Illinois River partnership leads to Refuge benefits

For the past several years, the Wetlands Initiative has been an active partner in a new collaboration of conservation groups called the Middle Illinois River Conservation Collaborative (MIRCC). Earlier this summer, that partnership led to a grant to Ducks Unlimited (DU) from the federal North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA) program that will support infrastructure improvements at TWI’s Dixon Waterfowl Refuge, among other benefits for Illinois River Valley wetland conservation sites.

MIRCC formed in 2014 as a group of entities seeking to protect and restore the lands and waters within the Illinois River ecosystem. The collaborative’s goal is to facilitate the protection, restoration, and management of key natural areas along the Illinois River in central and north-central Illinois, creating a mosaic of high-quality conservation sites representative of the Illinois River system’s rich biodiversity. In addition to TWI, members of MIRCC include Ducks Unlimited, Audubon Great Lakes, the Illinois Audubon Society, the Peoria Park District, the Prairie Land Conservancy, Prairie Rivers Network, and The Nature Conservancy–Illinois.

With Ducks Unlimited coordinating the proposal, the partners put together a NAWCA funding request to support enhancements at 11 project sites along the middle and lower Illinois River, encompassing 13,000 acres of wetlands. The joint proposal, called “Conserving the Illinois River Legacy,” received the #1 ranking in the nation by reviewers, and the $1 million award was finalized in June 2019. The subgrant TWI received for the Dixon Waterfowl Refuge helped us complete an essential infrastructure upgrade to better manage water levels in the site’s Hennepin & Hopper Lakes.

“The diversity and productivity of the wetland habitats at the Dixon Refuge provide us with a vision of what the historic Illinois River backwater lakes used to be, and what they could possibly be again through continued conservation action,” said Michael Sertle, regional biologist with Ducks Unlimited. “By partnering with TWI to secure NAWCA grant funds and upgrade their infrastructure, DU has been able to help an important conservation partner to manage a significant wetland complex for years to come.”

Manipulation of water levels is critical to providing healthy lake habitat at the Refuge for aquatic plants, invertebrates, and fish that in turn support other wildlife, including thousands of migrating waterfowl in spring and fall. The NAWCA grant will support similar enhancements at partner sites that range from the Donnelley–DePue State Fish and Wildlife Area in Hennepin to The Nature Conservancy’s Emiquon Preserve in Havana.

An aerial photo shows the Hennepin & Hopper Lakes system and rich restored habitat at the Dixon Waterfowl Refuge along the Illinois River (visible along the left).

An aerial photo shows the Hennepin & Hopper Lakes system and rich restored habitat at the Dixon Waterfowl Refuge along the Illinois River (visible along the left).

“The purpose of MIRCC is both visionary, to help realize the Illinois River Valley’s globally significant conservation potential, and practical, to determine each group’s appropriate roles in projects and where resources might come from,” said Paul Botts, TWI’s president and executive director. “This grant demonstrates one success of that collective effort and will enhance wetland sites throughout the Illinois River corridor.”

MIRCC is now working to identify specific locations or initiatives in the Illinois River Valley on which it could make sense for the partners to work together to realize their shared vision for the region.

Read the NAWCA press release on 2019 awards here.