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Shrinking numbers.

The Endangered Species Act is 45 years old this year. The past four decades have been a roller-coaster ride for lots of animals and plants. As we approach Earth Day 2018, it seems a good time to consider the topic of threatened and endangered species.

What's the first thing that comes to mind when you think of endangered species? White rhinoceros, maybe? Or Siberian tiger? How about blue whale?

If you said Iowa Pleistocene snail or elfin skimmer, you get bonus points and a pat on the back! Not many people have heard of these guys. They are among the dozens of endangered species that live precariously on the brink of extinction here in Illinois.

We know the stories of lots of animals on other continents and in faraway oceans -- particularly the large mammals like pandas and gorillas. (These are often referred to as "charismatic megafauna.") Thanks to television specials, movies, and National Geographic-style magazines, most of us could identify a tiger and a zebra.

Smaller endangered species close to home get barely a nod. The death of the last male Northern white rhinoceros last month in Kenya tugs at our heartstrings, but would we be so moved if the last Illinois cave amphipod slipped into oblivion? Would anyone know?

Threatened and endangered species are in our midst here in Illinois. Each plays a role in its ecological community -- whether we are aware of it or not. The loss of any species has a ripple effect that ultimately comes to us. Over and over, we find that the health of the ecological community affects the health of the human community.

Let's consider a local critter that is endangered. The rusty-patched bumblebee looks, to the layman, like your run-of-the-mill bumblebee.

Most people don't get close enough to examine the fine points of bumblebee identification. With some practice, you can learn to see distinguishing features of the rusty-patched bumblebee -- like a rusty patch.

You're not likely to see this bee, however, because it's pretty darn rare. The rusty-patch population has been dealt a wallop with habitat loss, pesticide use, changing climate conditions, and loss of food sources. In just 20 years, its numbers have plummeted by an estimated 87 percent. This is not good news.

"Come on! A bumblebee? Seriously?" you might be thinking. Think again. Bumblebees are pretty important if you like to eat. They are pollinators par excellence.

Losing bumblebees means losing crops like tomatoes, sweet peppers, and strawberries. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's website, "Rusty patched bumble bees contribute to our food security and the healthy functioning of our ecosystems."

If bees don't strike a chord in you, maybe owls do. An endangered species you could possibly see here in the winter is the short-eared owl. These owls migrate through our area, and some individuals stay through the winter.

Don't look for a short-eared owl in the woods, though. It likes prairies and fallow fields. Since Illinois has lost over 99 percent of its original prairie, is it any wonder that birds like this are endangered?

A notch below endangered status is threatened. These aren't quite as bad off as endangered species, but life is no bed of roses for them.

We have plenty of threatened species in Illinois. The Franklin's ground squirrel is one. You could -- maybe -- see one while driving along country roads in the summer. It looks somewhat like a gray tree squirrel, but with smaller ears and tails. Why is it threatened? You guessed it -- habitat loss.

The list goes on. Bats, sunfish, salamanders -- there are more threatened and endangered species in Illinois than you can throw a stick at. (But don't. Even if it's a crawling little beast that creeps you out.) Help them out.

The common denominator in the threatened and endangered species equation is habitat loss. Habitat loss is a daunting challenge, but it's one we can rise to. There are habitat restoration projects all over Illinois, just waiting for you to volunteer.

Spend one morning a month helping cut invasive brush, or harvesting seed to be used in new prairie plantings. Or, take part in an annual event like Earth Day, planting native shrubs and trees. Jump into a creek monitoring program to keep your neighborhood streams clean.

You may never see a Siberian tiger in the wild, but one day while you're out volunteering to restore habitat, you just may spot a locally threatened or endangered species. It could be a small bumblebee, or a majestic bird of prey. Consider it a rare treat, and a gift to give generations to come.

*Valerie Blaine is the Nature Programs Manager for the Forest Preserve District of Kane County. You may reach her at
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Title Annotation:Neighbor
Publication:Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)
Geographic Code:1U3IL
Date:Apr 16, 2018
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