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Weathering the Drought

Native habitat restoration succeeds despite harsh conditions.

By Jill Rees, USDA-NRCS
Date: July 2005

black eyed susans

Despite the drought
that has plagued central Illinois
all spring and summer (below),
wildflowers thrive within the
thick, green field of native plants
on Larry Thorsen's property.

wildflowers curled, wilted corn stalks suffer the drought

Unlike the parched, stunted corn and soybean fields across central Illinois, Larry Thorsen’s native grasses and wildflowers remain undaunted by the drought that is troubling farmers and frustrating gardeners. In fact, Thorsen’s prairie and savannah restorations seem an oasis in a literal row crop desert. Vibrant purple coneflower, wispy little bluestem, and radiant golden coreopsis flaunt their colors and textures despite the harsh sun and bone dry soil.

“The success of these plants during the drought shows that this was a good choice for this land,” said Thorsen.

Thorsen, a retired Eastern Illinois University Political Science professor, spends much of his time nursing odd parcels of land back to native habitat on much of his 58 acres in Coles County. In 2003, Thorsen began restoration of a problematic 7-acre tract that once served as both crop land and pasture. The land was taken out of agriculture, but non-native grasses introduced as forage for livestock stayed behind after the cattle were long gone. The aggressive fescue crowded out native species that struggled to regenerate naturally.

Because Thorsen knew from experience that restorations can be complicated, he sought the advice of area biologist Kent Macy. In his work with the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Macy assists private landowners who want to preserve or restore native ecosystems and manage portions of their land for wildlife.

Noting the soil type and other conditions, Macy suggested that the site be restored as a savanna habitat, a transitional ecosystem that occurs between grasslands and forests.

“Savannah is a rare and declining habitat in Illinois,” said Macy. “This is one of only a few NRCS savannah restorations in the state.”

In this part of Illinois, savannahs provide critical habitat for mockingbirds, turkeys, woodpeckers, the state threatened loggerhead shrike, and many other species.

Thorsen was eligible to enroll in NRCS’s Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program, or WHIP, which offers 75% cost share for habitat restoration. The program helped offset the cost of seed for native grasses and forbs, including blazing star, false indigo, Canada wildrye, side oats, wild quinine, and Illinois bundle flower. Thorsen also received assistance with the purchase of oaks American plum, hazelnut, and dogwood seedlings, which will eventually provide 10 to 80% canopy cover.

According to Macy’s management recommendations for the site, Thorsen uses prescribed fire in early spring to burn off excess plant matter and keep the non-native fescue at bay.

“Fire removes the duff and gives native plants an edge early in the growing season,” said Thorsen. “For now, it’s extra work to burn around the trees, but they will become more resistant to low intensity fires as they grow,” he said.

Despite the heat, Thorsen walks the savannah with his dogs almost daily. Thorsen observes the success of each species, notes new blooms, and inspects areas that need work. He spends long hours removing invasive or aggressive species by hand. Bringing the land back to a natural state—and caring for it—is hard work.

“I’m happy with it,” says Thorsen. “Each species we planted has good coverage. You can see that the gray-headed coneflower—and everything else—is dispersed throughout the tract,” he said looking over a grassy field dotted with golden blooms and feathery blades of grass.

“During dry times like this, native plants perform better than anything else, especially after they’ve had a couple growing seasons to develop strong root systems,” said Macy. “Native grasses and wildflowers are just better equipped for the soils and climate and will provide food and cover for a variety of wildlife despite the severe conditions.”

For more information on NRCS conservation assistance, contact the USDA-NRCS service center in your county or visit the Web at www.il.nrcs.usda.gov.

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wild indigo Thorsen and Macy discuss the restoration

Larry Thorsen (left) and
NRCS Biologist Kenton Macy
are pleased with the success
of the trees planted on Thorsen's
7-acre savannah restoration.
The bar of deodorant soap
hanging from this oak
repels deer that might otherwise
damage the seedling.

savannah restoration false sunflower