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Habitats and Ecological Communities of Indiana: Presettlement to Present

Habitats and Ecological Communities of Indiana: Presettlement to Present

by John O. Whitaker, Jr.

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In Habitats and Ecological Communities of Indiana, leading experts assess the health and diversity of Indiana’s eight wildlife habitats, providing detailed analysis, data-generated maps, color photographs, and complete lists of flora and fauna. This groundbreaking reference details the state’s forests, grasslands, wetlands, aquatic systems, barren lands


In Habitats and Ecological Communities of Indiana, leading experts assess the health and diversity of Indiana’s eight wildlife habitats, providing detailed analysis, data-generated maps, color photographs, and complete lists of flora and fauna. This groundbreaking reference details the state’s forests, grasslands, wetlands, aquatic systems, barren lands, and subterranean systems, and describes the nature and impact of two man-made habitats—agricultural and developed lands. The book considers extirpated and endangered species alongside invasives and exotics, and evaluates floral and faunal distribution at century intervals to chart ecological change.

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Habitats and Ecological Communities of Indiana Presettlement to Present

By John O. Whitaker Jr., Charles J. Amlaner Jr.

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2012 Indiana Department of Natural Resources and Indiana State University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-00520-5


Land Use and Human Impacts on Habitats

In 1800, the land we call Indiana was just being settled by immigrants, and many Native Americans still occupied much of the territory. Indiana would become a state a few years later, in 1816. At that time, David Thomas (1819) in Travels through the Western Country in the Summer of 1816 provided an interesting look at the habitat. A dam and mill were being built in 1816 by Major Abraham Markle on Otter Creek, in what is now Vigo County. Thomas stated that everything to the north of the dam was Indian country. The mill burned in the 1930s, but the dam still exists (it has been repaired a few times). The dam is about a half-mile east of North Terre Haute, and is just above a major rock outcrop. It is situated in such a way that the water flowing over the dam provides a deep pool just below the dam and keeps the rock bare, providing bare rock habitat with some stones. Downstream are areas of progressively smaller rock fragments, then gravel, and finally the silt and sand bottom which forms most of Vigo County. The construction of this dam almost 200 years ago created a habitat which continues to have by far the greatest biodiversity of any stream in Vigo County (108 species of fish taken there to date), and one that could be unrivaled in the state. Indiana in 1800 consisted of 3 main habitats: forest (some 20.4 million acres) comprised 90% of the state; prairie (approximately 2 million acres) made up 10% of the state; and approximately 5.6 million acres of wetlands (25% of the state) were embedded within the forest and prairie.

The state has now greatly changed. Although Markle's dam is still present and still affects the habitats and fish of Otter Creek, most of the Native Americans are gone, the forest is much reduced, many of the wetlands have been drained, and only scattered fragments of the original prairie remain. Much of the land is now agricultural. Forest covers only 25% (4.3 million acres) of the land, and many kinds of development are progressively eating away at the remaining natural lands, and also at the farmlands.

Clearly, it is time, after 200 years of development by European settlers, with countless changes to the habitats and to the species present (introductions, increases, decreases, extirpations, extinctions) and ever-increasing rates of development (about 101,000 acres per year in Indiana in 2000), to document what was, what is, and where we might be heading from here, including how fast the changes are occurring. This should give future observers some baseline data for comparison.

1800. The 22,958,877 acres of land contained within Indiana have changed dramatically in the more than 200 years since 1800. They had undoubtedly been changed by several thousand years of Native American occupation prior to 1800, but our knowledge of this is limited. The early pioneers from the eastern United States found villages, camping places, dancing floors, burial grounds, earthworks, gardens, and large corn fields, particularly in the northern half of the state. The Native Americans also had an extensive trail system throughout the state (Parker 1997).

Native Americans practiced extensive agriculture in Indiana prior to European settlement with crop fields of several hundred acres found around villages during the military expeditions of the late 1700s (Whicker 1916). Crops were grown in natural openings, or in forest clearings created by deadening large trees and using fire to clear the understory (Latta 1938). New clearings were made as soil productivity declined. The process of clearing, burning, cropping, abandonment, and forest regrowth strongly influenced forest structure in localized areas of Indiana.

Native Americans also burned grasslands to attract and move game animals such as deer, bison, and elk (McCord 1970). The burning of grasslands releases nutrients, resulting in more succulent vegetation for 1–2 growing seasons. Such fires maintained prairies and savannas throughout much of the state, and also changed forest structure over large areas of the Indiana landscape by favoring the regeneration of fire-tolerant species, such as oaks and hickories.

While Native Americans were important in affecting the plant and animal communities in Indiana, their estimated population of 20,000 in 1800 indicates the yearly combined extent of their farming activities would have been small, and a total of considerably less than 100,000 acres was under cultivation statewide. However, their use of fire influenced much larger areas of the state. It is likely that, in 1800, the Indiana landscape was still recovering from the activities of the much larger Native American populations that were present in the 1400s and 1500s, prior to the decimation caused by diseases brought by early European settlers (Denevan 1992).

