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Rollbacks to Critical Wildlife Protections

by Molly Kordas, Staff Attorney

On February 3, 2020, the Trump Administration proposed sweeping rollbacks of critical protections for migratory birds. The proposal bars application of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act to “incidental,” or unintentional, killings of migratory birds. The administration also manipulated the public process, allowing concerned members of the public only 45 days to comment on a highly controversial policy that the Department of Interior has already been enforcing for more than two years. If continued, this major shift in federal policy will negatively impact nearly every bird species, including globally significant birds, particularly in the Chicagoland region which sits right in the middle of the Mississippi Flyway.

What is the Migratory Bird Treaty Act?
The Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) was passed by Congress in 1918 to enact the United States’ obligations under an international treaty with Canada to protect migratory birds that were over-hunted and killed for commercial profit. The MBTA made it a federal crime to pursue, hunt, take, capture, or kill, “by any means, or in any manner,” even one migratory bird. The law, and the treaty it supports, represented one of the first international environmental agreements, proving to the world that nations could work together to solve common environmental challenges. Reversing course after nearly a century of working to protect migratory birds, the Department of Interior is now defying the entire purpose of the MBTA to apply the law only to intentional killings of migratory bird species.

So what does this rollback mean?
The MBTA today protects more than 1,000 kinds of birds, ranging from the most common of species, such as the Northern Cardinal and House Sparrow, to the rarest birds in the world, like Snowy Egrets, Red-tailed Hawks, Great Blue Herons, Whooping Cranes, and Spotted Owls. The Trump Administration is twisting the law to allow these birds to be harmed and killed so long as the guilty actor can say that it was not their intent to hurt or kill migratory birds.

For example, if a bird is killed because simple preventative measures were not taken to protect birds from electrical lines, the company would not be held responsible because the purpose of the electrical lines is not to kill migratory birds. It is hard to imagine what commercial or industrial business would have as its purpose “to kill migratory birds.” In fact, unintentional collisions with electrical lines, communications towers, wind turbines, and building glass are responsible for a combined 335 million bird deaths per year.

The MBTA has often been used to hold polluters and bad actors accountable where there are unintentional gaps in environmental laws and regulations. British Petroleum, for example, was forced to pay $100 million for killing at least 100 million birds in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, thanks to the MBTA. As the Trump Administration pointed out, of the 1,027 species protected, only about “8% are either listed . . . as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act and 25% are designated . . . as Birds of Conservation Concern.” This demonstrates exactly how important the MBTA is – without it, most North American species will fly through U.S. territories completely unprotected.

This is also a rare situation in which we do not need to look into the future to see how this regulatory rollback will play out. Because the Department of Interior has been acting on this new policy over the last two years before even requesting input from the public, we are already seeing the catastrophic effect on bird populations. Former U.S. Fish and Wildlife employees have said that they no longer “conduct ‘flyovers of oil and gas production areas to identify potential threats,’” and in fact are actively prevented from even discussing “’voluntary bird protection measures.’”  Despite the USFWS’s previous cooperative relationship with industry, which actually encouraged technological innovation, the Trump Administration is pushing a false narrative that bird protection measures hamper business to promote profit at the expense of the environment and our natural resources.

The damage from stripping migratory bird protections is compounded by rollbacks to critical protections under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in August of 2019. Changes to the ESA removed blanket protections for threatened species, prevented consideration of threats due to the climate crisis, and allowed federal agencies for the first time to consider the economic impacts of listing species and designating critical habitat. Together, these rollbacks make it harder than ever to protect bird species from manmade threats, many of which simply did not exist when the MBTA was passed.

How can we protect migratory birds?
At a time when North America’s bird population has been reduced by nearly 30 percent, responsible regulation of the threats we pose to migratory birds at all levels of government is now more important than ever. Some of these species are in serious decline and could be gone forever if we don’t reinstate protections under the MBTA.  For example, only a little over 800 whooping cranes still exist in the world.  Out of the 85 in the eastern U.S. migratory path, a few land and rest in Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge during their annual voyage.  These and other beautiful and iconic species are at much greater risk with this reckless and unlawful narrowing of the MBTA.   

