Sunday, July 19, 2015
I finally made a long overdue trip to Kankakee Sands in Newton County, Indiana, to see one of the Midwest's most notable prairie restoration projects. This site is only about an hour south of Chicago, and my friend and Chicagoan Joyce Pontius bopped down to join me, and we were to meet up with Mike Homoya and Roger Hedge of the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. Mike and Roger wisely decided to cancel, as they had a long drive and the day looked like a complete washout.
This region once was covered by a marsh so vast it was known as the "Everglades of the North". Tens of thousands of acres of wetlands interspersed with prairie and oak savanna that attracted clouds of migratory birds and hosted scores of breeding animal species among a dizzying array of plant species. It didn't take long for people to begin plundering the bounty of Beaver Pond, as the area was also known. Eventually the agriculturists set about attempting to drain the vast wetland, and by 1930 they had largely succeeded.
In the late 1990's, The Nature Conservancy got a rare opportunity to purchase a big chunk of this area, and dubbed it Kankakee Sands. They and many partners now own and manage nearly 8,000 acres, with the long-term goal of interconnecting and restoring 20,000 acres of former prairie.
While no one knows exactly why the fritillary is disappearing, it's - like so many other declining rarities - probably a combination of factors. Death by a thousand cuts, sort of. Their host plants are various species of violets in the genus Viola, and those of course must be present. Viral infections have been implicated in diminishing isolated populations. In some areas, excessive use of pesticides may cause collateral damage to the fritillaries. Increased fragmentation of suitable prairie and meadow habitats has undoubtedly taken a toll - this is a species that seems to need large tracts of appropriate habitat. But the undeniable HUGE factor is outright loss of habitat. Over 99% of original Midwestern prairie has been lost, mainly to agriculture, but other types of development have also eliminated prairie.
Hopefully, restoration of prairies such as at Kankakee Sands can stave off the demise of iconic species such as the Regal Fritillary, and many other prairie-dependent animals and plants.