More Than Picnic Groves: Cook County Forest Preserves Are a Center for Research | Chicago News


Wildlife biologists band egrets at Baker’s Lake. (Forest Preserve District of Cook County)

Cook County Forest Preserves are popular for their picnic groves and trails. Less known: the role of the forest reserve district as a research center and early warning system for zoonotic diseases.

Rabies, Ebola and swine flu are just a few examples of diseases that jump from animals or insects to humans. As custodians of 70,000 acres of wildlife habitat, district biologists are well placed to collect the samples needed to monitor for any signs of contagion.

“West Nile, Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever — we provided some of the first samples to public health officials,” said longtime district wildlife biologist Chris Anchor.

Two to four days a week, Anchor and his crew (if he has a crew; in some budget years, Anchor has worked solo) travel to the reserves to band the birds – about 400 a year. In addition to attaching small metal identification bands to any captured bird, Anchor performs a health check.

“It’s convenient and time-consuming, but we try to glean as much information as possible,” he said.

It’s easy enough to tell if a bird is well-fed or emaciated, but to find out more about the subject’s condition, biologists also take tissue and blood samples, a process that has become less invasive over the years. over the years.

“The technology is fantastic. A lab can tell me 20 to 30 different things from a single drop of blood,” Anchor said. “In the 1980s, it took a whole milliliter of blood to perform a single test” – too much to extract from smaller species.

If the bird is a migrant, biologists research what parasites or diseases they might be carrying from other states or countries. A newly created interactive map showing where some of the birds banded in Cook County Forest Preserves have been found shows how wildlife connects Chicago to other habitats, he said.

Birds that live in the area year-round can provide information about environmental toxins, which also has implications for humans, because “we also live in the environment,” Anchor said. “We were disappointed to see that some pesticide levels did not decrease. They are really persistent and hardy – they just don’t break down.

This information can also be used to assess the success of restoration and conservation efforts and to guide future habitat management projects.

Anchor joined the forest reserve in 1987 and over the decades has built up a library of thousands of samples and data which allows it to observe changes over time and also to establish baselines which help to identify anomalies.

“It’s an invaluable resource,” he said, and one that is the envy of his counterparts across the country.

“Boston, LA, Washington DC, Atlanta, they all tried to do it,” Anchor said, but none had the same success.

He attributes a “star alignment” to Cook County: For starters, there’s the foresight people had more than 100 years ago to create the forest preserves in the middle of the nation’s third-largest metropolis. “Plus, we’re adjacent to the Great Lakes, with all these resources and habitat types.”

The preserves’ secret sauce also includes proximity to world-class universities and research hospitals, he said, as well as partnerships with institutions like the Brookfield Zoo and the Max McGraw Foundation, home to trainees and researchers.

“Other municipalities bring in researchers for one to three years. We are able to sustain studies for decades,” Anchor said. “The questions you can design, you can ask for so much more.”

Thirty-five years later, Anchor still remembers being the canned goods’ fourth choice for the position of biologist.

“Nobody wanted it,” he said. “A guy was coming from Carbondale for his interview, got pulled over in (Chicago) traffic and turned around.”

Whatever the job description was at the time, Anchor has long since expanded it, with the support of the highest ranks, to seize investigative opportunities as they arise. Projects studying urban coyotes and now urban river otters both grew out of his initiative.

“Yes, people are surprised that the forest reserve district is doing this work,” he said.

In the hopper is a plan to install a network of Motus antenna towers across the reserve system. Motus is a wildlife tracking system that relies on a specialized type of antenna to pick up radio signals emitted by tags attached to ever-tinier creatures, including birds, bats and butterflies. .

“We hope to get a lot more information, especially about bats,” Anchor said.

Transmitters have been useful in the past, he explained, such as when the preserves partnered with the Army Corps of Engineers to track the movement of cormorants, especially to see where they were going to get hold of. food. Surprisingly, some of the birds hunted as far from Cook County as Canada and the Mississippi River.

This crucial information was key to solving a troubling mystery: the discovery of environmental DNA from invasive Asian carp in Lake Michigan. Researchers and government agencies scoured the lake for carp, which have the potential to destroy the Great Lakes ecosystem, but returned empty-handed.

So where does DNA come from? Cormorant waste, after eating the invasive fish picked in the Mississippi and then flying over the lake.

These are the kinds of discoveries that get Anchor out of bed in the morning, and he has no intention of slowing down.

“I have so many ideas floating around in my head,” he said. “I do everything I can.”

Contact Patty Wetli: @pattywetli | (773) 509-5623 | [email protected]


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