Amy Lardner first heard the strangled squawking sound while walking near the Lincoln Park Zoo more than a decade ago.
It was the call of the black-crowned night heron, a wetland bird found throughout North America but considered endangered in the state of Illinois. Ever since, Lardner, 60, said she has been lurking near where they’ve nested throughout the years, listening to their calls at dusk and witnessing fledglings grow. “I was fascinated and smitten,” said the retiree-turned-conservationist, who lives in the Gold Coast neighborhood.
But construction last year on a new trail around the Chicago History Museum displaced a flock of the birds and put the remaining population at risk, as it is now highly concentrated in one location. Lardner wants to know what happened.
For some conservation advocates, the herons’ abandonment of their nests represents a long-standing gap between policies in place to protect endangered wildlife and how they play out in practice. The state Endangered Species Protection Act mandates that public entities consult the Illinois Department of Natural Resources on any projects that could alter environmental conditions or could affect wildlife.
As the Illinois law marks its 50th anniversary this year, state officials and environmental advocates say the department’s reviews are hindered by an incomplete record of sites where endangered species can be found and a staff slashed by nearly half compared with two decades ago.
In the case of the black-crowned night herons, the history museum followed the steps laid out by law, submitting a request to the natural resources department in April 2020. But because the department had no records of the herons at the museum grounds, the department ended the review without recommending any changes, according to a spokesperson for IDNR.
Even when the department provides recommendations, it lacks the authority to require organizations to follow through on any mitigation steps it outlines.
“We’re not a regulatory agency,” said Brad Semel, an endangered species recovery specialist with the department. “So we can’t tell people what to do, but the best we can hope for is that we can recognize where all these endangered and threatened species are and map them out.”
But years of the department only being able to say it’s done the best it can have added up, Semel said.
“Cumulatively, over all these years and the loss of habitat, we just continue to lose species and lose the viability of populations,” he said.
Private companies can also be a problem. They can request an environmental review from the state for a construction project but are not required to do so.
In Rockford, IDNR identified the endangered rusty patched bumblebee at Bell Bowl Prairie, where Rockford International Airport plans an expansion. The airport could have opted to take the next step with IDNR, which involves further investigation of the impact on the bumblebee and more community input, but it did not. In Skokie, plans for a 14-story Carvana glass tower advanced even though some of IDNR’s recommendations weren’t included in the plans.
In instances like these, IDNR can’t halt projects or require that its recommendations be followed. Other states have similar problems. According to a 2017 analysis of state endangered species laws from the University of California, Irvine, published in the Environmental Law Reporter, most states have inadequate conservation laws to prevent habitat loss and plan for species recovery.
“These consultation processes are no longer adequate for our 21st-century issues and crises,” said Kerry Leigh, executive director of the Natural Land Institute, a northern Illinois conservation organization. “These processes are not designed, really, to protect habitat.”
The black-crowned night heron has been spotted across Chicago since at least the early 2000s, from River Park to the South Branch and Bubbly Creek, said Margaret Frisbie, executive director of the organization Friends of the Chicago River. The heron serves as an ambassador species, a “charismatic” animal that attracts visitors and can also indicate a larger ecological success, she said.
The bird was a common summer resident in Illinois in the late 1800s but was placed on the endangered species list in the 1970s due to habitat loss and human harassment. Before nesting across Chicago urban areas, like Lincoln Park, the birds maintained a strong population in the Calumet River wetland region until invasive plants likely drove them away, said Michael Ward, a professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign who studies bird ecology and conservation.
Since at least 2014, herons have nested in the trees by the history museum, Lardner said. Some Lincoln Park residents aren’t fond of their seasonal neighbors, who can be smelly, loud and destructive.
But the area was perfect from a heron’s perspective, away from crowds, filled with overgrown plants and shrubs, and “kind of a little neglected,” Lardner said.
