Animals Back from the Brink

There are many animal conservation success stories right here in Will County

The world is in the midst of an extinction event, with more than 1 million plant and animal species across the globe at risk of being wiped out because of human activity.

This grim forecast is the conclusion of a recent United Nations assessment. Many scientific experts believe we are currently in the midst of the sixth mass extinction event in Earth’s history, and the first since dinosaurs became extinct when an asteroid hit the planet 66 million years ago, according to a USA Today report.

The U.N. report, which was based on thousands of scientific studies, concludes that native plant and animal life across most of the planet’s major land habitats has decreased by 20 percent or more, mostly over the past 100 years, according to a New York Times report on the assessment. Human activities, including farming, mining, logging and poaching, are altering the world’s natural landscape. Alongside those human activities, environmental changes have also led to a decline in wildlife, the assessment concludes. 

With the risk of losing species to extinction looming, we can draw inspiration from successful conservation efforts that have brought animals back from the brink of extinction. In fact, both our national emblem — the bald eagle — and the national mammal — the American bison — were once endangered and at risk of extinction, but populations have been restored through concerted efforts to save them.

“We can do really cool stuff if we put our minds to it,” said Bob Bryerton, an interpretive naturalist for the Forest Preserve District. 

And although our past successes have proven what we are capable of, we must also stay mindful of how human activity affects the wildlife all around us, he explained.

“It’d be nice if we considered animals,” he said.

Here’s a closer look at some of the animal conservation success stories we have right here in Will County.

Beavers

(Photo via Shutterstock)

Today, beavers are found in good numbers throughout Illinois, according to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. That hasn’t always been the case, though. In the 1800s, beavers were the most valuable commodity in most of North America because they were trapped and hunted for their pelts. In fact, wars have been fought over access to land where beavers could be trapped, the Smithsonian National Zoo reports

At one point, before trappers and fur traders settled across North America, as many as 400 million beavers populated the continent. By 1900, the population had fallen to about 100,000, National Geographic reports. Beaver hunting remained unregulated into the 20th century, which caused the animal to disappear from nearly all its original range, according to the National Zoo.

During the first half of the 20th century, regulations began to be put in place to protect beavers from extinction due to trapping. That effort was followed by efforts to reintroduce them to what was originally their range and habitat.

 

In Illinois, the reintroduction effort began in 1929, when the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service introduced one male and one female beaver downstate, IDNR reports. Dozens more beavers were reintroduced in the 1930s, and the beaver population recovery in Illinois was likely further aided by similar reintroduction programs in neighboring states.

Today, beavers are considered common in Illinois and can be found in every county. In some areas, their population has rebounded so successfully that they are regarded as a nuisance or agricultural pest, according to the National Zoo. But it’s important to remember that every animal plays an integral role in nature.

Wild turkeys

(Photo courtesy of Joel Craig)

Like beavers, wild turkeys suffered a significant population loss due to hunting, Bryerton said. 

Before European settlers colonized New England in the 17th century, about 10 million wild turkeys inhabited the land from southern Maine to Florida and west to the Rocky Mountains, according to the Audubon Society. Over time, as settlers traveled west, the turkeys lost their habitat and their food supply, in addition to being hunted for food. During this time, their population plummeted.

“They were almost wiped out at one point,” Bryerton explained.

In the 1970s, the wild turkey population across North America was about 1.5 million. Their numbers have continued to rebound since then, and today, their population has reached 6.7 million, according to the National Wild Turkey Federation.

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Wild turkeys can be found in every U.S. state except Alaska, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology reports.

“They’ve been so successful that now there are turkeys in areas where they didn’t used to be,” Bryerton said. 

Bald eagles

(Photo courtesy of Paul Dacko)

America’s national emblem was once endangered and at risk of extinction, but it now serves as one of America’s greatest conservation success stories, according to the Cornell Lab.

The bald eagle was declared our nation’s national emblem in 1782, and at that time there were as many as 100,000 nesting bald eagles across the United States, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. By 1963, the population had dwindled, and only 487 nesting pairs remained in the country.

The reasons for the decline were many: illegal hunting and shooting; destruction and degradation of its habitat; and contamination of its food source, primarily as a result of the pesticide DDT, the Fish and Wildlife Service reports. The population of the species has recovered as a result of the habitat protections enabled in the Endangered Species Act as well as the banning of DDT by the federal government. 

DDT was introduced as a pesticide to control insect populations after World War II. After its application, residues washed into the waterways, where it was absorbed by aquatic life, both plants and animals. Eagles and other animals then consumed the chemical through their diet. The DDT affected the eagles’ eggs, which had such thin shells that they could not be properly incubated and would not hatch.

DDT was banned in the United States in 1972, allowing for the bald eagle population to recover. In 1978, the bird was listed as endangered everywhere in the continental United States except Michigan, Minnesota, Oregon, Washington and Wisconsin, where it was listed as a threatened species. 

 

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After its designation as endangered, breeding programs along with law enforcement, nest protections and reintroduction efforts were put in place to help the bald eagle population recover. In 2007, the bald eagle was officially removed from the list of threatened and endangered species in the United States. 

Today, the Fish and Wildlife Service estimates the United States is home to at least 9,789 nesting pairs of bald eagles. During the winter months, Illinois is home to more than 3,100 of these magnificent birds, more than any other state except Alaska, according to Illinois.gov. Here in Will County, they are commonly sighted along the waterways during the winter.

