Dixon Waterfowl Refuge gains additional acreage, new habitats

The Wetlands Initiative has acquired a 417-acre parcel to expand its Sue and Wes Dixon Waterfowl Refuge at Hennepin & Hopper Lakes in north-central Illinois.

The acquisition of land adjacent to the Refuge’s southeastern border brings the site’s total area to more than 3,000 acres and adds even more habitat types to this internationally recognized nature preserve.

The new tract was previously owned by Vulcan Lands, Inc., which had been leasing out more than half of it for farming. TWI purchased the tract from Vulcan for $1.575 million, a bargain sale significantly below the appraised value of $2.164 million. The purchase closed on December 17, 2014, and was made possible by grants from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation, Grand Victoria Foundation, and Oberweiler Foundation, as well as a bridge loan from The Conservation Fund.

The streambed and wooded ravine running through the new Hickory Hollow parcel. Photo by Gary Sullivan/TWI.

The Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation provided $1 million toward the purchase price. “The diversity of quality natural habitat at the Dixon Refuge, which will only be augmented with this addition, was worthy of a significant investment, especially given that all of it is open for the people of Illinois to explore,” said the foundation’s executive director, Dennis O’Brien.

Reggie Hall, director of land conservation loans at The Conservation Fund, said, “We were pleased to play a catalytic role with many partners in helping expand the Dixon Refuge, and applaud its restoration for wildlife as well as the opportunities it offers for people to enjoy its wonders.”

TWI intends to sell the southernmost 134 acres subject to a permanent conservation easement that prohibits mining and multiple-home development. Funds from the resale will be used to pay off the bridge loan and help cover initial costs for restoration of the 283 acres being added to the Refuge.

Restoration of the new tract will begin in fall 2015 with the goal of creating a contiguous, high-quality prairie, savanna, and woodland system within the southeastern portion of the Dixon Refuge. Nicknamed Hickory Hollow by TWI because of the wooded ravine and intermittent stream running through it, the tract includes several habitats that are now globally rare, including oak savanna and sand/dry prairie.

“We’re very excited to extend the landscape mosaic at the Dixon Refuge with these upland habitats once typical of the Illinois River Valley,” said TWI Executive Director Paul Botts. “Habitat fragmentation is a critical issue in conservation. Certain bird, reptile, and other species live part of the year in wet lowland areas but need drier upland areas for other parts of their life cycle.”

The new acreage will also buffer and protect the adjacent Dore Seep, a designated Illinois Nature Preserve located within the southern end of the Dixon Refuge. Seeps are rare wetlands found along the base of slopes where groundwater emerges, and the Dore Seep is the largest in the central Illinois River Valley.

Once restored, the addition will expand and improve habitat for a variety of birds, butterflies, and other wildlife that have little suitable habitat remaining elsewhere in the region. In particular, the restoration is anticipated to increase breeding habitat for many grassland, savanna, and woodland migratory birds of conservation concern, including Black-billed Cuckoo, Great Crested Flycatcher, Summer Tanager, and Grasshopper Sparrow. The restoration will also benefit numerous migratory songbirds that will use the restored savanna and woodland habitats as an important stopover in a heavily agricultural area.

Located just south of the village of Hennepin off of Route 26 along the Illinois River, the Dixon Refuge is open to the public every day for hiking, birdwatching, and paddling. “The Refuge is a one-of-a-kind natural treasure for the region,” said Hennepin Village President Kevin Coleman. “With very few natural areas of this size remaining in Illinois, it offers visitors the chance to explore and learn about our state's natural heritage.”

TWI plans to establish new trails through the Hickory Hollow addition, as well as a scenic overlook atop the bluff face. “Along with the Oak Ridge trail now being developed in the Refuge’s interior and the reopening of Hennepin & Hopper Lakes for public fishing in spring 2015, we’re significantly increasing public access to this beautiful place,” said Botts.

The Dixon Waterfowl Refuge was established in 2001. Its original 2,760 acres had been drained and farmed for nearly a century when TWI began restoring the site to the mix of prairies, wetlands, and backwater lakes once found there. In 2012, the Refuge was designated a Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, one of only 36 such sites in the United States and the only one that is entirely a restoration. The Dixon Refuge is an Audubon Important Bird Area and also an official stop on the Illinois River Road National Scenic Byway.

Grand Victoria Foundation has supported restoration of the Dixon Waterfowl Refuge and the results are quite miraculous,” said Nancy Fishman, the foundation’s executive director. “When TWI offered us a chance to help them purchase the Hickory Hollow addition, we were eager to participate and grow the miracle.”

Read a Chicago Sun-Times article about the acquisition here.