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Kristofor Husted and Michelle Schaefer/MEDILL

The proposed study area for the Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge spans five counties, McHenry and Lake in Illinois and Walworth, Kenosha and Racine in Wisconsin. Conservationists from McHenry County talk about what's at stake.

Where the wild things are: Chicago's backyard national refuge

by Kristofor Husted and Michelle M. Schaefer
March 15, 2011

hack graph

Kristofor Husted and Michelle M. Schaefer/MEDILL

Of the 350,000 acres spread across five counties in Illinois and Wisconsin, about 23,000 are already protected at regional, state and private levels. Up to 30,000 acres may potentially be federally protected should the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s preferred course of action deem so.


Courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Map of the 350,000 acre Hackmatack study area.


Kristofor Husted/MEDILL

The lands in the proposed Hackmatack refuge area include streams, wetlands, grasslands and prairies and 110 threatened or endangered plants and animals.

Related Links

U.S. Fish and Wildlife ServiceFriends of HackmatackOperation Migration

Did you know?

“Hackmatack” is the Algonquin Indian word for the Tamarack tree.
Whoop! There it is. 

Whooping cranes, silvery-blue butterflies and Blanding’s turtles are just a few of the species who could preserve their habitat in the proposed national wildlife refuge straddling five counties in Wisconsin and Illinois. The refuge area harbors native habitats necessary for the survival of nearly 110 threatened or endangered plant and animal species.

The area—dubbed Hackmatack—is the landing ground for the whooping crane, an endangered species and a major reason some people are calling for federal protection. Only about 400 exist in the wild today.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is currently surveying about 350,000 acres spread across McHenry and Lake counties in Illinois and Walworth, Kenosha and Racine counties in Wisconsin.

About 23,000 of those acres encompass land already protected at regional, state and private levels. The refuge is ultimately expected to encompass an additional 10,000 to 30,000 acres.

The entire survey area covers several towns, farmland and private property, an area known as Hackmatack based on the Algonquin name for the indigenous Taramack tree.

"The refuge system celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2003,” said Friends of Hackmatack member Cindy Skrukrud, of McHenry County. “And at that time they said, ‘Oh, there’s a wildlife refuge within an hour’s drive of every major metropolitan area.’ Well, that’s probably true for Madison and Milwaukee but it’s not true for Chicago.

“I mean the closest refuges now are Horicon up in [northern] Wisconsin and then the Savannah District of the Mississippi River Fish and Wildlife Area. And both of those are 150 miles from Chicago. So we’d certainly be the refuge in Chicago’s own backyard," she said.
For the land to gain federal protection, the wildlife service must put together a formal recommendation specifying the acreage to be protected in different locations.

“The basic premise is to look at the lands within the study area and see how they will best fit within the objectives set forth in the preliminary project proposal,” stated wildlife service biologist Gabriel DeAlessio. “We are using land cover data, potential natural vegetation data (derived from soils data), hydrology, housing growth predictions, other conservation lands and a few other data sets.”

The primary project proposal identifies several species that require large blocks of grasslands and wetlands, according to DeAlessio. By using those species requirements as guidelines, he can try to identify the existing blocks of these natural ecosystems and the potentially restorable blocks of them.

“Under this scenario, we may seek to restore and protect larger acreages with limited woody vegetation,” he stated.

Perhaps the most recognizable endangered animal under the study scope is the whooping crane. These birds migrate from the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin all the way to Florida, according to wildlife biologist and conservation planner Gary Muehlenhardt of the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Operation Migration leads the whooping cranes on their migration with an ultralight aircraft. The tallest birds in North America use the wetlands as a pit stop on their thousand-mile migration.

“The proposed area encompasses a lot of wetlands and the whooping cranes need the wetlands for summering and for staging areas along migration route,” said Heather Ray, representative for Operation Migration.

Restoring the wetlands provides the cranes a place to refuel on frogs and dragon fly larvae as well as a spot to rest. In the summer, these birds use the wetlands to nest.

Another possible scenario would be to designate the newly protected land in between several of the already regionally protected land sites. This would connect the sites into larger, continuous areas instead of the isolated pockets of protected land currently located throughout study zone.

Once the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service submits its recommendations - Muehlenhardt said he hopes to have those finished by summer - the public will have a chance to comment. People can voice their comments in writing or at one of the public meetings the wildlife service will hold to present its findings.

In October 2010, the wildlife service held two open houses in Illinois and two in Wisconsin on the proposed refuge that would be called the Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge. More than 500 people attended these meetings and about 80 percent of the attendees expressed overwhelming support for the conservation plans, according to Lenore Beyer-Clow, policy director for Openlands, a nonprofit land-conservation group in the Chicago area.

Friends of Hackmatack, which includes the support Openlands, the Sierra Club and other conservation groups, originally proposed the refuge.  

Other supporters saw it as a draw for recreational use and tourism, Muehlenhardt said.

Some landowners in the area had concerns about regulatory oversight, though.

“We told them just because we’re drawing lines on a map, it doesn’t mean there’s any more restrictions on that land,” he said.

After the public comment period, Muehlenhardt’s team will make any changes deemed necessary and submit it to the regional director. If approved, the next step is a review in Washington, D.C.

The refuge could involve purchasing land, acquiring easements and working with partners and individual landowners.

“I’m hoping that if it gets that far, all that support down there will translate into funds [for the refuge],” Muehlenhardt said. Local sponsors will be expected to raise funds  to purchase lands and easements.

"It would be great to have an additional partner in this area working on land conservation too,” Skrukrud said. “We’ve got that at the state level. We’ve got it at the county level. We have the park district level.

“Some of these parcels here are owned by people who just put conservation easements on their own private land. But by having a national wildlife refuge in this area, then we would also be protecting the land at the federal level."