Byline: Kurt Gessler Daily Herald Staff Writer
Wayne Schennum doesn't need a list to tell him how the wildlife in his care is faring.
As resource manager for the McHenry County Conservation District, he's slopped through every bog and crawled in every briar looking for creatures as small as needle-sized invertebrates in a 610-square-mile haystack.
And of late, his job of policing the environment isn't getting any easier.
Drawn to the resources he is protecting, suburban residents looking to get away from it all are bringing it all with them. In the process, Schennum said they are literally loving the fragile habitat to death.
However, when the Illinois Endangered Species Protection Board updated its "watch list" of endangered plants and animals late last month, it appeared the ecology of the Fox Valley watershed was not only stable but also improving. Despite a 20 percent population growth in Kane and McHenry counties in the last five years, around 20 percent of the 97 endangered and threatened species found in the Fox Valley were either removed from the state's rolls or were deemed on the rebound. In contrast, only five were added and one was downgraded.
Local environmentalists were quick to claim a small but surprising victory.
Schennum and other officials, however, say it's not a sign of success, but sophistry. The numbers, he said, are accurate, but their meaning is murky. With public land being chewed up by development at record rates, any lasting ecological recovery is nearly impossible - despite what the list hints at.
"The figures really mean more than one thing," Schennum said. "More or less, it's a case of improved science not actual recovery. Our lakes and streams are not improving in quality with the pace of development."
What is improving, however, is the ability to identify populations of endangered species.
When the first endangered species list was created in the '70s, the inventory was taken by cursory roadside inventories and examinations of aerial photos, said Brad Semel, natural heritage biologist with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. In many cases, the more secretive species literally slipped through the cracks.
Today, aided by new technology, land stewards are more meticulous. On bat surveys, flashlights and notebooks have given way to highly sensitive recorders so that swarms of animals can be inventoried, isolating each unique call. And instead of a single researcher with a net checking the biodiversity of a stream, teams of six or more methodically sweep waterways with 110-volt electrodes on 25-minute fish roundups.
These more accurate and more frequent natural inventories taken have allowed conservationists to get a clearer picture of the land they are protecting.
Often, in the process of mapping out every square inch of prairie remnant, scientists discover previously unknown communities of plants and animals. It is this factor that is often misread, Schennum said.
"It may look like improvement, but it's really not," he said. "These populations were already there, and we just didn't realize it."
Beyond better identification techniques, Semel said the endangered species
list doesn't translate well region to region. Since it is a statewide list, many species that are vanishing from the Fox Valley's 1 million miles might not be classified as threatened or endangered because of robust downstate populations.
"List changes, whether it is from recently discovered communities or from management activities, don't necessarily reflect the position of the species in the Fox Valley," said Jim Herkert, listing coordinator for the state's endangered species board. "You have to keep in mind the Fox River watershed is one component in the state."
The gist of the list
Nothing revives a species that is fading from the …