Construction of the Richard M. and Shirley H. Jaffee History Trail at the museum began in spring 2021 on Chicago Park District land. By June and July of that year, a time when the rookery should have been reaching a “crescendo” of activity, Lardner said all was quiet. The trail, which features city artifacts, including a relic from the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, sculptures and a native species garden, opened last fall.
This year, while some of the birds were spotted around the history museum, according to photos taken by the museum staff, they did not stay to nest, Lardner said.
The history museum knew about the herons while planning for the trail and said in a statement that it “worked closely with local government and neighborhood conservation groups to effectively minimize the impact of construction on the Black-Crowned Night Heron (BCNH) population near the museum.” The statement also “acknowledges mistakes were made, including failure to complete a post mortem of the project to evaluate any damages.”
The history museum started the consultation process with IDNR in April 2020, providing the project location and details about the proposed construction. The site’s location was flagged as potentially “in the vicinity” of two endangered species, the longnose sucker and the black-crowned night heron.
But these results were triggered by records of the species in other areas of Lincoln Park, more than a tenth of a mile away from the project, leading IDNR to assume the project wouldn’t affect the hardy urban bird.
When construction began, Lardner sought permission to visit the site and check on the herons. She logged new arrivals and monitored their activity but eventually found around 20 broken eggshells and two dead hatchlings on the ground.
“I counted the nests, I counted the pairs, and I counted the eggshells,” Lardner said. “But this colony didn’t survive.”
Some experts believe the birds may have joined a colony that nests at the Pritzker Family Children’s Zoo, part of Lincoln Park Zoo, although without robust tracking or bird tagging, it’s hard to tell.
“The fact that there’s a colony so close and that they use kind of any type of tree, we maybe dodged a bullet,” Ward said. “They should be OK.”
Now, the colony at the zoo marks the last large breeding population in the state of Illinois, Ward said. With a state-endangered species concentrated in one location, researchers are sounding the alarm about the birds’ vulnerability — just one traumatic event, like a hailstorm or avian flu, could threaten essentially the entire population.
Lardner pushed for IDNR to investigate what happened to the herons at the history museum but was stymied. She shared a letter with the Tribune from the department saying “there was insufficient evidence to move forward.”
The heron is not listed as federally endangered, leaving protection of the bird up to the state of Illinois.
Undergoing the IDNR review process is the only requirement for a public construction project to be considered compliant with the state Endangered Species Protection Act. The history museum, as well as other organizations, often tout this process as approval, a misnomer that inaccurately portrays the department’s authority, said Amy Doll, director of the Friends of Illinois Nature Preserves and a Bell Bowl Prairie advocate.
The department’s standard letter ending a review states that “termination does not imply IDNR’s authorization or endorsement of the proposed action.”
“We just think, ‘There’s an Endangered Species Protection Act, it can’t happen, the state and federal governments will take care of it,’” Doll said. “IDNR doesn’t approve anything. They simply go through the process, but they don’t have the legal authority to say ‘No, you cannot do this.’”
Because IDNR’s function is primarily advisory, its effectiveness is determined by its ability to identify endangered species and advocate for them through mitigation techniques, Semel said.
In the case of the herons, with no record of the seasonal guest, even though it was known to the community and to the museum, the review process ended, revealing a gap in knowledge between IDNR’s record of an endangered species and where they could actually be found.
“If there’s no records, there’s no limit on what can happen,” said Randall Schietzelt, a member of the Endangered Species Protection Board, a state oversight panel.
The board is responsible for maintaining the list of endangered and threatened species in Illinois, another task that depends on the department having updated records. Schietzelt said that at a recent meeting discussing aquatic invertebrates, the status of several species couldn’t be updated because there weren’t any new surveys of the animals in the past few years.
“They just don’t know,” he said.
These problems aren’t new. In 2012, the board prepared a review of the state’s effectiveness in protecting the wildlife on endangered lists for the 40th anniversary of the Illinois Endangered Species Protection Act. The board found shortcomings.