Given the combined effect of rollbacks to both the MBTA and ESA, local and state protections will now be necessary to protect migratory birds, grassland birds and their habitat. Supporting bird-friendly policies is critical to protecting regional treasures like Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge and Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie.

The City of Chicago, recognizing our region’s responsibility in accidental migratory bird deaths, is considering the Bird Friendly Design Ordinance. The ordinance would require new building designs to use better lighting and glass that would limit threats to migratory species and better protect them as they make their way through the Mississippi Flyway. House Bill 4476, which would require bird-safe state buildings was also introduced in the Illinois General Assembly in February of this year.

On the federal level, Congress can also pass both the Bird Safety Building Act (H.R. 919) and amendments to the MBTA (H.R. 5552) to make it absolutely clear that the MBTA applies to both intentional and unintentional killings of migratory birds. Senate Bill 3051/H.R. 925, if passed, would extend the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, guaranteeing $60 million per year for five years to protect critical wetland habitat for migratory birds.

Openlands also works to create and inspire advocates for nature by educating youth about the environment through our Birds in my Neighborhood (BIMN) program. Through the program volunteers utilize protected bird’s nests, feathers, and interpretation to teach grades 3-5 about bird identification, habitat, and diets. In the 2019-20 year alone, there were 77 BIMN classes, totaling 2,000 students. Birds can provide an entryway into a lifelong love and compassion for nature, and often during BIMN lessons, students learn about the MBTA for the first time.

The new MBTA policy has the power to leave a lasting impression; it shows how much of an impact – both negative and positive – humans can have on the well-being of our environment and the animals who inhabit it. Fighting these changes to the MBTA is essential not only for the preservation of birds, but for the education and inspiration of future advocates for nature. The diligent work that went into passing and enforcing the MBTA illustrates the power of the people, and our ability to aid in either the decimation of a species or a tremendous rise in leadership to protect it.

Migratory birds delight us with their beauty and serenade us with their songs, support eco-tourism economies, and benefit the world by eliminating pests, preventing disease, and contributing to increased biodiversity. The latest rollbacks of the MBTA and ESA pose significant threats to these species unless we act now. Please join us in advocating for more bird-friendly policies and other issues by talking to your local officials, and adding your voice to our advocacy efforts to ensure a green, more climate resilient region for us all.

Photo: Patrick Williams

Have You Discovered Rollins Savanna?

Take a walk under open skies and through sweeping grasslands at Lake County’s Rollins Savanna Forest Preserve!

Rollins Savanna is managed by the Lake County Forest Preserves and is an excellent option for your daily walk or an entire day spent outside. At over 1,200 acres, it is one of Lake County’s largest forest preserves and it is teeming with birds and wildlife you can see as you explore the site’s trails. Be sure to check out the bird viewing area, which offers a great overlook of the site as well as installed telescopes so you can get a close-up view of some of the rare birds that call Rollins Savanna home.

The trail system at Rollins Savanna includes over 5 miles of crushed limestone trails, which are approachable and pretty flat. The main loop at Rollins Savanna is 3.5 miles — perfect for walking or practicing for a 5K. Lake County’s regional Millennium Trail also incorporates the northern section of trails at the preserve. An additional 1.2-mile loop connects to both the main trail system and Fourth Lake Forest Preserve via the Millennium Trail. It’s worth adding on to your trip as you’re likely too see some wildlife on this trail segment. Plan for a two-hour trip for the main trail system and three hours if you’re adding the short loop. You can also enjoy shorter walks (approximately one mile) from the Washington Street parking lot along a boardwalk or from the Drury Lane entrance to the bird viewing area.

Rollins Savanna is well worth a visit next time you’re in Lake County and it makes for an excellent day trip from the city. Bring your family, friends, and your dog, and enjoy a day exploring this spectacular preserve. Tag your Instagram posts with #DiscoverYourPlace to be featured on our stream and please share with us the highlights from your adventure!

Have You Discovered Goose Lake Prairie?

Take a trip to Goose Lake Prairie State Natural Area and enjoy a day outside exploring sweeping grasslands home to a wide variety of wildlife. Located in Grundy County, Goose Lake Prairie is managed by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and is the largest remnant of prairie left in Illinois.

Goose Lake Prairie offers a great trail system that lets visitors enjoy the site in their own way. There are multiple looping trails, each of different lengths, that make for a pleasant short walk outside or a longer day hiking through the prairie. The trails are mowed grass and wander through different habitats, so you’ll get plenty of opportunities to see some of the wildlife.

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources have developed an education center, which offers year-round programs such as guided hikes and lectures, and there’s a small library in the center. You can also enjoy a picnic at some of the site’s picnic areas or learn a little about the region’s history by visiting some of the site’s interpretative elements.

At Goose Lake, over 1,700 acres of prairie and marsh communities, containing a large and diverse array of plant and animal life, are present. Many birds, including Henslow’s sparrows, Virginia rails, least bitterns, northern harriers, and upland sandpipers, are known to nest or inhabit the marshes and prairies. It’s one of the best sites in the state for viewing grassland birds, so it’s an accessible place for beginner-birders and a pleasure for seasoned experts.

Goose Lake Prairie is a bit of drive from the Chicago area, but it’s a trip worth making, particularly for birders, nature buffs, and wildlife photographers. Tag your Instagram posts with #DiscoverYourPlace to be featured on our stream and please share with us the highlights from your adventure!

Have You Discovered Orland Grassland?

Pack a lunch and take a trip back in time, exploring the landscapes, habitats, and views found in our region long ago! Located in the south suburbs and managed by the Forest Preserves of Cook County, Orland Grassland is an exceptional display of the expansive prairies that used to stretch across the region. More than 10,000 years ago, glaciers left behind this rolling landscape and made Orland Grassland one of the higher elevation points in Cook County. On a clear day you can even spot the Chicago Skyline!

Orland Grassland is one of the largest grassland habitats in all of Cook County. Starting in 2002, this 960-acre preserve has been transformed from farmland back into a grassland complex with prairies, wetlands, open ponds, oak savannas, and woodlands. Openlands helped restore the landscape at Orland Grassland and today, much of the preserve is enrolled in the Illinois Nature Preserve system and it is a designated important bird area by Audubon Society.

A five-mile paved trail rings Orland Grassland with several unpaved trails winding through the restoration areas. The south unit of Orland Grassland also featured a 1.6-mile paved trail if you’re looking for a shorter trail (or a longer extension of the main trail). The unpaved trails are marked with handmade signs created by Cub Scout Troop #372 of Orland Park. Be sure to check out the interactive trail map from Forest Preserves of Cook County before your visit.

Following Restoration, South Cook Forest Preserves Have Become Birding Hotspots

Two forest preserves in southern Cook County, Bartel Grassland and Tinley Creek Wetlands, have proven themselves to be phenomenal destinations for birding in the Chicago region — and that is entirely due to years of successful restoration at the two sites.

Restoration is the process of returning the land to a healthy state for nature, wildlife, and people. The two forest preserves are across the street from one another, and Openlands has managed the restoration of these sites since 2008 and continue to as part of the Forest Preserve’s Next Century Conservation Plan. By identifying and restoring conservation areas in proximity to one another, we create the habitat on the scale needed for wildlife to thrive.

The landscapes of the Chicago region are particularly important for migrating wildlife and bird species. Forests, grasslands, wetlands, and open water provide stopover points for birds during their semi-annual journeys that, for some species, span across continents and hemispheres. The Great Lakes provide an important bridge between two migratory routes, the Mississippi and Atlantic Flyways, which help bird species as they move from their breeding areas to their winter homes. The resulting migrations of bird species in spring and autumn color our skies and neighborhoods with a stunning diversity of birds, but they rely on local green spaces and nature preserves like these for rest, food, and shelter.


 

Since 2008, Openlands and the Forest Preserves of Cook County have worked together to enhance over 1,400 acres of continuous grassland habitat at these two preserves. Restoration has involved removing invasive vegetation, planting native prairie plants, and engaging volunteers and the surrounding community. We worked to restore the sites’ natural hydrology (the process of how water moves through an area), and in some instances, reconstructed the natural topography by shaping depressions in the land to mimic wetlands. Recreating these landscapes has led to spectacular results.

Since the restoration occurred, both preserves have attracted many grassland birds — particularly Bobolinks, Eastern Meadowlarks, and Dickcissels, as well as winter raptors such as the Northern Harrier and the Short-eared Owl — in much greater numbers and over more acres. In 2017, 11 new bird species were observed at the preserves: Greater White-fronted Goose, Alder Flycatcher, Broad-winged Hawk, Golden-winged Warbler, Black-and-white Warbler, Nashville Warbler, Mourning Warbler, American Redstart, Blackburnian Warbler, Black-throated Blue Warbler, and Black-throated Green Warbler! These species add to the 160+ bird species that have been observed at the preserves as of February 2018.


Tinley-Bartel MUST CREDIT Erin Soto (2)

And while the abundance of bird species is reason to celebrate, the quality of restored habitat is worth protecting as strongly as we can. Following restoration, both of these preserves were awarded Illinois Land and Water Reserve status by the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission, granting additional protection for these special places. Over 900 acres of Tinley Creek Wetlands were protected in 2017 as Bobolink Meadow Land and Water Reserve, and Bartel Grassland Land and Water Reserve is 585 acres of protected natural areas.

Additionally, both preserves earned recognition from the Audubon Society in 2016 as an Important Bird Area. Important Bird Areas are internationally recognized places that are chosen for their unique role in providing habitats for birds. These habitats play a vital role in the lives of birds who are endangered or threatened, either by providing breeding grounds, pathways for migration, or places to spend the winter. Of the 93 birds on Bird Conservation Network’s species of concern in the Chicago region, 50 have been observed in both preserves, including six endangered and one threatened species.

Through many efforts and the work of several partners, the restoration of Tinley Creek Wetlands and Bartel Grassland has been one of the most successful bird conservation projects in the Chicago region. After ten years of restoration, the promise of these grasslands has been fulfilled, and these preserves hold potential to serve as a regional resource for years to come.


Visit the Preserves

Bartel Grassland and Tinley Creek Wetlands are located at the intersection of Central Ave. and Flossmoor Rd. near Tinley Park. Ready to try out birding for yourself? We have some tips.

Learn more about Openlands’ land preservation efforts.


Audubon Great Lakes, Bartel Grassland Volunteers, Chicago Department of AviationChicago District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Living Habitats, and the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission all assisted with these projects.

Special thanks to local nature photographer Erin Soto for sharing all the above images of Bartel Grassland.

Invenergy Helps Restore Land and Water in the Chicago Region

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Openlands is pleased to announce our newest corporate member, Invenergy! Invenergy is a leader in environmentally responsible development of clean and renewable energy, and Openlands is tremendously pleased to share news of their support for protecting lands and waters and for building a conservation community in the region.

Openlands protects the natural and open spaces of northeastern Illinois and the surrounding region to ensure cleaner air and water, protect natural habitats and wildlife, and help balance and enrich our lives. One major way Invenergy is assisting Openlands achieve our mission is by providing support for restoration of natural areas. Restoration is the process of returning the land to a healthy state for nature, wildlife, and people. Decades of urbanization and development coupled with ordinary human interaction with the land have reduced the health of many natural areas, but we can correct that through restoration.

Invenergy is providing vital support to Openlands as we gear up for 2018: with their help, Openlands will continue to build an 11,500-acre wildlife refuge along the Illinois-Wisconsin border; we can better restore ecologically-significant natural areas; and we will make sure these special places are accessible to all people.


