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 were 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 Meredosiaa distance of
just 95 miles.
Like Barry, the Ramsar Convention
recognizes that two of the complexs
three refugesChautauqua and
Emiquonbelong 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
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 dont 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 floodpulse systems,
Barry says. However, drainage systems
and levees make the river susceptible
to rapid rises and flows that can
For instance, high water in backwater
lakes, such as this springs severe
flooding, can delay earlysummer drawdowns.
Those annual drawdowns enable
moistsoil 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
drawdowns, 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 modernday
waterfowl hunting, Barry says. Some of
the earliest decoys and duck calls started
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
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.