Return of the savanna

Savannas are characterized by widely spaced trees, mostly oaks. The savanna in the Tevatron ring is dominated by reed canary grass, soon to be replaced by dozens of native flowering species common in natural savannas. Photo: Ryan Campbell, FESS

In 1975, with the creation of a few acres of restored prairie, Fermilab became a center for ecological renewal and conservation. Nearly 40 years later, a network of volunteers and dedicated ecologists remains committed to preserving rare plant communities and the rich biodiversity they support. Since 2006, Fermilab Natural Areas (FNA), a not-for-profit corporation based at Fermilab, has been engaged in restoring one of the most endangered habitats in the Midwest — oak savanna.

The Fermilab campus is blessed with several acres of remnant savannas, most of which are degraded to some level. Since the beginning of FNA, its keystone project has been the restoration of the 35-acre oak savanna remnant in the center of the Tevatron ring. Over one third of the area of the savanna remnant has been choked with unwanted species of brush and trees. Beginning in 2012, funding obtained by FNA from The DuPage Community Foundation and The Weist Foundation was used in the spring of 2012 to begin clearing the savanna of tree species not characteristic of oak savanna, such as cherry, basswood, maple and elm.

Last year, an additional grant of $2,000 from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Preservation Fund enabled contractors to make significant progress in eradicating reed canary grass, a non-native invasive species that displaces the native species that were common to the savannas more than 200 years ago. The next phases of this restoration will incorporate prescribed burning, enrichment of the plant community by reintroducing savanna-adapted species and monitoring to see whether the savanna community is flourishing.

As an example, bird monitoring takes place within the savanna throughout the year. More than 40 species of birds have been observed using it, and the hope is that the numbers of rare species that use savannas, such as the red-headed woodpecker, will discover this site and return to use it. Other species, including mammals, reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates, will eventually find their way here to use this restored habitat.

Rod Walton