Illinois Department of Natural Resources
May 2021
May 3, 2021
Photo by Michael R. Jeffords.

Cache River Project Ready for Ducks and Outdoor Enthusiasts

By Dane Cramer
Two yellow birds with gray wings perch on a stick inches above the water of a wetland.
A pair of courting prothonotary warblers on the Cache River. Photo by Michael R. Jeffords.

The bottomland hardwood floodplain forests along the Cache River in Johnson County are home to thousands of plant and animal species, many of which are threatened and endangered. Flood waters from the river fill these forests and welcome tens of thousands of waterfowl annually during fall migration, and in ever increasing numbers during the wintering period.

Prior to 2010, the 90-acre Owens Tract within the Illinois Department of Natural Resources’ Cache River State Natural Area was still an agricultural field, cleared and drained by ditches to support agricultural farming in the fertile bottomlands of the Cache River. A partnership effort between the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR), the U.S. Department of Agriculture – Natural Resources Conservation Service and Ducks Unlimited (DU) began to change the landscape to return natural water flow to the forest. DU also led the effort to secure a North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA) grant, and IDNR used Illinois Migratory Waterfowl Stamp (i.e., Duck Stamp) funds to aid in completing this project.

A map of the Cache River State Natural area with topography and a star indicating the Owen's Tract.
Map courtesy of Adam Phillips.

On-the-ground restoration efforts began with planting native bottomland trees. Restoration efforts aimed at restoring natural hydrology to a 30-acre section within the Owen Tract was completed in September 2020. It is the first DU project completed in Johnson County.

Restoration of the 30-acre site replicates pre-settlement conditions, including meandering cypress-tupelo swales rising into oak-hickory ridges, and was a cooperative effort. Restoration activities included filling drainage ditches, building low level berms, and installing a water control structure to manage water levels.

Two images from different perspectives of a newly created low level berm to control drainage of water. In the background of the images are trees.
Pictured above are two views of a low level berm. Photos courtesy of Adam Phillips.

Because of their beauty and ecological diversity, bottomland hardwood floodplain forests are focal points on the landscape for outdoor enthusiasts.

“The Cache River State Natural Area is as important to those who recreate there with a kayak and a camera as it is to those who chose to use to use decoys and a gun,” said Dane Cramer, DU regional biologist in Illinois.

A thicket of shrubs and bushes. A blue sky and trees are in the background.
Photo courtesy of Adam Phillips.

According to Adam Phillips, IDNR District Wildlife Biologist for Johnson, Massac, Pope, Hardin, Saline, Gallatin and Williamson counties, wetland restoration projects are complex and complicated.

“The first step of the restoration process was planting bottomland hardwood trees, which was accomplished in the first few years,” Phillips explained. “The 30-acre hydrological restoration effort took seven years to complete as such projects require the approval of a number of federal and state agencies, and multi-year budgets and unpredictable weather events come into play. It always feels good when you get a project like this completed.”

Phillips advised that the site won’t look like much for a couple of decades.

“Bottomland oaks and bald cypress trees are slow-growing species, and are particularly slow in a wetland environment,” he remarked. “Down the road another 20 years it will be apparent how important this project was to the Cache River ecosystem and the wildlife it supports.”

A clearing in a bottomland for woodland restoration purposes. A blue sky and trees are in the background.
Photo courtesy of Adam Phillips.

The restoration of the Owens Tract is a win-win. For humankind, investing in the restoration of wetland habitats reduces flooding by temporarily storing water, improves water quality by filtering and collecting sediment from runoff, and provides clean drinking water for all of us. For wildlife, a fully functioning wetland habitat provides essential habitat and food resources.

Dane Cramer is the Ducks Unlimited regional biologist in Illinois.