Research

Research Field Station
The Research Field Station is housed within Lost Valley Visitor Center and is responsible for oversight of the District Habitat Technicians, scientific research on District lands, and public education related to ecological restoration as well as the Weekend of Restoration program. In addition, staff coordinates curation of scientific specimens, and management of the District’ s natural resource and cartographic archives. In addition, staff is responsible for the ongoing restoration management of over 4,000 acres of District lands in Region 1, including Glacial Park.

Land Management and Restoration
The RFS program is responsible for day-to-day management activities of protected land within Region 1, the county’s northeast corner. The RFS Ecologist position serves as the Ecologist for this area, and is responsible for ensuring that standard management activities such as prescribed burning, brush removal and control of exotic species is completed at Glacial Park.

Ecological Research and Monitoring
The RFS oversees all requests for ecological research on District sites by outside individuals and entities. The RFS Ecologist issues permits, keeps other District departments informed of ongoing research, and ensures that completed data is received in a timely manner by the Conservation District.

Public Education
The Field Station Ecologist is responsible for educational workshops and programs designed around the practice and philosophy of ecological restoration and the natural history and science that supports restoration.

Archives and Research Library
The RFS maintains and enlarges the research library and District land use history archives in the Lost Valley Visitor Center. The archives and library are available to all District staff and the public upon request.

Oaks of McHenry County

The Oaks of McHenry County : Oak Ecosystems – A Vanishing McHenry County Legacy
In December of 2007, the McHenry County Conservation District completed a two-year watershed study charting the distribution and change of oak dominated ecosystems county wide from 1837 to 2005. The project utilized four separate temporal map layers in a geographic information systems (GIS) format to produce oak coverage in 1837, 1872, 1939 and 2005.

The layers, based on the public land survey, the 1872 McHenry County Atlas, and 1939 and 2005 aerial photography showed the dramatic loss of oaks from 143,000 acres (36% of the county’s land base) at the time of settlement to 18,000 acres (4.5%) in 2005.

Even more dramatic was the individual mapping of every remaining oak stand one acre in size or larger. Of 2,888 remaining stands countywide, less than 200 were 25 acres in size or larger and only eight contained 100 acres of contiguous oak cover or more.

This data mapping showed not only where oak remnants were lost to tree removal, but also to discern where residential development has fragmented oak remnants beyond their ability to maintain themselves as functioning natural communities.

The stark realities associated with oak loss revealed by the study have spurred a remarkable series of efforts by local agencies and volunteers to arrest and reverse the decline. 

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Oak Reproduction in Midwestern Savannas & Woodlands
In 2018, McHenry County Conservation District published Oak Reproduction in Midwestern Savannas & Woodlands: Understanding and Managing Acorn Dispersal, written by Field Station Ecologist Dr. Thomas B. Simpson. 

"Oak reproduction is often scarce or lacking in oak savannas and woodlands under ecological restoration, despite the fact that large canopy gaps created by the removal of invasive brush allow abundant sunlight to reach the ground surface. Understanding and facilitating natural reproduction is important to the progress of ecological restoration. In two experiments, we found that over 98% of the acorns in artificial caches located in dense, tall herbaceous vegetation were eaten by white-footed mice or meadow voles. In these and other experiments, we showed that predation of acorns by white-footed mice and meadow voles is much less in short-statured vegetation or bare, open areas than in corresponding areas of tall grass.

A survey of the spatial density of squirrel leaf nests in woods across McHenry County revealed that gray squirrels and fox squirrels are much less common in open canopy woods with tall, dense herbaceous vegetation than in closed canopy woods with sparse surface vegetation.

Thus, high populations of mice and voles correspond to low populations of squirrels. At least one reason why squirrels are rare in woods with dense, tall herbaceous vegetation is that acorns cached in these locations are more likely to be eaten by mice. We then conducted two experiments to investigate the effect of manipulating surface vegetation on the acorn-caching behavior of squirrels and blue jays. In both we found that squirrels and jays cached acorns in bare, open areas in preference to areas of tall vegetation. Land managers can encourage the establishment of oak seedlings by providing bare ground or short-statured vegetation at the time of acorn dispersal." 

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