Staff from the National Center for Big Rivers Research and Education and land management partners visited the Palisades Nature Reserve near Grafton.

EAST ALTON – Staff from the National Great Rivers Research and Education Center (NGRREC) and land management partners recently visited the Palisades Nature Reserve near Grafton to better understand how the Nov. 19 wildfire 2021 has affected the rare hilly grasslands of the reserves.

“Fire is a natural and necessary step in restoring and maintaining a healthy grassland,” said Phil Rathz, Habitat’s senior project assistant. “Fire, when used professionally, has many benefits including the destruction of invasive plant species, faster nutrient recycling, removal of excess thatch which suppresses plant growth and stopping trees from growing and taking over the grassland area.”

Hilly grasslands grow on steep south-facing slopes where summer sun, dry winds and periodic fires prevent the growth of forest species. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) indicates that there are approximately 90 sites with good quality hill grasslands throughout the state.

The hill grasslands of the Palisade Preserve are important for many reasons, including:

• Be remnant grasslands, meaning they are undeveloped and show what the landscape along the Mississippi River cliffs would have looked like before European settlement.

• Habitat for timber rattlesnakes, bats and state-threatened endemic species, such as prickly pear cactus.

• Native grasslands are now extremely rare in Illinois. About 60 percent, or 22 million acres, of Illinois was once grassland, and only 2,500 acres remain. Hills grasslands are even rarer, with only about 600 acres remaining in the state.

• Unploughed/undisturbed grasslands, even small ones, are known as biodiversity hotspots. Recent studies have shown that small hill meadows of less than five acres are home to 40 to 75 species of native bees and even more pollinators, such as butterflies, beetles and other insects.

“The (November) fire has crept up the cliff, benefiting the grasslands in the hills, as vegetation growing to the side can stagnate airflow and interfere with the health of the grasslands,” Debbie said. Newman, natural areas preservation specialist at the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission (INPC). ). “The best meadows in the hills have no vegetation growing on the sides of the cliffs.”

Partner organizations also met to determine next steps for good land management of grasslands and surrounding areas within the Palisades Reserve. This summer, the NGRREC Habitat Strike Team will focus on removing invasive bush honeysuckle from degraded hillside grassland sites and monitoring in the burnt area in the fall after native plants have gone dormant to treat honeysuckle in large areas of hill grassland.

In late fall, it is planned to spray the area by air, after the leaves of the native trees have fallen and the native herbaceous plants are dormant, but the honeysuckle leaves are still green. In winter, the Habitat Strike Team will conduct a follow-up burn to further suppress the invasive honeysuckle encroaching on the hillside grasslands.

“The ongoing work is imperative because some of these grasslands are very degraded and will need to be prioritized,” said Dylan Smith, Habitat’s senior project assistant. “The ultimate goal will be to connect some of the grasslands of the hills, creating a larger and unified ecosystem, as was the case in the past.”

The Palisades Reserve is owned by the Lewis and Clark Community College Foundation and managed by NGRREC in partnership with Great Rivers Land Trust. The adjacent lands are managed by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, an NGRREC partner.

For more information on the work done by the Habitat Strike Team, visit or contact Shew at [email protected] or 618-468-2843.