Of the 4,960 species listed in 2012, 34% had been not surveyed since 2002, according to the document, the most recent analysis of the IDNR that the board has made publicly available. Schietzelt said he has not heard of any plans for another review for the law’s 50th anniversary this year.
And the board faces its own weaknesses. Composed of volunteers, it hasn’t had a paid employee since 2015 and, despite its name, does not have the ability to enforce the protection of endangered species, Schietzelt said.
“We’ve had people get quite exasperated,” he said. “They want us to have the power of God to shut things down, and that really is not part of our charge.”
In 2006, the Chicago Tribune wrote about an American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees report that examined budget and staff trimming at IDNR and the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency since 2001. The report concluded cuts have “undermined” the two agencies.
“The Department of Natural Resources seems to be on the endangered species list,” Starved Rock Foundation President Pam Grivetti said in a written statement at the time.
Jack Darin, director of the Illinois chapter of the Sierra Club, said the department has faced a tough two decades.
“Due to budget cuts, the department is about half the size that it was at its peak 20 years ago,” he said.
In 2019 there was a shift and the agency received a 6.7% operating budget increase compared with 2018. The department is slowly “building back up,” Schietzelt said.
IDNR officials did not respond to the Tribune’s request for current staffing levels.
In the meantime, volunteers and conservation groups have tried to fill in the gaps.
IDNR’s database is fueled by the work of citizens who notify the department when they spot endangered species. According to the board’s 2012 report, between 2006 and 2011, 50% of listed species were logged by state agencies. The other half were recorded by about 300 citizens.
The full database of past records is restricted, but anyone can log the location and time that wildlife is spotted through a form on the IDNR website. While lengthy, often requiring a photo and the exact latitude and longitude, it increases the number of eyes on a threatened species.
“Don’t just sit back and think that somebody else will know about it,” Semel said.
IDNR also used to regularly notify conservation groups, such as local Sierra Club chapters, when the department was reviewing an area for a project, Semel said.
“Everybody’s doing two or three people’s jobs,” he said. “Now there’s just no time and no staff to pursue each of these hundreds of requests.”
With the history trail, Lardner and Annette Prince, director of the Chicago Bird Collision Monitors, found out about the project months after the review process had ended. Museum assurances of “IDNR approval” assuaged their initial fears.
“I think the people who want to take into consideration the conservation implications, they aren’t the first people that get called to make sure they’re OK with what’s being planned,” Prince said. “We often have to make sure we hear about it ahead of time.”
After the Illinois Endangered Species Protection Act was revised in 1986, Deanna Glosser, who has a doctorate in environmental planning and was the department’s endangered species program manager at the time, wrote the administrative rules for the new review process, known as a consultation. In order to win legislative approval, the rules were limited to give IDNR the authority to issue recommendations but not requirements, she said.
Since IDNR’s recommendations are not legally binding, when an applicant does not follow the recommended steps, the review is merely closed.
“You went through the consultation process, you did not do anything DNR requested, so you should get a bad rap for that, but you don’t have to do anything,” Glosser said. “So that’s the problem.”
This weakness was visible in Skokie this year when residents fought against plans for a 140-foot Carvana car vending machine tower near a restored habitat that is home to many birds
Unlike with the herons, IDNR had records of wildlife at this preserve and provided recommendations in December 2021 to make the tower more bird-friendly, which included specifications for types of lighting to use.
Carvana added some of the recommendations and the village of Skokie created monitoring plans per IDNR’s advice, showcasing the positive results that consultation can yield, IDNR employees said.
Village Trustee James Johnson, who voted against the tower, said IDNR’s input added weight to the mitigations that local birding organizations were fighting for.
But the final proposal did not include bird-friendly glass on the entire building or turning off all lights during the hours and seasons recommended by the department, Prince said. In February, after more than an hour of opposition from residents, Skokie approved Carvana’s requested zoning permit change, 6-1.
“That kind of order from the top down onto them ought to have more influence than it did,” Prince said. “It did lack the teeth that you would have hoped that it would have had.”
