The Universal Mine IBA, located near the western border of Indiana in Vermillion and Vigo counties, is one of the largest reclaimed surface mines in the state. The site contains an approximate 6500 acres of grassland-type habitat, nearly half of which is considered undisturbed. Despite the fact that the vegetation is largely dominated by non-native Eurasian cool-season grasses, such as tall fescue and smooth brome, several studies and published papers produced by Peter Scott, Steve Lima, and other researches at Indiana State University strongly suggest that such grasslands created by mine reclamation are as productive for obligate prairie birds as natural remnants or restored native habitats.
Spanning an area of approximately 6500 acres, Universal Mine represents one of Indiana's most contiguous grasslands, even though the habitat was created via the reclamation of a former coal strip mine. Because of its size, the Universal area supports one of the largest nesting populations of a variety of prairie specialists, including four species which have shown severe declines in the last 40 years - Grasshopper Sparrow, Henslow's Sparrow, Dickcissel, and Eastern Meadowlark. Population estimates for these species are as follows (derived from densities found in De Vault, et al, 2002) - Grasshopper Sparrow, 430 breeding pairs; Henslow's Sparrow, 181 breeding pairs; Dickcissel, 246 breeding pairs; and Eastern Meadowlark, 670 breeding pairs. Given the expanse of the unbroken habitat which these grassland provide, studies indicate that this reclamation is as productive for bird population as native prairie patches (Lima S., E. Galligan. 2002. Productivity of birds nesting in reclaimed surgace coal mine grasslands. Unpublished report?). The large size of this former strip mine and scarcity of forested habitats also result in a general lack of Brown-headed Cowbirds at Universal. Consequently, less than one percent of the nests of grassland specialist passerines are parasitized (E.W. Galligan and S.L. Lima, unpubl. data).
In addition to passerine species, Universal Mine supports perhaps the largest breeding population of Upland Sandpipers in Indiana; an estimated 4-5 pair breed here, with a peak count of 14 individuals seen during the summer of 2005.
The reclaimed Universal Mine also provides quality wetland habitat for migratory and nesting waterbird species. This, combined with the expansive grasslands which occur on the property, may help buffer the urban and agricultural influences which affect wetland loss and degradation throughout the Midwest. Waterbird species which have been present at Universal during the breeding season include American Bittern, Least Bittern, and King Rail.
The primary conservation threat to the birds and respective prairie-type habitat of Universal Mine is the expansion of grassland agricultural practices such as grazing and cutting for hay. Currently, Universal is already considered the most harvested of all reclaimed coal mines in Indiana. Although limited grazing may benefit some species, such as the Upland Sandpiper, by providing various heights of vegetative cover for breeding and foraging, increased mowing or haying during the summer months will adversely affect the productivity of breeding Henslow's Sparrows, Dickcissels, and other WatchList species via nest destruction or abandonment. In addition, an expansion of these acitivities across the property could severly limit the amount of grassland habitat available for species which prefer tall vegetation, since one or two growing seasons may be required for the grasses and forbs to return to appropriate levels.