Peregrine falcons

(Photo courtesy of Paul Dacko)

At one point, the peregrine falcon was declared extirpated across the eastern United States and was endangered across the West, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service. In the early 1900s, the population of this fast, high-flying raptor was threatened by habitat destruction, hunting and the taking of eggs by collectors.

Prior to World War II, only 350 to 400 breeding pairs of these falcons remained across the United States. And like the bald eagle, its population was further threatened by the introduction of DDT after the war. 

The banning of DDT was the start of the population recovery for these falcons. That coupled with breeding and recovery programs to reestablish the birds has allowed the population to continue to grow since the 1960s. 

The peregrine was removed from the Endangered Species List in 1999, and today, the worldwide population of peregrine falcons is estimated at about 140,000, according to the Cornell Lab.  

These falcons are seen in and around Will County, but not with the same regularity as the bald eagle, Bryerton said.

“We still get a kick out of them,” he said of the local birding community and their sightings of these birds of prey.

Whooping cranes

(Photo via Shutterstock)

Whooping cranes were nearly wiped out entirely, with the population of these birds estimated at just 20 in the 1940s, according to the Cornell Lab. Today, the whooping crane remains on the Endangered Species List, although the total population has risen to about 600.

In the 19th century, whooping cranes were widespread in prairie marshes in both the northern United States and southern Canada. However, their population plummeted due to hunting and the introduction of agricultural practices across its natural range, the Cornell Lab reports.

In 1967, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Canadian Wildlife Service partnered for an innovative breeding and reintroduction program that used sandhill cranes as foster parents. The initial reintroduction efforts were not successful, but the work continued, and today the U.S. is home to three whooping crane populations established through this work.

Two of the populations are year-round resident populations, one in Florida and another in Louisiana. The third is a migratory population that travels from Florida to Wisconsin. Most interestingly, the Florida-Wisconsin population had to be taught to migrate, which scientists did using an ultralight aircraft, Bryerton said. 

Whooping crane sightings locally are still relatively rare, but they are occasionally spotted, particularly with another crane more common in the area.

 “They travel with the sandhills,” Bryerton said. “They follow their route.”

Bison

(Photo courtesy of Rick Short / USDA Forest Service - Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie)

The American bison was declared the national mammal of the United States in 2016, but these animals — the largest mammal in North America — were once driven nearly to extinction because of habitat loss and hunting, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior. Today, the bison is one of our greatest conservation success stories and stands as a testament to our ability to rescue animals from extinction.

Prior to European settlement in the West, between 30 million and 60 million bison freely roamed North America, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. By 1884, only 325 bison remained. During this time, bison were extensively hunted, mainly for their hides, which were a valuable commodity. Most of the rest of the bison was left behind to rot because it was of little or no value.

Efforts to save the bison from extinction began in the 1800s, with states and territories enacting laws to outlaw hunting of these animals. The bison is no longer on the Endangered Species List, but conservation work continues, spearheaded by the Interior Department. 

Seventeen bison herds comprising more than 10,000 of these massive animals live on federal lands in 12 states. The largest herd, of an estimated 4,900 bison, is at Yellowstone National Park, the only place in the United States where the animal has lived continuously since prehistoric times, according to the Interior Department. 

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Closer to home, Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie is home to a bison herd. The herd was introduced in 2015 with 27 bison, and it has grown to about 80 animals through the years, said Veronica Hinke, the public affairs officer and public services team leader at Midewin. 

The herd was introduced as part of a 20-year conservation experiment to determine whether the bison’s grazing pattern, which creates varied grass length among the prairie, encourages birds native to Illinois to return to the tallgrass prairie, Hinke said. 

“The herd roams across over 1,000 acres and are part of the wild fauna and other species of the area,” she said. 

Looking Forward

Upland sandpiper (Photo via Shutterstock)

These success stories prove what we are capable of, and there’s plenty more work to be done.

In the United States alone, more than 1,275 plant and animal species are listed as endangered, and an additional 388 are threatened, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service. Closer to home, Illinois is home to 356 endangered and 124 threatened plant and animal species, according to the Illinois Endangered Species Protection Board.

Threatened species living in Will County include the northern long-eared bat and the Kirtland’s snake. Local endangered species include the upland sandpiper and the Blanding’s turtle, which is the focus of a regional effort to be saved from extinction. The Forest Preserve District of Will County is one of several agencies participating in the program, which is designed to increase the odds the turtles will survive into adulthood. 

 

Many of these previous success stories and current efforts to save endangered species are the cooperative effort of several public and private agencies and groups, but that doesn’t mean you as an individual can’t make a difference.

Even simple steps help. For example, you can recycle and buy sustainable products which help the Earth’s ecology, and don’t buy products made from endangered or threatened species, such as coral or ivory, according to the Endangered Species Coalition. You can also avoid using herbicides and pesticides and plant native plants in your yard and garden to attract bees, butterflies and birds that help pollinate plants. 

The easiest thing you can do is simply understand that your actions affect the environment around you, and then make decisions that align with this realization. It’s important to acknowledge that the world isn’t ours alone, but must be shared with all of the living things around us for the general well-being of the planet and its inhabitants.

“We still need to learn better ways to coexist,” Bryerton said.

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Lead image courtesy of Mandy Bellamy

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