The French were active in the area beginning in the late 1600s, primarily as traders with the native peoples (Barnhart and Riker 1971). While French traders lived in villages such as Ouiatenon, near Lafayette, in the early 1700s, their first permanent settlement was at the site of the present city of Vincennes in 1732. These families kept large numbers of cattle and hogs in confined pastures and grew wheat, corn, rice, cotton, and tobacco on land close to the fort.

Settlement of Indiana Territory expanded rapidly from the Ohio River in the southeast following the American Revolution (Map 1.1; Latta 1938). Eighteen counties of southern Indiana were organized between 1795 and 1817. The white population grew from less than 5,000 in 1800 to 24,000 in 1810 and 147,178 in 1820. The new settlers adopted the natives' methods of clearing forests to make way for croplands. Each farm family could deaden about 9 acres of forest per year. Settlers also brought free-ranging livestock with them.

Most of Indiana Territory would have been in natural vegetation at the beginning of European occupation around 1800, but plant communities were in all stages of recovery from Native American activities, particularly fire. It is estimated that 20 million acres of forest, 2 million acres of prairie, and 1 million acres of glades, barrens, and savannas were present at that time. Embedded within these vegetation types (and part of this acreage) were some 5.6 million acres of wetlands.

It is difficult to determine the actual areas of different habitats in 1800 based on the limited information available, and even more difficult to determine the habitat conditions then. We know there were disturbances of forests through fire and clearing for crops, but their extent and location cannot be quantified except in a few instances, as mentioned above. The discussion below by land use category is based on both historical information and a projection of our current knowledge of habitats back in time. Maps of the distribution of habitats for presettlement Indiana have been developed using the General Land Office public land survey records of the early 1800s (Map 1.2) and visual observation of conditions across the state in the early 1900s (Map 1.3). Our current knowledge of soils was used to estimate the area of forest, grassland, and wetland complexes that would have been present in different regions of the state in 1800 (Map 1.4; Homoya et al. 1985).

1900. The period from 1800 to 1900 saw rapid changes in the habitats of Indiana. Widespread disturbance and exploitation of native fauna and vegetation occurred prior to 1860, and was followed by more permanent conversion of forests, wetlands, and prairies to croplands, cities, and transportation systems. The first wave of European settlers squatted on unpurchased lands, built cabins, cleared a few acres for corn and vegetables, and subsisted largely on wild animals. They settled along forested stream valleys, since these lands were considered to be the best for cropland: wetlands were difficult to drain, and prairies were hard to plow and thought to have inferior soils.

Clearing of forests by individual settlers took several years (Johnson 1978). Between 2 and 9 acres of land were cleared each year. First, small trees were cut and piled around large trees. The piles were then burned, killing the large trees, and crops were planted on plowed land between the stumps and standing dead trees. Standing dead trees would fall or be cut during a 3- to 4-year period and burned. Croplands were abandoned after a few years as production declined and new lands were cleared. Abandoned croplands rapidly returned to native forest due to incomplete removal of native species and the small size of fields, allowing reseeding from surrounding forests. With the rapidly expanding human population, as much as 10 million acres of forest land may have been disturbed in this way prior to 1860.

With new technology and equipment, the clearing of forests, draining of wetlands, and plowing of prairies became widespread after 1860. Fourteen million acres of the state (61% of the total) were in farmland by 1880. By 1900, over 16.6 million acres of the 21.6 million acres in farmland had been improved (cultivated for crops) (U.S. Census Bureau 1900). Some commercial fertilizer and crop rotation with legumes allowed the permanent use of cleared lands for crops. Streamside forest had largely been removed (Freeman 1908), leading to declining water quality and destruction of habitat for aquatic species. Urban centers and transportation systems were set for continued expansion by the late 1800s (Historical Atlas 1876). Incorporated cities covered over 81,000 acres, and there were more than 11,600 mi of gravel road by 1901 (Indiana Department of Statistics 1901–1902).

While there is a substantial amount of data from the 1800s to characterize the habitats of the state, most of it is on the county level. The first agricultural census was completed in 1850, and a complete atlas of county maps was produced in 1876 (see one example in Map 1.5). This atlas includes the location of urban centers and transportation systems, and also shows the location of significant prairies and wetlands. Forest groves are shown in Benton County's map.

These maps have not been digitized so they are used only in a qualitative manner in this volume. The Twelfth Census of the United States (U.S. Census Bureau 1900) and the biennial reports of the Indiana Department of Statistics were the primary sources of information for characterizing the state in 1900. These reports provide data on farming activities and forest conditions for each county. Acreages of native habitats are not quantified except as unimproved farmland and lands not in farms in the Twelfth Census of the United States (U.S. Census Bureau 1900). The Ninth Biennial Report of the Indiana Department of Statistics provides county acreage for the relative conditions of native forest in 1902. Forest covered about 3.8 million acres with most in poor condition due to logging, burning, and grazing by domestic livestock. Only 250,000 acres were considered first-grade forest at that time.

