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Hello! Welcome to the Heartlands Conservancy Blog. We're glad you're reading and joining the conversation. This blog was created to keep you informed about current environmental issues in Southwestern Illinois and surrounding areas. In future posts, you'll find discussions about upcoming HLC events and volunteer opportunities, and we'll introduce you from time to time to experts and committed conservationists who are making a positive difference in your communities and beyond, enriching out content, where possible, with links to likeminded organizations and individuals.

HeartLands' Annual Dinner Takes Place Wednesday, April 19

April 3, 2017

Heartlands Conservancy's Annual Dinner takes place in two weeks on Wednesday, April 19 at 5 p.m. at the Four Points by Sheraton in Fairview Heights, IL. So if you have not purchased tickets, there's no time to waste! 

The two properties, totaling 79 acres, are located within the floodplain of the Mississippi and Big Muddy Rivers. Working with numerous partners, HeartLands identified these properties as high-priorities for protection because of their locations and their significant natural features.

This year's dinner will be a celebration of conservation and sustainability in Southwestern Illinois. Our focus will be on efforts to protect rare natural resources in our area, and our keynote speaker is Dr. Richard Essner, Associate Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (SIUE).

While his teaching schedule and research studies keep him pretty busy, we were able to catch up with Dr. Essner for a brief interview, allowing us to give you a preview of his areas of professional interest and expertise that he will further explore in his keynote address on April 19.

HLC:
We are truly honored to have you as our keynote speaker for the 2017 Annual Dinner, Dr. Essner. Can you tell our readers a bit about your background, your work at SIUE and your current interests?

Essner:
I grew up in Perryville, Missouri and attended Southeast Missouri State University where I completed a B. S. and an M.N.S. in Biology. I completed my Ph.D. in Biology at Ohio University where I conducted comparative locomotion research on flying squirrels, tree squirrels, and chipmunks. I then did a two-year postdoc at the University of Pennsylvania, where I researched frog locomotion before arriving at SIUE in 2005.

I am currently an Associate Professor of Biological Sciences at SIUE, where I teach an array of courses in vertebrate zoology, including Ornithology, Mammalogy, Wildlife Management, Vertebrate Natural History, Comparative Vertebrate Anatomy, and Human Anatomy and Physiology. I also teach summer field courses to the northern Rockies and Panama.

My research interests are in vertebrate functional and ecological morphology, and wildlife ecology. Much of my laboratory research at SIUE focuses on the evolution of frog locomotion. My field research is varied and has included habitat modeling studies of forest birds on the SIUE campus and Bohm Woods, as well as grassland and shrubland birds in the Mississippi River floodplain on lands managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. We are also involved in studies of habitat use and movement patterns in Southern Flying Squirrels and Eastern Box Turtles on the SIUE campus. Since 2015 we have been involved in conservation research on two state-threatened amphibian species, the Illinois Chorus Frog and the Eastern Narrowmouth Toad.

HLC:
You've done a lot of work with Illinois Chorus Frogs. What makes them so unique?

Essner:
Illinois Chorus Frogs are remarkable amphibians. They spend most of their lives underground, only emerging for a brief period in early spring to breed. The Illinois Chorus Frog is the only frog in the world that burrows forelimbs-first, which explains their Popeye-like arms.

HLC:
Why are Illinois Chorus Frogs considered endangered and what threatens them?

Essner:
Illinois Chorus Frogs require sandy soil for burrowing, which is relatively rare in the Midwest. This explains their patchy distribution in Illinois, Missouri, and Arkansas. The rarity of sand prairie habitat also places them at great risk of extirpation due to development and modern agricultural practices. Because they spend so much time underground, we know little about their behavior, which I find compelling. One of the basic questions we are trying to address, is where are they when they're not breeding?

HLC:
Wow. Sounds like searching for a needle in a haystack. How are you trying to accomplish that?

Essner:
One of my graduate students is attaching radio transmitters to frogs so that we can track them as they travel to and from breeding ponds. We know from earlier studies by John Tucker of the Illinois Natural History Survey that they can travel a kilometer to reach suitable breeding sites. This aspect of their life history also puts them at risk since they often travel across busy roads to reach breeding ponds. We have documented substantial road mortality in these frogs on rainy nights in early spring.

Student with Chorus Frog

Student Alexis King attaching a radio transmitter to an Illinois Chorus Frog.

HLC:
These little frogs seem to provide a pretty important learning experience for your students. So often, there is a disconnect in people's minds between the loss of a species such as the Illinois Chorus Frog and the impact of that loss in their own lives. Is there a good way to think about that—how the loss of a species like the chorus frog negatively touches all of us and why we should care?