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Building Habitats across a Regional Landscape

Along the Illinois-Wisconsin border, Openlands is working to build Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge, established in 2012. Hackmatack aims to restore and connect a landscape carved by glaciers over the centuries. It includes large blocks of grasslands, wet prairies, and natural stream watercourses. As land is protected for Hackmatack, the refuge will offer growing opportunities for wildlife viewing, hunting, fishing, photography, environmental education, and more.

The diverse habitat found in the Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge area is home to over 100 species of concern that were identified during the 2012 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ecological assessment within the greater Hackmatack area, including bald eagles, bobolinks, lake sturgeon, and the eastern prairie fringed orchid! The landscapes of the region are living remnants of the last Ice Age, and the streams that wind through the refuge are some of the purest waters in Illinois.

Over time, Hackmatack will become a mosaic of protected lands that provide habitats large enough for wildlife to thrive, recreation and education opportunities for people, and economic support for local communities.


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Data-Driven Conservation

In addition to protecting landscapes on a large scale, Openlands leads strategic restorations of natural areas that have substantial potential to provide havens for migrating wildlife and to improve natural resources. Openlands will often assess projects based on how restoration will impact the site’s hydrology — the way water interacts with land at a natural area. Wetland areas in particular are often highly prioritized for restoration.

Focusing on water in restoration projects makes sense: not only does it help manage our most precious natural resources, but it can also substantially reduce local flooding and reduce pollution in our water. Wetlands both provide excellent habitat for birds and animals, and their unique soils and plants can also store massive amounts of stormwater, which means far less local flooding. The more stormwater we can retain on-site, the less of it runs off into streets and into basements. When streets and homes do flood, the stormwater becomes very polluted before receding into rivers and lakes. When that stormwater is held in wetlands, however, it is filtered as it returns to rivers, and cleaner rivers mean more migrating wildlife and cleaner water for communities downstream.

Data and monitoring of sites before restoration can help determine which projects can achieve the highest impact. For example, we are working to improve the hydrology of sites like Bartel Grassland and Bobolink Meadow, Deer Grove East Forest Preserve, and Messenger Woods. Each of these sites were chosen for their potential to hold stormwater and improve water quality in the Upper Des Plaines River Watershed (water which eventually reaches the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico).


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Connecting with the Land

Not to be left out of the equation is the connection between people and the land. Even in urban areas, nature is all around us, and Openlands works on a variety of levels to make nature can thrive — even in residential areas — and that people have opportunities to appreciate these amazing places.

Our Birds in my Neighborhood program introduces Chicago Public Schools students to the common birds of the region through a research project and field trips as a way to foster greater appreciation of both birds and the natural world. A single class lesson can inspire a group of students to become expert birders. In May 2017 for example, the students from Chicago’s Ruiz Elementary spotted 44 different species in one afternoon while on a field trip to a local park!

In the end, Openlands wants to make sure these special places are accessible to people from all walks of life. Invenergy’s commitment provides critical support to protecting ecologically sensitive areas and habitats, and Invenergy assists Openlands as we further our mission to connect people to nature where they live.


Invenergy is a leader in environmentally responsible development of clean and renewable energy. We are committed to being a responsible community partner with Openlands who shares our desire to protect the Greater Chicago & Great Lakes region’s natural habitats.

For more information on Openlands Corporate Membership, please contact development@openlands.org.

Have You Discovered Starved Rock State Park?

Starved Rock State Park is a trek from downtown Chicago, but one that’s worth making. Recently voted as the top tourist attraction in Illinois, Starved Rock is a pleasure to visit year-round, with scenic waterfalls in the warmer months and stunning icefalls in the winter. The park boasts an extensive 13-mile trail system, it’s home to hundreds of old oak trees, and it is one of the best places in the Midwest to see the bald eagle population which overwinters along the Illinois River.

Starved Rock takes its name from a Native American legend: in the 1760s, Chief Pontiac of the Ottawa Tribe was killed by an Illiniwek while attending an inter-tribal council in southern Illinois. In a series of battles following the event, a band of Illiniwek sought refuge from a band of Potawatomi warriors (themselves allies of the Ottawa) atop a 125-foot sandstone butte overlooking the Illinois River. The Ottawa and Potawatomi laid seige to the rock, starving the Illiniwek above.

