Indiana Conservation Summary

Although most travelers through Indiana picture little more than miles of flat corn fields, the Indiana landscape is richly varied in its topography as well as it habitats. It includes sand dunes along Lake Michigan, glacial lakes and wetlands in the northeast, entrenched valleys in the central region, cypress swamps in the southwest, barrens, glades, sinkholes and caves in the south-central region, and bluegrass till plain forests in the southeast.

Rare Species and Characteristic Habitats

The central flat regions of the state (where most of the corn fields are) have excellent remnants of flatwoods forests. In fact, the largest remaining blocks of bluegrass till plain flatwoods in the country are found in Indiana. These contain sphaghnum, climbing fern and an astounding variety of acid-loving plants. Indiana’s mesic upland forests are perhaps the richest anywhere, with incredible shows of spring wildflowers: celandine poppy, showy orchis, large-flowered trillium, harbinger of spring, and many more. The rich, moist soil grows mammoth trees such as tulip tree (the state tree), black walnut, white oak, black gum, American beech, red oak, and shagbark hickory.

In the south, there are hundreds of caves that contain the highest numbers of globally rare invertebrate species, many of which are restricted to Indiana caves. The heart of the range for the Indiana bat is Indiana: this federally endangered species spends its summers in the state’s rich forests and its winters in the state’s caves; Indiana has several priority hibernacula.

The overall diversity of species that inhabit Indiana’s forests is astounding, considering the extensive clearing and other abuses these forests have sustained. In addition to common forest species, yellowwood, running buffalo clover, cerulean and worm-eating warblers and much, much more are still to be found. Indiana prairies and savannas have sustained even greater losses, but Karner blue and regal fritillary butterflies, prairie white-fringed orchids, Henslow’s sparrows and many others still survive in key protected areas. Indiana wetlands have been filled, drained, and invaded by aliens, but special areas can still be found, where Mitchell’s satyr butterflies, bog bluegrass, small white ladyslipper, Kirtland’s and northern copperbelly watersnakes thrive.

Public & Private Conservation Efforts

What was once the Department of Defense’s Jefferson Proving Grounds is now the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s Big Oaks National Wildlife Refuge. This came to pass in large measure thanks to the work of the Indiana Natural Heritage Data Center, through its biological inventory on the property that showed the significance of its bluegrass till plain flatwoods, rich mesic forests, and large expanses early successional grasslands. Along the Lake Michigan shoreline, the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and Indiana Dunes State Parks protect an amazing variety of life in their dunes, swales, swamps and forests. The federally threatened Pitcher’s thistle is still found in sand blowouts among the dunes, migratory birds are “dripping from the trees” on many a May morning, and amphibians hide among the rotting logs in the big swamps behind the dunes.

These and many more wonderful protected areas are possible only through the combined efforts of the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, federal partners like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, land trusts like The Nature Conservancy, Acres, and the Central Indiana Land Trust, county parks, and many others. The growing number of land trusts is testament to the growing conservation awareness and interest in the importance of green space.

Threats

In spite of great conservation success, there is still habitat loss, a growing list of invasive species, and hydrological changes that threaten Indiana’s biological heritage. Habitats are lost to building construction and plant succession resulting from fire suppression, and are fragmented by roads and power lines. The result is fewer, smaller and more isolated high-quality natural communities requiring more intensive and costly management to maintain. Invasive species like purple loosestrife crowd out native wetland species resulting in a near monoculture which not only reduces the plant species diversity but the wetland birds that depend on them. Wetlands get drained and streams get dammed, hydrological changes that result in further loss of habitat diversity.

Indiana’s Future

Although these growing threats are very real and daunting challenges, there is also growing hope in Indiana’s capability to meet them. There is growing awareness and financial support within the Department of Natural Resources for biodiversity and natural area protection, restoration and management. Within the last few years, the Indiana Natural Heritage Trust has provided millions of dollars to acquire thousands of acres of habitat, and the Division of Nature Preserves has been able to tap into federal grants to complete hundreds of acres of habitat restoration, while at the same time getting the core budget funding support to match these federal grants. There are a growing number of local land trusts that provide not only more financial means, but also local presence which is oftentimes the critical ingredient to conservation success. And there is an increasing synergy among these and other conservation partners, including private citizens, that yields greater financial resources to accomplish conservation success and, more importantly, greater hope in knowing that more Hoosiers truly value and demand a higher quality, and diversity, of life.

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