Audubon looks to Great Lakes for wetland restoration: ‘If we can bring back Calumet, we can bring back any place’

Morgan Greene, Chicago Tribune
·4 min read

Conservationists have their eye on the Great Lakes, laying out a plan for wetland habitats that could use a helping hand — including the Calumet region south of Chicago.

The Great Lakes are a haven to 350 species of birds, but fewer than half of the wetlands that once existed in the Great Lakes remain. Birds, like other wildlife, must contend with the loss of coastal habitats, a changing climate and invasive species. Some Great Lakes native species are seeing major declines in population, part of a bigger picture of bird loss: There are 29% fewer birds in North America than there were 50 years ago, a 2019 study found.

“The birds are telling us that it’s time to act on behalf of the Great Lakes,” said Michelle Parker, executive director and vice president of Audubon Great Lakes, in a Monday news conference.

As part of a blueprint released Monday, on World Water Day, Audubon Great Lakes highlighted 42 projects in a dozen regions to aid bird survival and help bolster overall ecosystems. To figure out which spots to prioritize, scientists turned to marsh birds as harbingers of wetland health, and also weighed water quality benefits and coastal resiliency.

Audubon and its partners, including conservation groups and state and local agencies, are aiming to restore or protect more than 250,000 acres in the next decade. Funding for projects comes from the federal Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, local partners and the philanthropic community.

The Calumet region is the most industrialized of the targeted areas, and that much habitat degradation can open the door for habitat problems. If all goes as planned, about 8,000 acres in the region will be restored to a more balanced state by the end of the decade.

In an interview, Parker said few places have been as challenged as the Calumet region.

“I think of the history, the fairly recent history of the last 100 years or so, and the near miraculous fact that we do have remnant habitat that has survived the industrialization, the heavy development — literally being treated as Chicago’s dump,” Parker said. “And yet we have these remnant habitats.”

“If we can bring the Calumet back, we can bring back any place,” Parker said.

The Monday report is an extension of a September study led by Audubon researchers that identified the most important wetlands for 14 key species, such as black-crowned night herons, sandhill cranes and least bitterns. Fewer than half of the high-priority wetlands were found to be under some protection, the study found. Even some protected wetlands are in poor condition.

In the Calumet area, which stretches from Lake Michigan’s southern shore in Illinois up through Michigan, reports from birders and efforts such as the Calumet Marsh Bird Monitoring Project have helped bring attention to what’s happening with local populations.

Nat Miller, conservation director of Audubon Great Lakes and Mississippi Flyway, said there is “a bird crisis in Calumet.” Once, the largest colony of black-crowned night herons in the Midwest could be found at Chicago’s Big Marsh and Indian Ridge Marsh, Miller said. “Now we have just a few hanging on.”

Declining marsh bird populations are not only happening in the Calumet region. Regional declines of the black tern population may be as high as 80%, according to Audubon.

But now birds are starting to come back to some restored sites, such as Big Marsh, formerly an industrial waste dumping site. By 2018, 11 key marsh bird species were spotted there — up from just two in 2015. Avian regulars now include the state-threatened least bittern and state-endangered common gallinule.

That may be due in part to a mix of art and science, Miller said. Big Marsh, along with Indian Ridge Marsh and Eggers Grove, now include water control structures, which can re-create or simulate the natural ebb and flow of wetlands. This ability can come in handy in the face of increased flooding and variable lake levels.

More than 3,000 acres in the Calumet region have been restored, Miller said, and upcoming work includes water level control at Deadstick Pond, a Metropolitan Water and Reclamation District site. Other plans include the “massive” effort to connect Powderhorn Lake to Wolf Lake, Miller said. The Cook County Forest Preserves has acquired parcels between the two areas and engineering is just about done. The hope is to break ground this summer with construction taking the next two years. The end result will be more than 100 acres of new marsh.

Next, conservationists have their eye on some trickier projects, including potentially contaminated brownfield sites.

“Now we’re starting to think about, what are the harder places?” Miller said. “What are those brownfields? How can we reconnect waterways? Where can we soften shorelines along the Calumet and the Chicago River to create habitat and build resiliency to flooding for these areas?”

There’s still a lot of work to do, Miller said. “And that’s the right thing to do for people who have been neglected by the city of Chicago for a long time.”

mgreene@chicagotribune.com