Ecologists on a Mission to Save the World

A New Breed of Scientist-Advocate Emerges

Role Model for Ecology's Generation X

A Reluctant Warrior

Citizen-Scientist Guru

If there is a Shangri-La where conservation biologists and resource managers work in harmony, it just might be Illinois. While the two worlds often are out of sync elsewhere ( see main text), a close-knit collaboration has nurtured the prairies and forests in this midwestern state. "We don't just publish a paper and send it out to resource managers," says Scott Robinson, a biologist who divides his time between the University of Illinois and the Illinois Natural History Survey in Champaign. "We talk to them, we give presentations, and it makes a difference. We also get a lot of good ideas from them."

One recent victory for the team is a safer home for the Henslow's sparrow. In decline nationwide, these birds tend to avoid nesting in recently burned grasslands. That's a problem for Illinois managers, who burn substantial areas of prairie every year to keep the land healthy. In 1991, biologist James Herkert of Illinois's Endangered Species Protection Board wondered if there was a way to reconcile the two conflicting conservation goals. For 5 years, he and William Glass, a resource manager with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, tested the effects of various fire regimes on Henslow's sparrows at Goose Lake Prairie, a 650-hectare haven for the birds. They discovered that the birds favor certain patches of the prairie, establishing more nests in preferred areas not burned in back-to-back years. "It was good science, and we changed our management scheme to reflect it," says Fran Harty, a resource administrator with the department. The two sides have brought their partnership to bear on other conservation issues as well, such as deciding which parcels of forest to buy up as habitat for native warblers, herons, and hawks in the Cache River watershed.

Both camps say they have learned a lot along the way. Managers should not be shy about telephoning scientists, Harty says: "If you just start talking, you can get a wealth of information." Conservation biologists, meanwhile, should learn to live with imperfect information, Robinson says: "By the standards of experimental science, a lot of management recommendations are based on pretty flimsy evidence. Data are often correlative and inconclusive. But we have to be willing to enter the decision-making arena with the best advice we have." Sometimes the key is simply finding the right ear to bend. "It's important to single out the open-minded managers," says Robinson. "They're out there."