The term "endangered landscape" usually conjures images of tropical rain forests, but the tall grass prairies and oak savannas of Illinois and Wisconsin also are considered as such.
The Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge recently authorized by the federal government -- the closet wildlife refuge yet to the Chicago urban area -- will provide for the restoration of these natural habitats with up to 11,200 acres in McHenry County and southern Wisconsin to serve as a home to wildlife and outdoor recreation opportunities, officials said.
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However, the refuge won't be officially established until U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service purchases the first parcel of land, said Thomas Larson, conservation planning division chief for the Midwest regional office of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. No money has been appropriated yet for the long-term project, he said.
The refuge will be a home for 109 species of animals -- including birds, fish, mussels, reptiles and one amphibian -- and 47 plants. It will comprise only land and land conservation easements acquired through voluntary sales or donations, he added.
"Native grasslands and wetlands have been declining for years, they've been plowed and drained. Bobolinks and meadowlarks, for example, have been declining for several decades," he said. "This is a rare habitat nowadays."
Hackmatack roughly has the shape of a doughnut, with mostly farmland in the center. Studies have shown that wildlife refuges contribute positively to the local economy, as well as the quality of the water in wells and the local aquifer, Larson said.
"Hackmatack" is a Native American word for the Tamarack tree found in local wetlands, said Cindy Skrukrud, a steering committee members of the Friends of Hackmatack. "That's the thing that people in the Midwest don't realize. We have some of the most unique landscapes and ecosystems on the planet. That's what Hackmatack will do -- it will bring our landscape to the national stage," Skrukrud said.
Also, Hackmatack is in the path of a migrating flock of whooping cranes that is being re-established, she said. The flock of North America's largest birds, an endangered species, migrates from Wisconsin to Florida for the winter.
"The refuge can provide a place to stop over, or maybe eventually they will decide to spend summer here and we'll even have whooping crane chicks hatched," she said.
There are 556 national wildlife refuges nationwide, but Hackmatack is unique because of its proximity to a large urban area and its high degree of partnerships with local entities, such as the McHenry County Conservation District, Larson said.
Also, it's truly the product of a grass-roots effort, he added.
The Friends of Hackmatack first started talking about establishing a wildlife refuge about eight years ago, and started building consensus by pointing out all its benefits, including building tourism in the area, Skrukrud said.
The idea gained steam when organizations like the Sierra Club and Openlands joined in the effort, followed by elected officials including Gov. Pat Quinn, she said. In spring 2010, U.S. Fish and Wildlife decided to conduct a feasibility study.
One of the main components of the refuge, which will likely have a visitors center, will be environmental education, Larson said. "A lot of kids are really into electronics and TV, (it's) hard to get them out into the out of doors. Making contact with urban population is a priority for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service."