Plantings aim to put the prairie back in ‘Prairie State’

By Greg Bishop 
Illinois News Network

Illinois’ nature preserves are ramping up efforts to re-establish the state’s once-iconic prairie landscape by converting land back to natural prairies.

The Rock Island County Forest Preserve District, a group of preserves, conservation areas and a zoo, is expanding its prairie initiatives by adding a 15.5-acre prairie this fall at Loud Thunder Forest Preserve.

Ben Mills, the head ranger at Loud Thunder Forest Preserve, explained the significance of the prairies to Illinois.

“Prairies provide great habitat for quails. They provided habitat for pheasants [and] they provide phenomenal habitat for migrating songbirds,” Mills said.

Mills estimated the fall prairie planting will cost approximately $13,000 to $14,000.

“Between the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Local Area Conservation Fund, they’re picking up well over 90 percent of that tab, and the Rock Island County taxpayers will pay $1,200 for our portion,” Mills said.

The Rock Island County Forest Preserve District has already established new prairie land in several areas. Illiniwek Forest Preserve has created 10 acres of prairie, and 55 acres have been added between the Loud Thunder Forest Preserve and the Martin Conservation Area. Niabi Zoo plans to expand from a 2- to 10-acre prairie next year.

Mills highlighted several benefits of having the prairies, which include increasing soil stabilization, improving water purification qualities and reducing maintenance to fields.

“It’s a huge cost savings to the taxpayer, who fund the Rock Island County Preserve District, as no mechanical equipment and no fuel is being used to maintain the prairie,” Mills said.

According to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Illinois once had 22 million acres of prairie, which has been reduced to approximately 2,300 acres.

“If we get these prairies re-established, these animals and insects and the wildlife as a whole that needs this ecosystem to function, they will come back and they will remain in the state and stay strong,” Mills said.

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