Essner:
I could answer this question in a number of ways, perhaps by pointing out how amphibians act as an early warning system for environmental degradation or how they play an important role in the ecosystem and that we can't predict the impact of their removal. However, I think the best answer is simply that we would be robbing future generations of the opportunity to experience these amazing creatures. I've given presentations on Illinois Chorus Frogs to many school groups and it is unbelievable how excited kids are to learn about them. It would be a tragedy to deny them that piece of our natural heritage.

HLC:
A few months ago you raised awareness about Bohm Woods in Edwardsville. Why is Bohm Woods so important?

Essner:
Yes. I recently wrote and met with members of the Edwardsville City Council regarding the negative impacts of a proposed student housing development that threatens the ecological integrity of this special place.

Simply put, Bohm Woods is a spectacular forest. Somehow it remained undisturbed, despite the massive disturbance that has forever altered the Illinois landscape since European arrival. Old growth forest is exceedingly rare, and to have one of such quality in an urbanized area like Edwardsville is nearly unheard of.


HLC:
What do you mean when you refer to Bohm Woods as the only old growth forest in Madison County? What is an old growth forest and what makes it so valuable to the community?

Essner:

Bohm Woods offers visitors a glimpse into Illinois' past. There is simply nowhere else in the area where one can see a forest of giant hardwoods—massive trees that are hundreds of years old, over 100 feet tall, and several feet in diameter. These trees form an extensive canopy that captures most of the sunlight, producing an open understory that supports unique communities of plants and animals, including rare spring wildflowers and neotropical migrant songbirds. As these enormous trees die, they may remain standing for decades, providing food and shelter for countless species. When they topple, they uproot the soil, creating a unique pit-and-mount topography that provides ephemeral pools for wildlife.

High quality natural areas such as Bohm Woods enhance the quality of life of residents. In addition to Bohm Woods, Edwardsville is fortunate to have the Watershed Nature Center, the SIUE campus/Gardens at SIUE, and an extensive network of bike trails.

HLC:
So we can say that Bohm Woods makes our area unique in a positive, "destination point" sort of way. Would you agree?

Essner:
Every community has its strip malls, golf courses, and housing complexes. They are ubiquitous. It is a community's natural and cultural landmarks that set it apart. The Edwardsville community values these resources and many people move here because of them. For example, students consistently cite the beauty of the campus as being among the top reasons they choose SIUE. The proximity of Bohm Woods to the SIUE campus has made it a particularly valuable resource for students. Many faculty take classes there so that students can experience its unique plant and animal communities. Bohm Woods is especially valuable as a living museum since it shows our students what an upland forest in Illinois is supposed to look like.

Bohm Woods

Bohm Woods Nature Preserve - the last Old Growth forest in Madison County, IL


HLC:
Thank you so much, Dr. Essner, for not only taking the time to provide great information to our readers and helping us launch our new blog but also for your continued work to bring community awareness and important research about the environmental treasures in our area. We all look forward to your address on April 19.

You can learn more from Dr. Essner about the Illinois Chorus Frog and other threatened species and on Bohm Woods and other interesting habitats in Southwestern Illinois at the Heartlands Conservancy Annual Dinner. Tickets still available

Many thanks to Toni Oplt for assisting with this article!


HeartLands Conservancy Permanently Protects Two Natural Areas near Shawnee National Forest

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE January 24, 2017
Press Release - HLC Protects 78 acres Shawnee NF.docx Press Release - HLC Protects 78 acres Shawnee NF.pdf

Jackson County, Ill. – HeartLands Conservancy, an environmental nonprofit focused on land conservation in southwestern Illinois, announced today the acquisition of two key natural areas next to the Shawnee National Forest in Jackson County, Illinois.

The two properties, totaling 79 acres, are located within the floodplain of the Mississippi and Big Muddy Rivers. Working with numerous partners, HeartLands identified these properties as high-priorities for protection because of their locations and their significant natural features.

One such feature is a restored wetland that adjoins over 800 acres of US Forest Service wetlands. It is home to native reptiles and amphibians, as well as, otters, beavers, muskrats, and rice rats. Another feature is a second-growth hardwood forest located on Fountain Bluff. Fountain Bluff is a 2,500-acre upland forest next to the Mississippi River. The forest includes a mixture of beech and oak trees that provide habitat for bats, deer, and turkeys.

“These latest acquisitions are a part of our ongoing partnership with the US Forest Service and Ducks Unlimited to protect and restore floodplain functions in the Mississippi River Watershed in Southern Illinois,” said . “We are particularly grateful to the previous land owners for their long-standing care of these important natural areas.”

William Boardman, Land Conservation Chair for HeartLands Conservancy

HeartLands received funding assistance from two foundations— Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation and Grand Victoria Foundation—to complete the purchase. ”The Foundation is pleased to assist HeartLands and its partners in purchasing lands that will ultimately expand one of Illinois’ most treasured natural areas—the Shawnee National Forest—and in protecting and restoring native habitat along the Mississippi River,” said Dennis O’Brien, Executive Director of the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation.