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Nature’s Comebacks in the Midwest

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Three river otters peek over a fallen log.

Have you heard of these 6 endangered species recovering across the Midwest? Conservation gave them a second chance!

Saving Otters These river otters are just one example of species that have come back from the brink of extinction thanks to conservation efforts in the U.S. © Aaron Peterson

Who doesn’t love a comeback story? You know, the losing team that comes from behind to win it all in a buzzer-beater. Or people like Albert Einstein who was told by his teachers that he “lacked capability,” yet he went on to change the world with his ideas.

An adult bald eagle sits in a nest with a small, fluffy, white eagle chick.
Bald eagle and chick After near-extinction, the bald eagle has rebounded and was removed from the Endangered Species List. © Robert Wrenn

Nature also boasts some big comebacks of her own. Take the bald eagle, for example. This iconic bird was once abundant in North America, but its population plummeted largely due to poisoning, shooting and pesticides like DDT that caused reproductive failure. It was listed as an endangered species in 1978.

DDT was eventually banned, more protective federal and state endangered species laws were passed, and captive-breeding and reintroduction efforts got underway. Bald eagle numbers increased by nearly 4% each year between 1966 and 2019, and in June 2007 it was removed from the Endangered Species List

Grim News Tempered with Hope

Today, the news is grim for many creatures here on Earth. Currently, more than one in five species of reptiles worldwide are threatened with extinction. In 2019, the journal Science reported a net loss of almost three billion birds, or 29%, since 1970 in the United States and Canada.

Other studies show that 40% of all insect species are declining and that about 1 million species of plants and animals are threatened with extinction.

Among the major causes of species loss are habitat destruction and degradation, climate change, invasive species and unregulated harvests.

At the same time, we see rays of hope. Here in the Midwest, governments, non-profits like The Nature Conservancy, scientists, children, families and other nature enthusiasts are helping to bring plants, animals and their habitats back from the brink. These are just a few of their stories.

Midwest Endangered Species Success Stories

Discover species that have come back from the brink of extinction thanks to conservation efforts across several states.

An orange-and-black butterfly sits on an orange flower.
Regal fritillary Populations of regal fritillaries are beginning to rebound through conservation efforts to restore their prairie habitat. © Jeanette Jaskula

ILLINOIS

Regal Fritillaries Fly Home to Illinois Prairies

Pollinator populations across the Midwest have been declining rapidly in the last few decades, but one species is making its way back home to Illinois prairies: the regal fritillary (Speyeria idalia). This striking butterfly, often mistaken for a monarch due to its similar vibrant orange coloring and black markings, has some big obstacles in its path to survival: significant loss of prairie habitat and a very limited diet made up exclusively of prairie violets. TNC, partners and supporters are working to bolster habitat and violet food sources at preserves across the Midwest, including at our Indian Boundary Prairies and Nachusa Grasslands. At Nachusa, regal fritillaries are using prairie habitat restored as recently as five years ago. While the species remains in decline throughout its historic range, efforts like these prairie plantings that include five violet species and expand large, connected prairie landscapes are setting the stage for a comeback.

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Closeup of two river otters nuzzling each other.
River Otters Protecting habitat for river otters can help restore populations of this playful species. © Dmitry Azovtsev

INDIANA

Welcome Back, Otters

Few mammals have made as incredible a comeback as the river otter (Lutra canadensis). Historically, river otters were abundant in the waterways and coastal areas throughout Canada and the United States. Unfortunately, habitat loss, water pollution and the fur trade devastated otter populations. River otters are now found throughout the state, thanks to the efforts of the Indiana Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and its partners. In 1995, the DNR began to re-establish healthy otter populations in several watersheds of northern and southern Indiana, including the Blue River in Harrison County. TNC has been very active in the Blue River watershed for more than 20 years, improving water quality for the otter and many other species. The otter was removed from the state’s endangered species list in 2005, and it can now be found in more than 80 Indiana counties, far surpassing reintroduction goals.

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Two sandhill cranes stand in a field.
Sandhill Cranes Wetland restoration projects help many species like migratory sandhill cranes. © Jackie Riley

OHIO

Ohio’s Wetlands Support Sandhill Crane Comeback

Once extirpated in Ohio, sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis) are making a comeback. Dating back 2.5 million years, sandhill cranes are one of the oldest living birds in the world. Unfortunately, the loss of more than 90% of Ohio’s wetlands has found the wetland-dependent bird in sharp decline in the state in recent decades. But, TNC is helping. Wetland projects like the restoration of Sandhill Crane Wetlands in northwest Ohio and the protection of Lucia S. Nash Preserve in northeast Ohio are providing important habitat for the cranes. Today, the bird is still threatened, but with more wetland restoration projects on the horizon, we hope to see them delisted one day soon!

