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 3,000-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 37 other sites in the U.S. have received this recognition over the past 25 years.
More than 270 bird species have been observed nesting, foraging, or resting at the Refuge (download the site's bird checklist here). Nearly 640 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.
Funding for projects at the Refuge in 2014–15 has been provided by Dr. Scholl Foundation; Dynegy Hennepin Power Station; Grand Victoria Foundation; Illinois Department of Natural Resources’ Wildlife Preservation Fund; Marquis Energy, LLC; the federal North American Wetlands Conservation Act and Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act; and individual donors to TWI. Acquisition of the new tract in 2014 was made possible by Grand Victoria Foundation, Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation, and Oberweiler Foundation.
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.