands–in northern Illinois. Representatives of the network will be discussing techniques for organizing successful workdays on natural areas. People whose knowledge comes directly from experience will tell how to organize projects, how to decide what to do in each season, and how to sustain a volunteer organization dedicated to maintaining a natural area.
And since preserving prairie remnants often means drumming up political support for them, several highly experienced people will tell how they organized successful campaigns to protect natural areas in their communities.
Anyone who is heavily into prairies is probably already registered for the workshop. If you are interested but so far uninvolved, the workshop will be a great way to get a heavy dose of prairie fever. Chicago is the center of prairie protection and restoration in the U.S., and at the workshop you can meet the people who can steer you toward some very satisfying work.
You need to register in advance for the workshop. You can do that by calling 869-5966 and leaving your name and address. The workshop’s organizers, the North Branch Prairie Project, will send you the necessary forms along with a workshop program. The cost is $18 for adults and $12 for students, which includes lunch.