Bob Barry has managed the Illinois River National Wildlife Refuge Complex for less than a year.


“One of the things I have discovered is that we’re not alone on this river,” he says. “There are a whole bunch of state and private areas managed for ducks and waterfowl. There are eight state areas and two Nature Conservancy sites from Peoria down to Meredosia”—a distance of just 95 miles.


Like Barry, the Ramsar Convention recognizes that two of the complex’s three refuges—Chautauqua and Emiquon—belong to something bigger. Last year, it included them in a new Wetland of International Importance. The third refuge, Meredosia, is just south of the Ramsar site but also within the Illinois River floodplain.


“The Ramsar designation has helped to raise awareness that the refuges play a significant role in providing resources critical to migratory birds,” says Barry. “It gives us a great sense of pride that all the management efforts over the years, on the part of the [U.S. Fish and Wildlife] Service and our various partners, have resulted in something of international significance for the resource.”


Challenges and Opportunities Being backwater habitat in the Illinois’ floodplain presents the three refuges with conservation challenges, cultural resource opportunities and iffy outdoor recreation options.


The refuges’ primary mission is to provide foraging/resting areas for migratory birds. The refuges also provide habitat for breeding neotropical migrant songbirds and resident wildlife. All three refuges include seasonally flooded backwaters, forested bottomlands and patches of prairie. Because they are essentially backwater lakes/wetlands, the refuges don’t manage for riverine aquatic species such as mussels or sturgeon. But when flooded the refuges provide spawning habitat for native fish.


“The river is the lifeblood of the refuges, and all are dependent on it to recharge wetlands, provide nutrients and create disturbance necessary to maintain the ecology of these flood–pulse systems,” Barry says. However, drainage systems and levees make the river susceptible to rapid rises and flows that can complicate matters.


For instance, high water in backwater lakes, such as this spring’s severe flooding, can delay early–summer drawdowns. Those annual draw–downs enable moist–soil plants and invertebrates (duck/ shorebird food) to develop in time for migration. River floods also deposit silt that is slowly filling in some refuge lakes.


Invasive Asian carp, which overwhelm the backwaters during floods, are another challenge. “The carp eat virtually everything and keep the silt in the water churned up, which impacts aquatic vegetation and everything dependent on it, including invertebrates important as food for ducks, shorebirds and native fish,” says Barry. During draw–downs, the refuge lets commercial fishermen harvest carp to reduce the number of dead, decaying fish left after the water comes off.


Up and down the river, especially near Emiquon Refuge, there is archaeological evidence of 12,000 years of human habitation, including ancient burial mounds. The river valley also could be considered “the birthplace of modern–day waterfowl hunting,” Barry says. “Some of the earliest decoys and duck calls started around here.”


While state and private waterfowl hunting areas line the Illinois River, hunting is limited on Chautauqua and Emiquon Refuges and prohibited on Meredosia. And the three refuges welcome just 18,000 visitors annually because frequent flooding imperils publicuse infrastructure.


“There are not a lot of big rivers that are being allowed into their floodplain to the extent this one is,” says Barry. The water levels of the Mississippi and Ohio, for example, are tightly managed with locks and dams for transportation and flood control. The Illinois has minimal locks, dams and barge traffic and no major navigation channel, so the river “is more connected to its floodplain,” Barry says.


All of which enhances habitat, even if it can complicate refuge management.