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Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve

Virtual Tour of Wolf Road Prairie

History

About 15,000 years ago, Northeastern Illinois was covered by expanses of mile-high glaciers and our region resembled the frozen landscapes of present-day northern Canada and Alaska. As the icy mass began to melt and recede, large boulders locked within the glacier for millennia, dropped onto the land below. Some of these boulders, from as far away as Canada and Minnesota, were deposited in the area that is now Wolf Road Prairie. Known as glacial erratics, they remain at the preserve as reminders of the last Glacial Age. As the ice withdrew, bedrock was revealed and tundra-like vegetation took hold on the land. Gradually, the tundra gave way to coniferous forests. Then, as the climate grew warmer and drier, oaks and hickories replaced the pines and spruces and prairie vegetation which can be seen at Wolf Road Prairie today moved in from the south and west.


glacial erratic in the snow at Wolf Road Prairie
photo by Phil Cihlar

Too wet to farm or graze, the 80 acre Wolf Road Prairie survived early settlement impacts of the mid-1800's relatively unscathed. Then, in the 1920's, the prairie was slated to become a housing development. Nearly 600 city-size lots were platted along with streets and alleys by developer, Samuel Insull, and sidewalks were installed in the south 40 acres. Lots were sold to prospective families who dreamed of bungalows or two-flats on the prairie similar to the neighborhoods of Chicago. But the prairie and its community of rare, threatened and endangered species was spared when these development plans failed following the Great Depression of 1929. Development pressures surfaced again in the late 1970's and early 1980's. The prairie was proposed for townhouse subdivisions. Miraculously, the prairie survived to the present day with acquisition of the prairie lots by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and the Forest Preserve District of Cook County. Today, the sidewalks serve as visitor trails and a historic reminder of how close the prairie came to being lost.


photo by Michael R. Jeffords

Wolf Road Prairie is known as the finest and largest black soil prairie east of the Mississippi River. It is a dedicated Illinois Nature Preserve and nominated National Natural Landmark.


photo by Jerry Kumery

Natural Features

The Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve is home to a unique combination of three types of natural communities: prairie, savanna and wetland. The Prairie is considered globally imperiled and the savanna is considered globally critically imperiled according to the Chicago Wilderness Biodiversity Recovery Plan. The black soil savanna at Wolf Road Prairie is only one of two grade B black soil savannas remaining in Illinois. No grade A savannas are known to exist. This savanna type is considered rarer than the rainforests of the world.

Prairie, the French word for meadow, is a stable, self-perpetuating community of grasses and forbs (flowering plants). Adapted to fire and drought, these perennial plants live for decades and have intricate interwoven root systems often reaching depths of ten to twelve feet. A square meter of prairie sod at Wolf Road Prairie may contain dozens of different native plant species. The rich soil of Illinois was created by this vast and complex prairie vegetation. Prairie historically covered 70% of the state. The first travelers journeying through Illinois described the prairie and its colorful wildflowers as the most beautiful land they had ever seen and referred to its windswept and treeless plains as a "sea of grass." After the invention of the steel moldboard plow by John Deere, the Illinois prairie was rapidly converted to cornfields and soybean fields. Later, housing developments, corporate complexes and shopping malls destroyed what little prairie had escaped the plow. Today, only 1/100th of 1% of original prairie remains in Illinois. Wolf Road Prairie is ranked among the finest of these preserved prairie remnants.


photo by Tim Burke

Savanna is a distinctive combination of herbaceous understory plants comprised of native grasses, sedges, forbs and sparsely spaced oaks and hickories. Sometimes referred to as an oak opening or scrubland, the savannas of Illinois provided places of shelter and sources of food and fuel for Native Americans who lived in the Illinois Territory. At the time of European settlement following the Blackhawk War of 1833, some Native Americans still remained in the Wolf Road Prairie area. During this period, the savanna at Wolf Road Prairie was included within the boundaries of the Pottawatomi village of Saugannaka. The large bur oak in the savanna dates back to those historic times. Today, spring is especially magnificent at Wolf Road Prairie when fragrant wild hyacinths and other delicate ephemerals bloom in May.


video photo by Cynthia Gehrie

Wetlands are low, slowly draining basins that retain water at least part of the year. The vegetation found in wetlands is adapted to these soil conditions. In the past, much of Illinois was a combination of prairie and wetland which stretched for miles in all directions as far as the eye could see. Legends tell of men on horseback lost in the tall grasses with no view of the horizon. Today, a walk along the Wolf Road Prairie wetland trail late in autumn reminds visitors of that fabled time. The wetland at Wolf Road Prairie provides habitat for dwindling populations of amphibians and other aquatic life forms specifically dependent upon wetter environmental conditions. The Wolf Road Prairie wetland plays a role in alleviating flooding, recharging aquifers and purifying and improving water quality during heavy storm events and is a favorite destination for birders hoping to glimpse herons, egrets, sandhill cranes and other wetland birds in their native habitat.


photo by Jerry Kumery

Today, over 370 species of native plants are recorded at Wolf Road Prairie and more than 140 species of birds use Wolf Road Prairie as a migratory stopover or nesting site. Thousands of people, including scout groups, school groups, birders, photographers and civic organizations, visit Wolf Road Prairie each year and visitors from more than 40 foreign lands have explored and enjoyed Wolf Road Prairie as a conservation destination for nature appreciation and education.

To further protect Wolf Road Prairie and its watershed from encroachment and development pressures, 43+ acres of Hickory Lane have been acquired west of the prairie as bufferland. This is where the Wolf Road Prairie Middle Fork originates before draining into the wetland at the preserve. These bufferlands are being restored with native plants to provide habitat for wildlife and preserve native gene pools. The origins of the western branch of Salt Creek in Cook County can be traced to the Middle Fork at Wolf Road Prairie.

Further downstream, Salt Creek joins the Des Plaines River which connects to the Kankakee River and ultimately to the Illinois River, the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico to create one of the greatest watersheds in the United States.


video photo by Cynthia Gehrie

Wolf Road Prairie is co-owned by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and the Forest Preserve District of Cook County. The Illinois Nature Preserves Commission oversees management and protection of the site in perpetuity.