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As Climate Change Destroys their Habitats, These Animals Are on the Move

Marianna Bacallao, WVIK News

As natural disasters continue to batter America’s coasts and devastate crops, animals are in danger of losing their natural habitats. But there is hope — land on the banks of the Mississippi river is acting as a sanctuary for animals fleeing the effects of climate change.

On the Illinois side of Lock and Dam 13, Ayers Sand Prairie State Nature Preserve is just one of many stops along what scientists are calling “Natural Highways.” They’re stretches of diverse landscapes resilient to climate change, and the Nature Conservancy has mapped where they connect across the contiguous United States.

Jeff Walk is Director of Conservation Programs for the Nature Conservancy in Illinois. He says these regions are uniquely suited to weather climate change because of their biodiversity, and the Natural Highways project looks to preserve its variety of plant life and soil types.“Rather than trying to predict what types of changes might happen to the climate, looking at it from the perspective of: what are the areas that are likely to sustain a diversity of plants, animals, fish, wildelife, regardless of what happens with climate change? And so, this is an analysis that looks at a couple of things. Looking for neighborhoods, if you will, that provide a lot of options for different places of plants and animals to survive, looking at areas that have an interesting mix of slope, aspect, different soil types, for example, sandy areas, clay soils, limestone outcrops, are some of the examples from our area.”Some animals are already on the move — like the family of armadillos Walker’s staff found in Shawnee National Forest — and some are just starting their journey across these Natural Highways.“One species that I think about in the context of this particular analysis is the Eastern Box Turtle, cute little woodland turtle, thoroughly common in the southern half of Illinois, across Missouri, and could move northward, but would need important corridors like the woodlands along the Mississippi river for them to get to more forested landscapes, like we might encounter in Wisconsin and Minnesota, for example.”Walker says the agricultural landscape of Iowa and Illinois — the rows of flat land, uniform soil type, and a lack of diverse plant life — makes it harder for animals like the Eastern Box Turtle to navigate the Natural Highways. That’s why the Nature Conservancy is narrowing the focus of its conservation efforts on land that connects animals to more sustainable habitats.

Credit Marianna Bacallao, WVIK News
Randy Nybour stands in the middle of Ayers Sand Prairie Nature Preserve.

Like Ayers Sand Prairie, just north of the Quad Cities. Randy Nybour, Director of Field Surveys, has been involved in nature conservation for over 40 years. He says the area is a respite from the surrounding agricultural landscape.“Just great habitat blocks that used to cover the entire state that just aren’t here anymore,” Nybour says. “You know, a lot of these species adapted to this stuff originally, and they’ve always found safe havens or been able to utilize the areas that have been affected like this. I’m sure it knocks back some of the populations, but for the most part, they seem to be able to respond, and the more habitat isles like these that we have, the better they’re going to be able to come back.”Nybour was at Morrison State Park when the derecho hit in August. He says he’s never seen anything like it. It destroyed power lines and the park’s forested areas, including oaks that help warblers migrate in the spring. But the sand prairie was left in-tact.The storm hit during the peak of Monarch butterfly migration in Illinois, but Nybour says numbers from early September showed a good number of the monarchs had survived the wind storm.“We were really concerned we were going to lose a lot of those butterflies because of the strength of the winds and that sort of thing, but I think because the spring was somewhat delayed, the butterflies got here a little bit later from down in Mexico, that when that derecho hit, there were a lot of the monarchs that were in the caterpillar stage and in the chrysalis stage.”Regions like the Ayers Sand Prairie don’t just help animals. Since they’re usually located along rivers and streams, they help to stabilize the soil and filter drinking water. Maintaining water quality in those streams helps animals find their way to larger sustainable habitats and keeps the water in reservoirs safe to drink for people across the Midwest.

Marianna Bacallao is WVIK Quad Cities NPR's 2020-2021 Fellowship Host/Reporter. She graduated Magna Cum Laude from Mercer University's Center for Collaborative Journalism and served as Editor-in-Chief for the student newspaper, The Cluster.