Tom Nelson views his role on the Illinois Endangered Species Protection Board as a link to his personal past and a bridge to Illinois residents’ futures.
The Eastern Illinois University biological sciences professor was appointed to the board by Gov. Rod Blagojevich to fill the vacancy left by the death of Alan Woolf, a nationally respected scientist who served as Nelson’s doctoral adviser.
In addition, Nelson’s master’s degree adviser, Bill Klimstra, once served on the board, and one of Nelson’s colleagues, retired EIU Professor John Ebinger, is still a board member whom Nelson calls a “foundational figure.”
“I’m filling a role of a couple of mentors, so that’s special for me, because they were very instrumental in my life,” Nelson said.
But even more important to Nelson – past-president of the Illinois Wildlife Society – is the opportunity to positively impact the state’s environment to minimize negative consequences to wildlife and, ultimately, to humans.
“As a biologist, obviously I’m concerned about the impacts of development and habitat change in Illinois,” he said, noting that as a result of land being used for urban and agricultural uses, less than one-tenth of a percent of the state’s original prairie remains.
“We’re a highly changed state, and that puts pressure on the natural ecosystems,” he said. “When you have species that are disappearing from the state, that’s an indication that we can do a better job of managing our resources for them and for us. So I feel the responsibility of the board is an important one.”
The board, created in 1972 by the Illinois Endangered Species Act, monitors the status of plants and animals in the state and identifies species that fall under two categories: “threatened,” which refers to species that are on the path to becoming endangered; and “endangered,” which refers to species that are likely to become extinct.
The board then advises the Illinois Department of Natural Resources on courses of action to correct the problems.
Among the Endangered Species Protection Board’s duties is analyzing development projects that might threaten critical wildlife habitat, and then having the IDNR negotiate with developers to modify building plans to reduce harmful biological effects.
Currently, about 500 species are considered threatened or endangered in Illinois. But, on the positive side, conservation efforts have been able to get some species off of the lists, including bobcats, river otters and bald eagles.
The board’s information comes from sources including the state’s Endangered Species Technical Advisory committees, which are comprised of a variety of wildlife experts, including Nelson.
One of Nelson’s current research interests is the red squirrel, found in the Kankakee area and thought to have always existed in low numbers in the state. Two of Nelson's graduate students are attempting to ascertain the squirrel’s genetic history and habitat needs.
“Obviously, the first step in bringing any species back is determining what they need,” Nelson said.
Nelson is excited about the impact his service on the board will have on his students and his research.
“As a teacher, it gives me the first-hand experience with what’s going on in the environmental field, which I can then bring into the classroom,” Nelson said. “As a scientist, it really helps me to network and know what other people are doing throughout the state.”
Nelson, who serves as coordinator of EIU’s environmental biology program, joined the EIU faculty in 1994 after teaching and serving as biology department chair at Arkansas Tech University.
At EIU, he teaches undergraduate courses in ecology and mammalogy, as well as graduate courses in wildlife management, landscape ecology and the history of science.
Now that he’s on the state board, his research interests will likely continue to focus on protected species, including the yet-obscure ecology of several endangered bats, he said.
Nelson’s wife, Dianne, joined him at EIU on July 1, when she became the founding director of EIU’s new nursing degree program, which is slated to begin offering classes in August 2007.The Nelsons have three children and reside in Charleston.