Agencies are working together with public support to provide a safe environment for endangered plants and animals in the McHenry County area.
Going Places: Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge
Open prairies, tall native grasses and flowers, enclaves of oak trees and the sounds of birds chirping softly. Was that a redheaded woodpecker or a song sparrow? Meandering down the Nippersink Creek, herons, cranes and ducks are observed along the shore. Is this a walk through Glacial Park or a walk back in time before our ancestors arrived in this place? What if we could protect the native birds, fish and plants that are indigenous to the area, especially those that are endangered?
That’s a question being posed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and many other organizations, and the answer looks positive.
Wildlife Refuge in the Works
For the past two years, USFWS has been conducting a study of an area within a 20-mile radius of Richmond that includes Glacial Park, northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin as the possible place to establish a national wildlife refuge particularly focused on grass-nesting birds.
Although the study originally focused on 350,000 acres located in McHenry and Lake counties in Illinois, and in Walworth, Kenosha and Racine counties in Wisconsin, the space recommended for Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge will encompass approximately 11,000 acres in total, the majority of which are in Illinois.
At two open houses held to present results of the environmental assessment and to open dialogue with area residents, representatives of the USFWS and the McHenry County Conservation District (MCCD) shared information and answered residents’ questions.
“The study recommended a combination of cores and corridors that would expand existing conservation land blocks and link these areas with conservation corridors,” explained Gary Muehlenhardt, conservation planner for the USFWS. “The large block sizes of the core 3,000 to 5,000 acres would provide habitat for the nesting grassland birds and waterfowl that are sensitive to the more fragmented habitat.”
The recommendation is to expand and link areas that are already protected, including Glacial Park, which is a part of MCCD lands, and land across the Wisconsin border, which is home to many of the plants and wildlife that are in need of protection. Federal programs such as the USFWS’ Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program and the Natural Resources Conservation Service Wetlands Reserve Program would also be encouraged to work on land protection efforts to increase these areas. The corridors would assist the terrestrial migration of small mammals, herptiles and plants that would be impacted by a change in climate. The service would work with private landowners, local governments, and other partners to provide for the corridors that would need to be at least 600 feet wide and of natural habitat.
One of the questions posed was how being named a national wildlife refuge would affect public use of areas such as Glacial Park. Would access be limited? Would trails be closed? “Use of MCCD’s land will continue as before,” said Ed Collins, a biologist with MCCD. “We will continue to own it, maintain it, and encourage residents to come and enjoy nature at its best. We want to see people walking and biking on our trails and boating down the Nippersink.
“Providing a corridor for migrating birds is another important aspect of the refuge,” he added. “Migration is a worldwide need as birds move from their summer to winter habitats. We work with other counties to ensure that migratory paths are available to protect these species.”
The planning team received more than 3,000 correspondences during the public comment period. The team is still reading the comments and compiling responses for the final report. Muehlenhardt reported that most comments have been in favor of the proposed refuge, but there are still a few individuals who have questions and concerns. “We still expect a decision from the director by the end of the summer,” he added.
Why was this area considered for the national wildlife refuge? Data collected from MCCD, Illinois Department of Natural Resources and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources all support the area as richly diverse and supporting many of the species that are in need of continued vigilance. The ecological corridors of the area will sustain the sensitive at-risk species of both animals and plants, allowing us to leave this land in a healthy state for future generations in a healthy state.
The Friends of Hackmatack
The Friends of Hackmatack is a cohesive group of Illinoisans and Wisconsinites that was founded about seven years ago to encourage preservation of this land, its natural plants and grasses, and its habitat of birds and small animals that are native to the area. They have supported the formation of the refuge and look forward to its successful completion.
“Even the Bears and Packers fans work well together in this group,” Board Member Margaret Lass-Gardiner said with a smile.
The group not only encourages the natural habitat, but also land usage as an educational tool. The area being considered for the refuge is within a couple of hours drive from Chicago, Milwaukee and Rockford, making it the ideal place for field trips for schoolchildren or a weekend trip for families. The proximity of the site to these cities was considered when looking at the area for the environmental assessment.
Benefits of the refuge would include more open space preserved to maintain our open country way of life and a place to share the wonders of nature with our families. Have you ever seen the look on a child’s face as he tries to capture a toad or butterfly? Here the wonders of nature will unfold before them, unleashing them from the televisions, computer games and other electronic devices that have become so much a part of our children’s lives.
For more about the proposed refuge, visit www.fws.gov/midwest/planning/Hackmatack, www.mccdistrict.org, www.hackmatack-NWR.org and dnr.wi.gov. A PDF brochure is available at www.hackmatacknwr.org/pdfs/HackmatackBrochure09web.pdf.
About the National Wildlife Refuge System
The National Wildlife Refuge System is a network of public lands set aside specifically to protect wild animals and plants.
Five-hundred and sixty refuges currently exist in 50 states and five U.S. territories encompassing 95 million acres.
The system was created in 1903 by President Theodore Roosevelt begining with Florida’s 5.5-acre Pelican Island.
Wildlife refuges in the United States are visited 34 million times per year by bird-watchers, photographers, educators, reserchers, hunters, fishers, hikers and others.