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A school of long silver fish swims in sunlit water.
School of Lake Herring Also known as cisco, the lake herring is a native freshwater fish in Michigan. © Paul Vecsei

MICHIGAN

Cisco Numbers on the Rise

Cisco (Coregonus artedi) is a “forage” fish that provides an important food source for larger fish like lake trout. But in 1970, you would have hard pressed to find cisco in any of the North American Great Lakes. From invasive species to overharvesting to environmental degradation, cisco went through it all and the impact it had on their population was devastating. However, as efforts were made to address these issues, cisco began to make their return. TNC partnered with experts to study the number of cisco in Lake Michigan beginning in the early 2000s, confirming their numbers and range have increased significantly.

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A dragonfly with a vibrant green head in flight.
Hine's Emerald Research is helping the federally endangered Hine's emerald dragonfly make a comeback. © Josh Merrill Photography

WISCONSIN

Rare Dragonfly Gets a Helping Hand

Once believed to be extinct, this federally endangered dragonfly with bright green eyes is making a comeback on Wisconsin’s Door Peninsula, which hosts the greatest abundance of Hine’s emerald dragonflies (Somatochlora hineana) in the world. Years of research by Dr. Dan Soluk and his students have led to greater understanding of the life cycle of this somewhat mysterious animal and its habitat needs. With support from our members, TNC is using the information provided by these scientists to protect groundwater recharge areas important to the dragonfly’s larvae, which may be the key to the species’ survival.

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A bald eagle in flight with a fish in its talons.
Bald Eagle Through decades of conservation efforts, this majestic raptor was removed from the Endangered Species List in 2007. © Marci Lanois/TNC Photo Contest 2022

MINNESOTA

Restoring an Icon

Revered as a symbol of bravery, strength and freedom across cultures in North America, the bald eagle is considered one of our nation’s greatest conservation success stories. In Minnesota and Wisconsin, which boast the largest populations of nesting bald eagles in the Lower 48, they are especially a point of pride. Decades ago, this national symbol was at risk of extinction due to habitat loss, illegal hunting and widespread use of DDT, a once-popular chemical insecticide. When DDT was banned in the early 1970s, the number of known active nests in Minnesota was just over 100. By the time surveys concluded in 2006, the number of active nests was estimated at more than 1,300. In 2007, the bald eagle was officially removed from the Endangered Species List. Today, The Nature Conservancy proudly works to protect important habitat that benefits bald eagles, including in the Northwoods, the Driftless Area and the Mississippi River’s headwaters area.

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Closeup of a small light-purple flower blooming in a field.
Decurrent False Aster
The decurrent false aster has been federally threatened since 1988. TNC and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service are restoring its natural habitat at Spunky Bottoms and Emiquon.
A small brown songbird perches on the tip of a thin grassland plant and looks at the camera.`
Grasshopper Sparrow
Grassland restoration efforts in the Midwest, like at the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, are helping the grasshopper sparrow come back to its historic habitat range.
A sandhill crane with its wings outstretched next to its body as it takes flight.
Sandhill Crane
Endangered in the '30s and '40s, they’ve come back tremendously in recent decades in midwestern states. In recent years, they’ve been spotted at Nachusa Grasslands.
A small songbird with yellow head and white chest flecked with black perches on a stalk of grass with its beak open.
Henslow’s Sparrow
First observed at TNC’s Nachusa Grasslands about 10 years after restoration efforts began, today it’s an abundant species with numerous nesting pairs seen every year.
Steel gray warbler with a yellow throat and belly resting on a branch.
Kirtland’s Warbler
Once near the point of extinction, Kirtland’s warbler populations are flourishing in Michigan thanks to years of conservation work.
An alpha male gray wolf (Canis lupus) stands in a forest during a winter snowfall.
Gray Wolf
By the early 1970s, wolves had nearly disappeared from Michigan. Today, their population is rebounding with access to large, unfragmented forests.
A brown butterfly with a few black spots on its wings sits on a tiny white flower.
Mitchell’s Satyr Butterfly
Habitat loss has impacted this rare butterfly. According to the UFWS, it can be found in nine locations in Michigan.
Closeup of an orchid with a yellow slipper-shaped flower and two brown, twisted flags growing in a wooded area.
Yellow Lady-Slipper Orchids
Restoration efforts in fens benefit numerous rare plants including the yellow lady-slipper orchid. This protected wildflower has been found in abundance after prescribed fires.
Closeup of the delicate petals of a vibrant purple flower, the dwarf lake iris.
Dwarf Lake Iris
At the North Bay-Mud Lake Preserve on the Door Peninsula in Wisconsin, TNC is protecting habitat for this rare iris, which is only found near northern Great Lakes shorelines.
A peregrine falcon, a medium-sized raptor with a brown head and buff-colored body specked with brown spreads its wings.
Peregrine Falcon
At Chiwaukee Prairie, TNC is protecting shoreline habitat that peregrines use to hunt for food during migration.
A small songbird with a blue body and white underbelly perches sideways on a thin branch.
Cerulean Warbler
In the Baraboo Hills, TNC is protecting the large expanses of older forest that cerulean warblers need to nest and raise their young.
A snake with a pale base color and brown patches and a rattle at the end of its tail coils on a forest floor.
Massasauga Rattlesnake
At the Morgan Swamp Preserve in northeast Ohio, TNC is protecting and restoring native wet praurie habitat that the state-endangered Massasauga rattlesnake needs to thrive.
A small gray-brown rat sits in a rocky area and nibbles on some food.
Allegheny Woodrat
Through research and land protection efforts at the Edge of Appalachia Preserve in southern Ohio, TNC is helping support the endangered Allegheny woodrat.
A gray butterfly with black and orange spots sits on a bright orange flower.
Karner Blue Butterfly
In the globally rare Oak Openings Region of northwest Ohio, TNC is helping the federally endangered Karner blue butterfly by planting their host plant—wild blue lupine.
Looking down on a brown salamander with orange markings on its tail lying on muddy earth.
Four-toed Salamander
At the Brown’s Lake Bog Preserve in north central Ohio, TNC is protecting habitat for species of special concern like four-toed salamanders.
A small songbird with yellow head and white chest flecked with black perches on a stalk of grass with its beak open.
Henslow’s Sparrow
At the Edge of Appalachia Preserve in southern Ohio, TNC is working to restore migratory pathways for birds like the Henslow’s sparrow, a species of concern in the Midwest.
A butterfly with orange wings with large white teardrop-shaped dots on them sits on a purple flower.
Regal Fritillary
Regal fritillary caterpillars eat only the leaves of violet species, so at Kankakee Sands TNC has planted violets for the caterpillars and nectar-rich wildflowers for the adults.
Closeup of a gray wolf lying on grass.
Gray Wolf
In Minnesota’s Northwoods, TNC is protecting land and restoring forests that provide habitat for one of the largest populations of wild wolves in the Lower 48.
A prairie chicken comes in for a landing next to another prairie chicken standing in a grassland.
Greater Prairie Chicken
In western Minnesota, TNC is working to protect important grassland habitat where greater prairie chickens perform their ritual mating dance on what’s referred to as a lek.
A man kneels on a dock and releases a lake sturgeon, a large fish, into a body of water.
Lake Sturgeon
In the St. Louis River, a Lake Superior tributary, TNC and partners improved spawning habitat for lake sturgeon, which are now once again reproducing in the river.