The proposal is now stalled after the Illinois Secretary of State Police suspended Carvana’s dealer’s license in Illinois for alleged practices unrelated to the tower.
At Bell Bowl Prairie, IDNR first began a review of the expansion plans in 2018.
Leigh said the Natural Land Institute and its local field staff only found out about the project when they saw bulldozers on the property in 2021. Shortly after, the field staff surveyed the property and spotted a rusty-patched bumblebee, halting construction.
IDNR then updated its recommendation and advised that the expansion project undergo a more in-depth review, a process that would have required the development of a robust conservation plan and a significant public comment period. The airport withdrew from that process.
But because the bumblebee is a state and federally endangered species and the airport is getting state and federal funding, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also conducted an environmental review. That result is being evaluated, leaving the fate of the prairie in limbo.
Bell Bowl advocates fear the money invested in the project so far means stakeholders will prioritize the development.
“The consultation process is almost too late to do a U-turn,” Doll said.
Glosser, who left IDNR in 2003, said strengthening the department’s role or creating a permitting process have been discussed over the years, but there are concerns about lawsuits if more aggressive regulations are put in place.
“I’ve exhausted brain cells trying to figure this out,” she said.
Glosser maintains that IDNR shouldn’t be held responsible for the flaws in the system because of staffing and funding issues.
“In all the times I tried it, I never found a solution or a tweak that would make consultation a stronger program,” she said.
But an evaluation of how species can be better protected needs to happen, she said.
“Let’s just kick the consultation process aside,” Glosser said, as one idea. “We thought it might work, it’s not, and we can’t make it work because of the law.”
As for the black-crowned night herons, the Lincoln Park Zoo colony seems to be thriving, potentially joined by the displaced birds from the Chicago History Museum. This year marked the most abundant year of herons at the zoo, with about 750 adults observed, said Henry Adams, wildlife management coordinator at the Urban Wildlife Institute, a conservation program with the Lincoln Park Zoo. It was also the most reproductively successful, with 400 births logged during the year.
One young heron that hatched later in the summer is still lingering around the zoo. Workers monitor the bird but leave it alone, and normally it appears isolated, said Lardner, who looks for the heron every week. But one Tuesday in late November, she spotted it standing next to a zookeeper’s boot, peering up.
“The heron was looking up at her like, ‘Hey, you got something for me?’” she said. “It was really cute.”
To Semel, the case involving the herons represents the importance of public advocacy for wildlife at risk in Illinois.
“It might have been originally a very distressing situation to recognize what had happened to that rookery, but from that, we hopefully can go forward in a more positive way,” he said. “Some good things can come out of this.”
Research is now underway to understand why the birds settle where they do — as well as how to encourage some sites over others.
Ward is studying black-crowned night herons in a “Tale of Two Cities” approach, looking at the success of the colony at the Lincoln Park Zoo and the decimated populations in the Metro East region of Illinois near St. Louis, where almost no breeding occurs.
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This year, researchers were able to band 15 herons at the zoo, Adams said, a first step to being able to track whether birds are returning year after year and to collect specific demographic information.
By trying to identify the key factors that lead to the herons nesting in a particular spot, researchers hope to encourage them to return to the wetlands along the Calumet River, their original breeding ground.
“From a conservation perspective, it’s better to have multiple, maybe somewhat smaller robust populations than one big population,” Ward said.
Usually, the birds settle by following other herons’ example. It may just take “one brazen bird” to make a decision. The researchers hope to place decoy herons to trick the population to nest in areas where the potential for success is high. Encouraging some birds to the Calumet area would help establish additional colonies of the birds while ensuring conservationists can keep the area free from the hazards posed by urban environments, Ward said.
Protecting any individual species is a key part of maintaining the natural functioning cycles of the Illinois ecosystem.
“People use the analogy of a wing on an airplane,” Ward said. “You can lose rivets, and the wing doesn’t fall off, but eventually you reach some point where the integrity of the wing goes bad and it falls off.”