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Malone turkey

Conservation Corner

Habitat restoration on small acreage

Mon, January 31, 2011

“This project is for my family and the community,” says Harry Rossett of his 80-acre habitat restoration in rural Kane County.

A little more than a year ago, this was a flat cropfield. Standing in the center, one could see pretty much all there was to see: a lot of corn stubble. It is on this site that Harry and wife Wendy plan to spend much of their free time, and in the future, an active retirement enjoying nature with their family.

While a field of corn stubble may not sound like a bustling natural community to most, Harry and Wendy had a vision. They saw prairie grasses leaning in the breeze, native oaks and hickories taking root near a wetland sanctuary for migratory birds, and a pond to enjoy year-round. But they wanted to do it right, so they contacted the local District Conservationist with the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS, Tom Ryterske, for more information.

Ryterske’s job is to help local landowners and farmers protect the quality of the soil, water, plants, and other natural resources on their land. In Chicago’s collar counties, this means working with all sorts of landowners. Ryterske’s clients include farmers who need large scale agricultural conservation systems that protect wildlife habitat, prevent soil erosion, and meet requirements of local, state and federal environmental standards. In addition, he works with growing communities to identify alternatives for smart growth and to promote urban construction methods that protect water quality. Yet another facet of his conservation work focuses on landowners with smaller tracts of land, like the Rossetts.

“In areas surrounding Chicago, many people have small acreage in the country,” said Ryterske. “They want to protect and restore natural habitats, but need technical information on the soils, drainage, and native plant and animal communities. They need to know what will and will not work on their land,” he said.

Conservation Planning for Wildlife and Recreation

The Rossetts were eligible for assistance for their project through the NRCS Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program, or WHIP. Through the program, they received financial support for a wetland restoration, prairie restoration, woodland restoration, stream buffer, and a small windbreak.

Ryterske provided conservation planning assistance for the project using detailed soils information compiled by NRCS over the past 70 years, the latest conservation planning software and imaging technology, and Ryterske’s own 26 years of experience working on the land in northeastern Illinois. An NRCS archaeologist and biologist, along with biologists with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR), helped inventory resources on the site, analyze the potential for restoration, and develop alternatives to meet the Rossett’s goals for the land.

Biology assistance included seeding recommendations to establish healthy stands of wildlife-friendly grasses on both upland areas and wetlands. In addition, IDNR biologists provided suggested maintenance activities, including the use of prescribed fire, to help the plantings out-compete non-native and less desirable vegetation. An IDNR fisheries biologist also provided assistance with the design of the pond and helped Harry develop a stocking plan.

The archeological review revealed two sites on the Rossett’s property. A prehistoric site from the Middle Archaic Period was evidenced by stone dart points that date from 5,000 to 8,000 years ago, according to the NRCS Archaeologist. In addition, a concentration of tableware and crockery fragments confirmed the existence of an historic farmstead dating to the early 1800s.

Putting a Vision on the Ground

Thanks to a carefully crafted conservation plan that captured Harry and Wendy’s vision and that suited the natural and cultural characteristics of the land, the site underwent a dramatic transformation in just a year. The changes make the spot seem larger and more alive.

Today, Harry drives down a winding lane along the periphery, pointing out design details and noting specifics about the soils that he picked up during the process. Seventeen acres of trees have been planted, a thirteen-acre wetland constructed, and several grassy expanses seeded to recall a memory of Illinois’ native prairies. The heavy work involved excavating the pond and molding the spoil into a grassy hillside. Earth-moving activities were conducted according to NRCS specifications and in a manner that preserved the integrity of both archaeological sites.

“Conservation planning is much more complicated than planting a few trees and not mowing your grass,” said Ryterske. “My role is to help people set realistic objectives to meet their land use goals in consideration of the suitabilities and limitations of the land and water resources they have to work with,” he said.

The Rossetts plan to share their haven with their grandchildren and with local school groups interested in monitoring water quality and the establishment of plant and animal communities.

“There is so much you can learn from this piece of land and the soils, plants and animals on it,” Harry said. “We can’t wait to see how it develops year by year!”

by Jill Rees, USDA-NRCS Public Affairs Specialist



Nesting habitat key for pheasants

Mon, January 31, 2011

Nesting habitat, winter cover, and food for young chicks are the critical components to increasing ring-necked pheasant numbers in this area. Dr. Bill Hohman of the NRCS Wildlife Habitat Management Institute and Iowa State University pheasant expert William Clark say habitat for ring-necked pheasants includes:

Nesting habitat.