Stories like these are reminders that the lands protected today in our country are lands taken from the indigenous nations that lived here before us. We recognize that indigenous peoples across North America have looked to correct centuries of historical injustices by permanently protecting land through conservation – and that work extends to our home in the Midwest. Today we work to restore the land to health, to respect the land and the water, and to share these places with all people.

Enjoy your trip to Starved Rock, take some time to learn about the history of these lands, and respect that land wherever you go.

Have You Discovered the Salt Creek Greenway Trail?

Have you tried enjoying the outdoors along a long-distance trail yet? Our region’s recreation trails are among the easiest ways to enjoy the area’s natural landscapes. Find peace and solitude or share an experience with family and friends while you run, walk, bike, or hike in natural serenity!

One of the region’s best known trails is the Salt Creek Greenway Trail, which spans two counties of forest preserves, offers access to the Salt Creek Water Trails, and provides excellent wildlife viewing opportunities.

Spanning 25 miles from Busse Woods in Elk Grove Village to the Brookfield Zoo, the Salt Creek Greenway Trail connects 12 communities and over 300,000 residents overall. The Salt Creek Greenway includes both a paved land trail and the water trail, the latter of which is featured in our Paddle Illinois Water Trails guide. Both trails connect through the Forest Preserves of Cook County as well as the DuPage Forest Preserves.

Whether by land or on the water, you will pass under shaded canopies, through open prairies and savanna, and through protected Illinois nature preserves along the Salt Creek Greenway Trail.

Have You Discovered Illinois Beach State Park?

Just an hour’s drive from the heart of Chicago, Illinois Beach State Park is home to six and a half miles of pristine Lake Michigan shoreline. This 4,160-acre, two-unit natural area offers abundant and scenic recreational opportunities, with hiking and biking trails replete with wildlife, access to Illinois’ largest marina, swimming beaches, picnic shelters, and campsites. With expansive dunes and swales, marshes, prairie, and black oak forests, Illinois Beach State Park’s diverse ecosystems contain over 650 plant species, shoreline birds, and rich aquatic wildlife.

The park’s northern unit is a dedicated Illinois Nature Preserve, and offers lengthy biking and hiking trails, fishing at Sand Pond, and public access to Lake Michigan via North Point Marina. The southern unit contains extensive camping and picnic areas, nature trails along mixed wetlands and dunes, and a scenic overlook along the Dead River, a perfect spot for birding.

The Lake Michigan dunes area was originally part of the “Three Fires” of the Algonquin Nation. In 1836, the area was incorporated into Lake County as the result of a treaty with local indigenous peoples. Preservation efforts have been in place since 1888, with southern unit established in 1964 as the first Illinois Nature Preserve. Nature Preserves like Illinois Beach represent the highest quality habitat in Illinois. The northern unit was acquired between 1971 and 1982. For more than 50 years, Openlands has advocated for and helped to protect the shoreline ecosystems of Lake Michigan.

Located across Winthrop Harbor, Zion, and Benton Township, Illinois Beach State Park is owned and operated by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

Openlands Launches New Online Paddling Guide

Start paddling northeastern Illinois’ waterways!

Openlands’ new paddling website, Paddle Illinois Water Trails, is a comprehensive guide for canoeing and kayaking in the Chicago region. Covering over 500 miles of Water Trails across 10 of northeastern Illinois’ waterways, this new guide provides rich information about paddling, including step-by-step trips along each trail. The site contains trips and resources for everyone, from first-time paddlers to seasoned boaters.

The guide provides in-depth information on each waterway, including important notes about water safety, interactive maps, and multiple, in-depth trip descriptions. Each trip description includes information on skill levels, trail length, directions, and equipment rental locations if available. Interactive maps display launch sites, dams, and the paddling difficulty level along the trail. Paddlers can also leave comments and share their paddling tips on individual trail pages.

Visit the guide now!