Chariton and Skunk Rivers, Driftless Area, Loess Hills, and Presentation Development

by Leland Searles

Linking Landscapes: Connecting Iowa and Missouri with the Chariton River

After mapping the Iowa River with cores and corridors (see the Iowa River Connectivity Project link), the following step was to tie the Midwestern prairies and woods to the Ozark Plateau. The reasons for this north-south connection include climate resiliency in the face of new weather patterns across the South and Midwest, a southern connection to the Missouri River that eventually will work westward to the Central Plains states, and a vision to enhance the normal migratory and dispersal patterns of wildlife. As always, cores are intended to enhance and facilitate local biodiversity, while corridors allow movements of all kinds and all species.

Figure 1: This is an early version of the Chariton Connectivity map. Pale yellow shapes are cities and towns in Iowa, so they roughly mark the boundaries between Illinois and Missouri.

Cores and corridors may be thought of in these ways: first, as the soil and subsoil through which bacteria, fungi, macroinvertebrates (earthworms, soil insects and other arthropods that are visible to the eye), and roots travel. Many plant species “travel” with their rhizomes or roots to expand their colonies or establish new colonies. Their movements by roots are tiny steps, compared to the movement of their seeds, but small movements can make large differences in the survival of a species or plant community.

Second, the surface is more familiar to us as the major place for our movements, but it is used by many amphibians, birds, insects, mammals, reptiles, spiders, and more. We share the surface with thousands of other creatures, including low-growing plants, mosses, land snails, and more.

Above ground, plants occupy different layers above the soil, and all have preferences for different ecosystems and habitats. A biodiverse prairie may have three layers: shortgrass prairie species, mid-height forbs and grasses, and the tallgrass plants. Each layer has different sorts of wildlife that use it. Likewise, wetlands have different strata, or layers, and those may include plants and animals that live entirely in the water. Perhaps the most obvious are the layers in a mature woodland: canopy trees, understory trees and shrubs, saplings and vines, and herbaceous plants. Again, animal diversity follows this layering with a variety of adaptations for food, nesting, and other needs. It’s easy to ignore the air that fills the spaces between plants. Airspace is vital, not only for flying creatures, but also for the amount of shade or sun, the dispersal of pollen and seeds and spores, chemical signaling that is used by many animals and plants, and for the self-regulating spacing between plants of the same type. The space and the life forms make up a third major layer.

Figure 2: The Red Admiral is a common butterfly in Iowa. However, any eggs it lays in the late autumn are killed during winter. Each spring, the population reestablishes itself through migration from hatches in the Missouri Ozarks, then by several broods once in Iowa.

Over the trees is another airspace that is the fourth layer, occupied mostly by medium to large birds and migrating flocks of all sizes, some seeds, a rich wealth of fungal and moss spores that moved from the surface and vegetated layers, rainfall, snow, clouds, and more. There are stories of tornadoes sucking up entire ponds full of frogs, then depositing the startled frogs a few miles away. Tornadic activity would be a minor means of shifting species around, but not the winds overhead. Of course, there are many cycles and movements that are vertical – down and up – as well as horizontal, including the water or hydrologic cycle, the carbon and nitrogen cycles, the absorption and radiation of the sun’s energy, and others.

Figure 3: The final map of the Chariton River Connectivity project links two points on the Mississippi River with central and southern Iowa, then south to the Missouri River. Cores are orange, corridors are blue, and public lands are green.

It’s difficult to keep all these in mind when drawing lines for wildlife cores and corridors, but they are always present, and it is best to consider them all in some way. Invisible dust particles, pollen, and spores are there, and they need corridors as much as the largest land animals.

The point of connecting Iowa’s river basins to the Ozark Plateau is to make us aware of these passages so that we take them into account in planning for restoration work and rewilding beyond our efforts.

The Chariton River Connectivity mapping project expanded the scale of these considerations from one major river to five: the Chariton, Des Moines, Mississippi, Missouri, and Skunk. Not only does this connect three of Iowa’s landform regions, it adds a major new landscape, the Ozark Plateau. Between  central Iowa and central and southern Missouri, there are noticeable differences in climate, such as average annual precipitation and temperature, and also local weather patterns, ecosystems, and the species that belong to biodiverse ecological communities. Enhancing the connections between all these and adding the potential for rapid change in the near future is part of the big vision of BeWildReWild and Big River Connectivity.

Going Public: This web site obviously is public, but a crucial means for publicizing our ideas and efforts is to make live presentations before audiences. I am currently working on a basic presentation using PowerPoint, from which adaptations can be made for specific audiences. An abstract has been accepted for the February meeting of the Iowa Chapter of the The Wildlife Society, a group of dedicated amateurs and experts on Iowa’s biodiversity. The abstract reads,

Rewilding Iowa’s Landscape: A Vision for Coexistence with Nature

BeWildReWild is a vision for allowing the natural world to restore itself with minimal human intervention, alongside human land uses that enhance natural processes. It begins with the question, “What does ‘wild’ mean?” then proceeds from individuals’ answers to the Mississippi River Basin as the space for envisioning and expressing “wildness.” We trust natural systems to adapt to change and rejuvenate land that is severely disturbed and that exceeds human capacity for intensive restoration. Rewilding moves beyond active restoration practices to natural recovery and adaptive processes. A major element is Big River Connectivity, which addresses issues of scale from the entire basin to localities and species, moving from Space to Species. Iowa is “Ground Zero” for imagining “nature” and “wildness” outside of utilitarian values, forefronting the state as more than an ecological flyover zone between more visible eastern and western landscapes of conservation and protection. The vision entails the creation and expansion of biodiversity cores and corridors across landform regions, using artistic expression, geospatial mapping, and public media to assert the value of connectivity and wildness. Potential cores of more than 10,000 acres throughout Iowa and adjacent states can be connected by corridors that enhance biodiversity and ecological functions. Trophic rewilding, e.g., with apex predators, is crucial, given strong evidence for ecological recovery after their reappearance. We anticipate a cultural shift from an extractive, utilitarian economy to one based on human-nonhuman reciprocities in which our species stewards and values biodiversity now and in the future.

We will be working to get on the calendar with other groups that include members of nonprofit organizations, staff from government agencies, representatives from private-sector groups, and interested individuals.

Stay tuned: this page will be updated with  more mapping that connects the Loess Hills of western Iowa to the existing cores and corridors.