2000. The period from 1900 to the early twenty-first century was, in some ways, one of increasing awareness, protection, and improved management. Badly abused farmland abandoned in the 1920s and 1930s was largely transferred to public ownership. The average size of farms increased from 97 acres in 1900 to 250 acres in 2002 (U.S. Census Bureau 1900; U.S. Department of Agriculture 2002). Farms became more specialized with the development of fertilizers and pesticides in the 1940s and 1950s, which increased the land in crop production on farms. Total farmland decreased to just over 15 million acres, most of it (12.5 million acres) in cropland in 2002. About 41% of the cropland was planted using no-till methods to reduce soil erosion. The over 2 million acres of farmland not in crop production were in forest, pasture, and wetland habitats or regrowing via successional recovery. Conservation programs begun in the 1970s have subsidized farmers to remove some farmland from crop production to serve as buffers to soil erosion and to restore wetlands. Forest and prairie have been planted on former croplands through the federal Conservation Reserve Program (Allen and Vandever 2003).

There are several million more acres of land in non-farm use today than in 1900. Both private and public programs have purchased farms for recreation, to protect and restore native habitats, and to provide public services such as transportation systems. Almost 8 million acres were in non-farm use by 2002 with over 4.5 million acres in forest and about 1 million acres in wetland habitats. Urban areas cover about 1 million acres, and rural roads, railroads, and airport runways cover almost 800,000 acres (Indiana Department of Natural Resources 2000).

The foregoing paragraphs make use of an abundance of data that are available today thanks to computers and software for spatial analysis. There are challenges, however, in summarizing data from multiple sources and understanding the inconsistencies between data sets. For example, different databases provide different acreages for the state and counties due to different methods of sampling.

The data for land use in 2000 presented above, and in subsequent chapters, come from several sources. First, we used the 1992 National Land Cover Data (NLCD), developed from thematic mapper™ data as part of a cooperative project between the U.S. Geological Survey and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (Map 1.6, Table G-1). The NLCDdata were superimposed over the natural regions of Indiana (Homoya et al. 1985) to determine the area in different habitats by natural region (Maps 1.7, 1.8). Second, we used the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's National Wetlands Inventory (1995) to determine the area of various wetland types in each natural region.

Third, the data on forest types by size, class, and region were based on the U.S. Forest Service's 1998 and 2003 surveys of the state. Fourth, the farmland habitats inventory used data from 2002, the nearest 5-year reporting interval as of this writing, as published by the National Agricultural Statistics Service (http://www.nass.usda.gov) in 2003–2004. Other sources of information will be referenced in the individual habitat chapters.



Soils are integral to any functioning ecosystem, providing the nutrients for plants and habitat for many vertebrate animals and insects, and multitudes of microorganisms. They require hundreds of years to develop and are good indicators of the climate, vegetation, and organisms involved in their formation. Therefore, knowledge of them provides suggestions for how best to use landscapes for productive agriculture or for the preservation and/or restoration of more natural conditions. Current soil characteristics indicate that most of Indiana was covered (in "presettlement" times, shortly before 1800) by beech/maple and oak/hickory forests, with smaller areas of dry prairie, savanna, and wetlands in the northwestern portion of the state.

Almost all of this book's information on soils is presented in this chapter, rather than being distributed among the 8 habitat chapters, as is the case for wildlife. We will first discuss how soils are identified and classified, and describe the national and state-level databases on soil distribution. We will then survey the soils of Indiana geographically from north to south, using the state's 10 natural regions, which were defined with some consideration of soil types (Homoya et al. 1985).

Soil identification and classification are conducted through the observation of soil horizons and distinctive soil layers in a pedon (the minimum sampling unit of soils, which is generally a 1 m2 soil pit). Soil horizons include the O horizon, or organic layer at the surface; the A horizon, a mixture of organic and mineral matter; the E (eluviation) horizon, a leaching zone; the B horizon, where elements accumulate and clays develop; and the C horizon, the deepest part where the parent rock is being broken down and incorporated into the soil.


Excerpted from Habitats and Ecological Communities of Indiana Presettlement to Present by John O. Whitaker Jr., Charles J. Amlaner Jr.. Copyright © 2012 Indiana Department of Natural Resources and Indiana State University. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Charles J. Amlaner, Jr. is Professor of Physiology and Theodore Dreiser Distinguished Research Professor at Indiana State University. He is also a certified senior ecologist with the Ecological Society of America.

John O. Whitaker, Jr., is Professor of Biology at Indiana State University and author of Mammals of Indiana (2nd edition with Russell E. Mumford, IUP, 2009); Mammals of Indiana: A Field Guide (IUP, 2010); Keys to the Vertebrates of the Eastern United States; and The Audubon Guide to Mammals of North America.

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