Although hens will nest in roadsides, grassed waterways and other strips of vegetation, they prefer to nest in blocks of cover larger than 40 acres that contain ground litter and a leafy canopy. Undisturbed CRP fields or hayfields not mowed until after nesting can be excellent nesting cover.  Iowa studies show hens were three times more likely to nest in cool season grasses like bromegrass and alfalfa than tall switch grass.  However Switch and other native grasses are better winter cover than brome grass and stand up better in snow storms.

Winter Cover.

Shelterbelts or other woody cover with a shrubby understory, cattail wetlands, and dense stands of native grasses all give good winter cover. Pheasants will spend most of their time within the first 150 feet of the edge of these good patches of cover and move into adjacent crop fields to eat. Vegetated wetlands are also used heavily by pheasants for roosting and escape and loafing cover from late fall through spring. Pheasant survival in winter can be quite high in areas with a couple of 5- acre shrubby woodlands, or 30-acre wetlands or switch grass patches.


Waste grain is usually an abundant source of winter food; leave rows of corn or sorghum along field edges for more. At hatching, young chicks and hen pheasants remain within 100 yards of the nest for only a day or two, then begin to move as much as half a mile away to fields with a mixture of grasses and broad-leaved plants with an abundance of insects. During the first few weeks of life, chicks feed on beetles, bugs, caterpillars, ground spiders and other slow-moving animals that supply protein. Weedy edges of fields, hay fields, and native prairies with a significant component of broadleaved plants have many more insects in them than dense grass.  Food is not considered a limiting factor for pheasants as much as cover is.

Heavy spraying of herbicides reduces insect populations just as much as insecticide use, because it destroys the weeds that are the
habitat for the insects.

For more information, including discing, burning and other management ideas, see a web leaflet from the NRCS Wildlife Habitat Management Institute at

NRCS Conservation programs such as WHIP Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program, can provide financial assistance to establishing or improving wildlife habitat.

Wildlife Ways

Did you know….

The ring-necked pheasant was introduced to the United States from Asia before the 1800s. A very popular game bird, the pheasant is now found across much of the northern two-thirds of the country.


Habitat An Oasis in the Cornfields

Sat, January 29, 2011

Illinois NRCS WHIP Success Story

Habitat An Oasis in the Cornfields

Ray Goosens enrolled 21.7 acres into the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP) in 2002 to attract wildlife and provide an oasis of habitat in an area of central Mercer County dominated with row crops. NRCS District Conservationist Jason Hessman has worked with Goosens to provide NRCS engineering design and cost share assistance for a shallow water area. Hessman also works with NRCS and Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) Biologists to plan and design shrub plantings, field windbreaks, native grass and forb plantings, and a hardwood establishment for Goosens’ property.

Goosens takes pride in his project to provide high quality habitat for a variety of wildlife. “My goal is to create a wildlife sanctuary,” said Goosens, a Henry County Deputy who finds the site to be a sanctuary for himself as well. “I want my 11-month old daughter to grow up appreciating the nature and wildlife that God created.”

The ¾ acre shallow water area was constructed according to NRCS standards. A low profile levee and water control structure was installed to manage water levels and stimulate the germination of water loving plants. Seeds of many wetland plant species can lie dormant in the soil seed bank for years. Over time, native wetland plants will naturally germinate and re-colonize. Migratory waterfowl will find Goosen’s property a hospitable place to visit. Over the next few years, Goosens will plant shrubs, grasses and trees and witness his barren property’s transformation into high quality wildlife habitat with food and water sources for a variety of species including pheasants, wild turkey, deer, and quail.

NRCS and Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) staff will continue to provide Goosens with technical assistance to maintain quality habitat over the years. NRCS/SWCD staff will provide guidance on activities such as controlled burning to maintain vigorous grass stands and will help secure equipment, such as tree planters, native grass drills and burn equipment through the SWCD and wildlife groups.

“I think WHIP is a great program. I wish more people would take this opportunity to provide habitat for wildlife,” Goosens said.

Goosens and his family will enjoy the natural areas and wildlife habitat for years to come. But the benefits of this project and others like it reach far beyond the landowner. Portions of Goosens’ WHIP project were once highly erodible cropland. With the establishment of grasses, shrubs and trees, the soil will be protected from erosion and area streams will be spared the associated sediment- and nutrient- laden runoff. The shallow water area will filter pollutants and nutrients from runoff flowing from surrounding cropland, improving water quality in the watershed. With WHIP, Ray Goosens has found technical and financial assistance to improve his property for wildlife and protect our soil and water resources.

For more information on WHIP visit your local USDA Service Center.  or


By: Jill Creamean, NRCS Public Affairs Specialist
November 2002