“Biodiversity” means biological diversity, or species richness. It describes the variety of all the genes, species and natural communities that exist within a particular place.
Diversity of Species
Healthy natural habitats generally have more biodiversity than damaged or degraded ones. For example, a healthy oak woodland would typically include tens or hundreds of plant species as well as habitat for hundreds or thousands of species of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, insects, and other living things. A degraded oak woodland that has been damaged by overgrazing or fire suppression would have fewer varieties of plants and animals. It would have fewer species, and probably fewer of them. It might still be an important natural community but the biodiversity of the degraded woodland would be lower than that of the healthy woodland. In even greater contrast, a soybean field that has soybeans and a few weed species, the occasional insect, and no nesting birds has exceptionally low biodiversity. Croplands and turf grass lawns are sometimes called monocultures because they typically support only one species: the cultivated plant.
Diversity of Natural Communities
Within a region the size of Winnebago County, another way to measure biodiversity wealth is by the number and variety of natural communities that exist side by side. For example, the 538-acre Sugar River Alder Forest Preserve supports many types of natural habitats. This variety of natural communities contributes greatly to the high level of biodiversity in the area.
Nature Needs Biodiversity
Diversity is important to the health of natural systems because the plants, animals and other life forms in any given ecosystem have adapted to living together over thousands of years. Each species plays a role in its ecosystem, and the loss of a seemingly unimportant creature could affect the entire system in ways that people cannot predict.
Biodiversity is also important because it works like nature’s insurance policy. Ecosystems that contain a variety of life forms tend to recover from stresses like natural disasters, human disturbance, or invasive species more easily than less diverse ecosystems.
People Need Biodiversity
People benefit from protecting biodiversity because healthy, diverse ecosystems provide essential services. They hold plants that produce the oxygen we breathe, insects that pollinate our food crops, and species that could hold clues for medicine. In fact, almost half of our prescription drugs are based on natural products.
Healthy natural areas benefit the people who live here by improving water quality and reducing the risk of flood damage. Wetlands and other natural areas along the edges of streams, rivers and lakes help protect and improve water quality by trapping sediments, and by absorbing or breaking down pollutants. They also serve as land where floodwaters can collect, helping prevent the destructive and expensive flooding of homes and businesses.
Our region contains an unusual variety of types of natural communities. These areas harbor many rare or endangered species of native flora and fauna. The variety of living things are a source of wonder and inspiration, and it is our responsibility to protect this amazing diversity of life for the benefit of future generations.
People value healthy natural places for their beauty and their ability to inspire us. Nature can offer reprieve from the stress of urban life. Access to nature is an important aspect of quality of life; the presence of safe parks, paths for hiking and biking, and forest preserves are priceless treasures for our community.
Threats to Local Biodiversity
A variety of factors put stress on the diverse life forms that inhabit our area. Perhaps the greatest threats to our natural heritage include poorly planned development, invasive species, land management challenges and pollution.
Poorly Planned Urban Development
The development of land for residential and commercial uses is the primary threat to the remaining unprotected natural lands of our region, and in some cases it is causing serious degradation of protected lands as well. Development affects natural communities in many ways. Urban development increases the amount of paved surfaces, which alters the natural flow of water across the landscape (because the water is not absorbed where it falls). This changes the structure of wetlands, streams and rivers, and reduces water quality by allowing more silt and chemical pollutants to reach our waters. The design of sprawling developments reduces air quality because it forces people to drive more than they might in well-planned communities. The more time we spend in our cars, the more air pollution we produce. Sprawling development also breaks natural areas into small fragments. This is a problem for animals such as grassland birds that can only breed successfully in large continuous habitats. Urban development can further threaten biodiversity by disturbing natural cycles. Many of our region’s natural communities are adapted to periodic fires and they depend on fires to maintain the health of the ecosystem. As development encroaches and breaks natural areas into small parcels, people stop this natural cycle.
Invasive, non-native species are a threat to almost every type of natural community in our region. Invasive species are non-native ones that people have intentionally or accidentally introduced to our region. Most non-native species are not invasive, but those that are spread out in their new environment and virtually take over. They alter the balance of natural communities, crowding out native plants and animals that have lived together for thousands of years.
Invasive species can wipe out many native species and greatly reduce the biodiversity of the ecosystems they invade. Particularly problematic invaders include buckthorn, Asian honeysuckle and garlic mustard, which are reducing the diversity and health of local forests and savannas. Plants such as leafy spurge, reed canary grass, and purple loosestrife have invaded local prairies and wetlands.
Land Management Challenges
People have altered many of the natural areas in Winnebago County, reducing their ability to support diverse plant and animal communities. These systems will only recover if they are restored and managed to restore them to health. Managing and restoring our natural resources can be an extremely challenging process, but one worth undertaking. Healthy natural areas increase air and water quality, reduce flooding, produce oxygen, and support an abundance of life.
One of the greatest sources of pollution in Winnebago County is water pollution, which is having tremendous negative impacts on the county’s four rivers and their tributaries. Thousands of species of plants and animals, as well as the human population, are suffering from degraded water quality and loss of habitat due to pollutants from farms and cities carried into our waterways by storm water run-off. In addition to improving land use practices in the county, the most effective way to combat pollution and sedimentation is to protect and restore the river and stream corridors to native vegetation which filters water entering the streams and ground water. WCFPD is strategically creating corridors of protected natural areas along the Sugar, Kishwaukee and Pecatonica Rivers.