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WCFPD Plant Inventory: As Told by Ed Cope

297In 2012, WCFPD began a district wide survey of plant communities at all 41 forest preserves. Ed Cope, a seasonal employee in the WCFPD Natural Resource Department, was primarily responsible for the inventorying work. Over the last four summers Ed has worked on collecting prairie seed, propagating critical species, and identifying unknown plants.  He is studying habitat management and land rehabilitation at Montana State University, but Ed says his knowledge of local flora is largely self-taught.

Ed says that “WCFPD began this plant inventory so that we would have a permanent record of each preserve’s vegetation.”  This is useful for assessing the diversity each preserve supports as well as the quality of habitat present. This kind of information is vital when planning conservation and restoration projects, or granting pieces of land special designations such as Illinois Nature Preserve.

The initial inventory was conducted over the course of about two months last summer, but the data will be updated continually.  Any time a new species is discovered in a preserve it will be added to the inventory.  Ed explains that the data were collected by sampling small areas of each preserve.  It would be impossible to survey a preserve’s entire area, so these sample units were chosen to be representative of the landscape as a whole.  Additionally, areas with unique geology were targeted so that species which exist only in these places would not be omitted from the survey.   Every piece of property the District owns, even unnamed or limited-access preserves, were surveyed.

According to Ed, district staff “were able to verify the continued presence of many critical or imperiled species that had been known to historically exist in the preserves.”  Furthermore, new populations of such species were found, especially in our newer properties. Ed says, “Perhaps the most interesting species we found were whorled loosestrife and rock polypody, two species which have not been officially reported in the county for a long time and were presumed extirpated.”

Although Ed had primary responsibility for this initial inventory, he acknowledges the valuable expertise of other district staff. “This survey represents a culmination of the experiences of several very knowledgeable individuals.  Some of the contributors have had a lifetime of experience in the field, and their knowledge of where to find rare plants proved invaluable.”  This data base allows anyone to access this expertise, making it a potent tool for both education and management of our natural resources.   The next step for this project is to make sure the information is accessible.  The data are being formatted into an easy-to-comprehend spreadsheet that will also provide some basic information on each species.  In the future, the inventory will be supplemented as additional species are found or planted in each preserve.

Ed comments that the survey work was enlightening. He explains, “It doesn’t matter how long you’ve worked in the field and how many species you’ve seen, there’s always something new that can surprise you.  This project has certainly expanded my understanding of the County’s flora, and I’m sure there are still hidden gems to be found.”