Southern Lake Michigan Project Office

Man on a mission

Learn about volunteer Gerry Lehmann's search for butterflies.

Tucked along the southern rim of Lake Michigan amid aging steel mills and bustling development lies one of the richest assemblages of species in North America. Here, tallgrass prairie collides with eastern deciduous forest to create an area of tension between these two dominating systems, which freely intermingle. Out of this unique interplay comes exceptional diversity of plant and animal life, including more than 350 species of bird that inhabit this region while nesting or migrating.

Nearly 40 years ago, in an effort to preserve this unparalleled diversity, Congress created Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, which ranks third among U.S. national parks for its number of native plant species. Here, you still can see natural remnants of communities that once flourished in the Great Lakes region and nowhere else.

The Southern Lake Michigan Rim project office is working with a variety of partners to help protect this national treasure and other natural areas throughout Northwest Indiana.

Location and Size

The Southern Lake Michigan Rim lies along the southern shore of Lake Michigan in Lake, Porter and LaPorte Counties - a region well known for its heavy industry and dense urbanization.

The Conservancy's work within the Lake Michigan Watershed is focused on the 14,000-acre Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, the 500-acre Hoosier Prairie Nature Preserve and the 1000-acre Toleston Strandplain Macrosite, a series of remnant natural areas near the Grand Calumet River which includes the Conservancy's 131-acre Ivanhoe Dune & Swale Preserve.


Renowned Chicago botanist Henry Cowles was drawn here more than 100 years ago by this region’s unusual flora and dune landscape, which provided the perfect outdoor laboratory to study orderly changes within plant communities — what he called "succession." His important discoveries mark the birth of American ecology.

Since that time, botanists and ecologists have followed in his footsteps to further study Northwestern Indiana’s plant life, much of which evolved as the landscape and climate changed over time. About 30 percent of Indiana’s rare, threatened and endangered plant species are here, making this a truly important place to study and observe plants.

The federally-threatened Pitcher’s thistle is one of these unique plant species. Living on the harsh, windy shores of Lake Michigan, it is fighting for survival. This native thistle nearly disappeared from this region but was reintroduced to the National Lakeshore as part of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s recovery plan for the species. A woolly-looking plant, it flowers and seeds only once in its lifetime, when it’s between 5 and 8 years old. During this rare time, spiky pink flowers protrude from the three-foot-tall plant.

The Karner Blue

Long recognized by botanists as a premiere site to study rare plants, researchers now know the web of animal diversity is equally rich. A tremendous variety of birds — 352 species — can be found migrating through this region or nesting here. Frogs, toads, butterflies, dragonflies and reptiles thrive here in abundance.

One of the most-rare animals is the Karner blue, an inch-long butterfly that is listed as a federally endangered species. Its numbers have plummeted 99 percent in the last 100 years. U.S. Fish and Wildlife says the greatest drop — 90 percent — occurred in the last 15 years. These distinctive butterflies once were commonly found from New England to Minnesota.

More than six years ago, a wildfire consumed one of its few remaining habitats in Northwest Indiana, Ivanhoe Nature Preserve, which is located close to the heavy industries of Gary. Within a year, this rare butterfly disappeared from the 131-acre preserve. The Conservancy launched an effort to reintroduce this delicate butterfly. First though, its habitat needed to be improved and expanded. This meant restoring large areas of black oak savanna and planting an abundance of blue lupine, the Karner blue's larval food plant.

In the spring of 2001, after capturing 15 females that then laid eggs, Conservancy staff members began hand-rearing caterpillars of this fragile insect. That year, the first 250 of more than 1,000 Karner blue butterflies was released. In May and June of 2006, SLMRP saw the beginning of a five-year program with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to enhance its habitat. Between November 2006 and April 2007, more than 40 acres were restored at Ivanhoe Nature Preserve. This included understory clearing, canopy opening, and establishing dispersal corridors. As part of the Safe Harbor Agreement with US-FWS, 6,464 lupine seedlings and more than 5,000 seeds were planted at Ivanhoe Nature Preserve, Ivanhoe South natural area (across the road from the preserve), Beemsterboer, the DuPont property (in private ownership), and Gibson Woods Nature Preserve.

Because of the Conservancy’s success, it now is leading a larger effort to restore this federally endangered species to other natural areas in Northwestern Indiana. Efforts to restore the Karner blue to a healthy poopulation is on-going until this wondrous butterfly is saved from the endangered specie list.

Migratory Birds 

SLMRP has completed a significant portion of the work on a project called  “Defining Conservation Issues for Bird Migration Stopover Habitat Sites in the Chicago Region.” Funding for this project came from the Chicago Wilderness organization and we are working with Chicago Audubon members who, during data-gathering workshops in Illinois, provided valuable information about important migratory bird stopover sites within the Chicago Wilderness Region. Two workshops were held in Indiana, one which included the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, and numerous other one-on-one meetings took place in Indiana in order to assemble more data. This information will lay the groundwork for creating a comprehensive framework for regional migratory stopover site protection, restoration, and management efforts. positioned to foster partnerships with federal and state officials, industry leaders and concerned members of the community.

Why the Conservancy Selected This Site

Northwest Indiana is the heart of the state’s industrial might. Steel mills were lured here at the beginning of the 20th century by its location midway between the ore fields of Minnesota and the coalfields of the South, and by its access to the waterways of the Great Lakes. As the steel industry flourished, new businesses sprung up to service the mills and its workers.

Over time, this profusion of industry and its resulting pollution degraded much of the environment in this area. Like most other places with rapid development, industry, homes and rare natural lands intermingled. In spite of pollution and fragmentation of the landscape, Northwestern Indiana is one of the last great places in America where incredible biodiversity thrives. The Conservancy is committed to preserving the remaining high-quality areas while also restoring vitality to this ecological system by creating corridors and buffers for flora and fauna.

What the Conservancy Has Done/Is Doing

The challenges here are steep, but the potential rewards are great. Because of the Conservancy’s non-confrontational approach, it is uniquely positioned to foster partnerships with federal and state officials, industry leaders and concerned members of the community.

The Conservancy’s rigorous science-based approach underlies its strategic vision. Creating buffers between natural and urban areas, linking together small, remaining fragments of this original landscape and guiding plans to alleviate the impact of industry are some of the Conservancy’s goals.

In partnership with volunteers, the Conservancy has spent thousands of hours cutting brush, pulling weeds, removing trash and conducting prescribed burns. The Conservancy also is working with Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore on several projects, including assessing its invasive species. Projects on migratory birds and restoration projects for the Karner blue butterfly are ongoing as well. 

We’re Accountable

The Nature Conservancy makes careful use of your support.

More Ratings