Habitat Restoration One of the most common problems associated with much of the acreage that makes up the public open space trust for McHenry County is invasive species infestations. These species can be herbaceous weeds (Canada thistle), trees and shrubs (oriental bittersweet, European buckthorn) or animals (zebra mussels, gypsy moth), which all share a common history and result in many of the same ecological consequences.
These species can reproduce and spread at phenomenal rates, often crowding out native species that must not only compete with the exotic invader, but also with its own natural insect and predator controls. As the overall health of native communities such as woodlands and prairies declines with invasive species invasions, other problems can become exacerbated. For example, healthy woods may be able to withstand an outbreak of gypsy moth infestation if they were not already weakened by invasive species problems. Native mussels that strain detritus from streams for food may find themselves covered with so many zebra mussels that they can no longer sustain themselves.
Every acre of land that is not in agricultural production receives a comprehensive baseline inventory of a number of these species groups in the first full growing season after its purchase by the Conservation District. This alerts district biologists to any endangered or threatened species on the site, allows a grading of its ecological health (A through E) and identifies any immediate environmental problems such as soil erosion, gypsy moth infestations etc
Brush cutting projects, especially those on a large scale can be shocking when first viewed especially if a site user is used to a certain appearance at an area and has grown familiar with it over time. Brush clearing can all more sunlight to reach the ground level native plant species. Butterflies and songbirds will often return to the area after it has been cleared. The Ph and chemistry of a soil can be restored to normal and support growth of more native species.
Site User Questions After Restoration
Some of the material will be decomposed by fungi and micro-organisms. Typically larger brush clearing sites will undergo a prescribed burn as soon as possible after completion. The burn will remove a good portion of the chip layer and allow replanting of native species to occur more effectively.
The number of young oaks, hickories and other native trees and shrubs are so low in many degraded ecosystems that once the exotics are removed the lack of recruitment of replacements for the older trees is drastically apparent.
This is often a very accurate observation as one of the relentless effects of exotic brush invasion is the loss of native ground covers such as grasses, sedges and wildflowers. For many of these sites, reseeding the native flora is essential.
These are also valid observations of the structural changes to wooded ecosystems after large brush clearing projects. The ecosystems of McHenry County developed under ecological forces that include frequent wildfires, ample sunlight and open conditions. Often older trees in a project area will provide clues in their growth patterns to the conditions they germinated and grew into maturity under. Note the wide spreading crowns on many of these older oaks that speak of a time when ample sunlight and rain reached the floor of the woodland.
The type of site an individual user prefers is a personal choice. However, before deciding that your old site can never be replaced consider becoming a committed observer of the ecological shift that is underway in your favorite conservation area. Watch for new wildflowers, grasses and sedges that you may never have noticed before. Notice the effects that enough sunlight and water can have on the health of the plant and animal life. Discover how wind moves through the trees and what role it plays for winged species like owls, hawks and butterflies.
This concern speaks to the very real appreciation county residents have for native wildlife. The good news is that not only will the wildlife already on the site respond positively to the changes but the populations and types of native wildlife using the site will increase as it regains ecological health. Healthy ecosystems produce more food for wildlife in general and for the base of the food chain that eventually sustains predators such as foxes, hawks and owls. Dead trees and snags are left during projects to continue to provide habitat for the wildlife that depends upon them.
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