For most of the 20th century, Hennepin and Hopper Lakes in Putnam County, Illinois, were drained to make way for corn and soybean fields. But these backwater lakes in the floodplain of the Illinois River 40 miles north of Peoria roared back to life in 2001 when the Wetlands Initiative turned off the drainage pumps and began restoration.
A decade later, the 2,700-acre project is one of the premier natural areas in the state and is open to the public 365 days a year. Today a mosaic of lakes, marshes, seeps, savannas, and prairies support native flora and fauna. The project was named an Audubon Important Bird Area in 2004. In 2005, the project was dedicated as the Sue and Wes Dixon Waterfowl Refuge in recognition of the high-quality habitat present at the site.
On February 2, 2012, the Refuge was officially listed as a Wetland of International Importance in accordance with the international Ramsar Convention on Wetlands. This designation recognizes the Refuge's value for the rare wetlands, endangered species, native fish populations, and large numbers of migratory waterfowl it supports. Only 35 other sites in the U.S. have received this recognition over the past 25 years.
More than 265 bird species have been observed nesting, foraging, or resting at the Refuge (download the site's bird checklist here). More than 570 native plants also thrive at the site. The Refuge is protected in perpetuity as a natural area. Only two hours from the Chicago region, it is an educational and recreational resource to treasure.
The Dixon Waterfowl Refuge also contains an extremely rare and high-quality seep wetland habitat that runs along the southeastern edge of the site. Twenty-six acres of this area is a designated Illinois Nature Preserve, known as the Thomas W. and Elizabeth Moews Dore Seep in honor of the previous landowners who donated it to be part of the Refuge. A great diversity of unique plant species thrive in the seep, including the state-endangered yellow monkey-flower.
The Initiative’s overall goal at the Refuge is to restore the complex mosaic of prairie, wetland, and savanna habitat that once characterized this region, with special emphasis on restoring the levels of biodiversity once typical of the Illinois landscape prior to European settlement.
Read more about the Refuge’s history here.
Support for the Initiative’s 2013 work at the Dixon Waterfowl Refuge was generously provided by Grand Victoria Foundation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's NAWCA Small Grants Program, Dynegy Hennepin Power Station, and Dr. Scholl Foundation.
Dixon in the news
Celebration marks wetland importance
Illinois wetlands get international designation
Dixon Waterfowl Refuge declared a Wetland of International Importance
Harvesting the future
Dixon on the Radio
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The Story of the Dixon Waterfowl Refuge
At the 10th anniversary celebration of the Dixon Refuge on September 10, 2011, co-founder Al Pyott tells how he and Donald Hey first came to the Hennepin Drainage and Levee District looking for an opportunity to restore wetlands.
In 2000, corn and soybean fields stretched across the drained Hennepin & Hopper Lakes project area. TWI file photo.
In 2001, after the Wetlands Initiative turned off the drainage pumps, water began to fill the former lake beds. Photo by Gary Sullivan, TWI.
A rich mosaic of lakes, wetlands, and prairies soon thrived. Photo by Gary Sullivan, TWI.
Many birds, including this flock of coots, returned to the natural area. Photo by Gary Sullivan, TWI.
Healthy marshes provide habitat. Photo by Gary Sullivan, TWI.
A corn crib amidst the prairie is a reminder of the agricultural past of this landscape. Photo by Gary Sullivan, TWI.
Each summer more than 1,200 acres of prairie bursts into bloom at Hennepin & Hopper Lakes. Photo by Gary Sullivan, TWI.
A lesser yellowlegs enjoys the abundant shore habitat. Photo by Gary Sullivan, TWI.
Green frogs take cover in the duckweed. Photo by Gary Sullivan, TWI.
A rare seep habitat hugs the eastern bluff of the project area. Photo by Gary Sullivan, TWI.
The rare natural community of the Thomas W. and Elizabeth Moews Dore Seep has been designated as an Illinois Nature Preserve. Photo by Gary Sullivan, TWI.
The 30-foot-high Arthur Nolan Jr. Observation Tower offers visitors a commanding view. Photo by Gary Sullivan, TWI
In 2004, the Initiative opened the lakes to public fishing, including ice fishing. (Lakes now closed until 2015.) Photo by Gary Sullivan, TWI.
Volunteers help with restoration by gathering native seed for re-planting. Photo by Gary Sullivan, TWI.
Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) visited the project in 2007, shown here (front) taking in the view from the observation tower with Initiative co-founder Donald Hey. Photo by Gary Sullivan, TWI.
An eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly gathers nectar from a verbena. Photo by Gary Sullivan, TWI.
Muskrats (pictured), river otter, and beaver now reside in the lakes and marshes. Photo by Gary Sullivan, TWI.
Water and sky are abundant here. Photo by Gary Sullivan, TWI.
“The Hennepin & Hopper Lakes Project [...] offers the only exceptional opportunity to restore clear water habitat with aquatic vegetation and associated fauna in the floodplain north of Peoria."
— Dr. Stephen Havera, director emeritus of the Forbes Biological Station
The Wetlands Initiative is dedicated to restoring the wetland resources of the Midwest to improve water quality, increase wildlife habitat and biodiversity, and reduce flood damage.
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