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President's Letter: Learning What Makes Wildlife Thrive

From the common sightings like white-tailed deer, racoons and sunflowers to the surprising species like mink, river otters and local orchids, the presence of native plants and wildlife can tell us a lot about the health of the Forest Preserves of Cook County’s ecosystems. Part of our work in the Forest Preserves is to keep a close eye on the many different species that call the Preserves their home.

Forest Preserves biologists closely monitor animal populations, and regularly conduct health work-ups on different species. With apex predators—otters and coyotes, for example—this information can tell us how well a particular ecosystem is functioning. These “indicator species” give us insights to questions like how well animals are moving through the landscape, if there are enough food sources in the area and whether zoonotic diseases are spreading.

Meanwhile, Forest Preserves ecologists monitor our native plant populations, and work to fully understand the plant compositions of our landscapes. Ecologists help us understand which plants are native to specific habitats, and they observe when new plants appear in a location—whether because restoration work has enabled a native species to return or because an invasive species is working its way into an ecosystem.

With a better understanding of both the plants and animals that are native to the Forest Preserves, we can continue to develop science-based restoration plans. Working strategically with ecological contractors, partners and volunteers, we employ tools and tactics like seed planting, tree thinning and prescribed fire to bring even more acres of land to high-quality levels.

You can get involved in scientific efforts, too, through community science programs run by the Forest Preserves and partners like the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum and Friends of the Chicago River. From monitoring birds and squirrels to frogs and plants of concern, there are opportunities for community scientists of all ages and all levels of experience. Or join our volunteer efforts to create healthy habitats for native plants and animals.

Thousands of different species of plants and animals live within our nearly 70,000 acres. We hope you consider joining us in helping our local wildlife thrive.