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Sharing Our Science

Work at Conservancy preserves in Illinois is being shared with conservation projects and teams from around the world.

With more than 500 scientists on staff, science informs everything we do at the Conservancy. Every project is used to futher our conservation work and helps us build credibility with other organizations. This fall, our science team shared much of the research happening right here in Illinois with the world.

In October, Jeff Walk, director of science in Illinois, discussed the findings of his book, “Illinois Birds: Century of Change,” at the Governor’s Conference on Management of the Illinois River in Peoria. Over the course of a century, scientists analyzed the turnover in birds that appeared along the Illinois River.

“Nobody had ever done a standardized bird study like this before,” Walk explained. Each set of samplings followed the same protocol to ensure there would be integrity and consistency within the data.

What they discovered was that, after a drop off in the mid 1900s, fish and water fowl populations began to rise after the passage of the Clean Water Act in the 1970s. New bird species have also begun to appear, such as pelicans, which were not historically found on the Illinois River.

“In the wetlands of Illinois, we’re seeing that bird species are more adaptable than we ever thought,” Walk said, pointing to sandhill cranes and Canada geese living near people as conservation success stories.

The week after Walk’s presentation in Peoria, Nature Conservancy scientists headed to Madison, Wisconsin, to give not one, but 12 presentations on Emiquon at the Society for Ecological Restoration’s International Conference. The event brought together more than 1,200 delegates from around the world interested in the science and practice of ecological restoration.

“This conference provides the opportunity to demonstrate that Emiquon is one of the best-studied floodplain projects in the world. It’s also a chance to communicate the breadth of science that has gone into its development, monitoring, and conservation,” Walk said.

To understand the depth of planning that was involved, you have to start at the beginning. Researchers used 3D scenario modeling to analyze different restoration paths and their potential outcomes. Once a path was chosen and the restoration work started, teams atEmiquon monitored every level of the food chain, from zooplankton and aquatic plants to the largest predators in the water. This level of detail allowed researchers to understand the big picture, from which restoration practices work best to the economic value of the floodplain as it translates into tourism, hunting, and fishing dollars. At the conference, for the first time ever, this entire story of Emiquon was presented as a complete package for the benefit of the greater scientific community.

In addition to the ongoing research being done along the Illinois River, progress on the prairie has also made some major advancements. A study designed by Nachusa Grasslands Preserve Manager Bill Kleiman was recently published in the journal “Ecological Restoration.” This study used a high-diversity seed mix, with rates as high as 70 lbs/acre of a 128-species mix—10 times more species and 20 times as much seed per area as USDA standards for Conservation Reserve Program prairie restorations. What they discovered is that not only do prairie restorations that use this seed mix look very similar to high-quality remnant prairies, they are easier to manage.

While all of this research benefits our Illinois preserves, it also reaches beyond state borders. The work of our science team, shared with the world through scientific publications and at conferences and events, aids other conservation projects around the globe and leads the charge for understanding best conserva¬tion practices and the value they provide.

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