Midwest Success

Where to See Rare Species

See the Comebacks You can find these amazing species and more at our preserves.

Together, We Can Help Nature Make a Comeback

It will take all of us working together to ensure that these plants and animals, and all the creatures who share our planet, have a fighting chance to not only survive, but thrive, today and for generations to come. Here are a few ways you can help.

  • Green icon of a government building.

    Action Center

    Urge your elected representatives to support conservation programs like the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act that will provide funding to states, territories and Tribes to help them put conservation measures in place for species. Take action now.

  • Green icon of plants sprouting from the ground.

    Plant a Native Garden

    A native garden will support insects like monarchs (which are now endangered), the pollinators that help plants reproduce and the flowers that birds need. How to plant for pollinators.

  • Green icon of a group of trees.

    Plant a Tree Today

    Trees are beautiful, help clean our air and water, and provide shade on hot days. They also store carbon, helping to curb climate change! Plant your tree today!

  • Green icon of a chainsaw next to a plant.

    Combat Invasive Species

    Educate yourself and others about invasive species and help remove them in your yard, in your parks and at nature preserves. The Midwest Invasive Plant Network offers many helpful resources. What are invasive species?

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How is TNC prioritizing preserving biodiversity?

    TNC is committed to helping protect at least 30% of the world’s land, lakes, rivers and oceans. We are focused on conserving a representative sample of all habitats in places that will be resilient as the climate changes. We invest in the management of protected areas to maintain biodiversity, and where we can’t meet our protection goals, we work to restore degraded habitats. Finally, we are advocating for more public investment in conservation and creating opportunities to direct more private investment capital toward the protection of nature.

  • Where does the Midwest fit in?

    In the Midwest, our work contributes to TNC’s commitment to protect 30% of the world’s lands and waters. We are focused on those land- and waterscapes that are iconic and/or unique to our region. They include Great Lakes fisheries and coastal communities; the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, their floodplains and tributary streams; our northern forests, lakes and wetlands; and the prairie and savanna landscapes in the heart of the Midwest.

  • What can I do to help?

    You can invest in nature with your time, money or both. If you are a TNC member, you’re off to a good start! Your financial support is protecting iconic Midwest lands and waters. Other things you can do are speak up for nature with your elected officials and champion good government policy and funding programs like the Restoring America’s Wildlife Act. You can calculate your carbon footprint and work to reduce it. Sign up for Nature News to learn more about our work and how you can help.

We Can’t Save Nature Without You

Donate today to help protect more endangered species.

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