Illinois Department of Natural Resources
February 2021
February 1, 2021
Photo courtesy of Brad Petersburg.

Partnership Effort Expands Services at Witkowsky State Wildlife Area

By Kathy Andrews Wright

Traipse through the rugged, scenic landscape of extreme northwestern Illinois, an ecologically rich region labeled as the Driftless Area, and you will find a remarkable area with diverse geologic features and ecosystems. Within the rolling, rocky landscape of Witkowksy State Wildlife Area (SWA) in JoDaviess County, a partnership effort has been creating 10 miles of trails, vastly expanding the locations where hunters can set up for a white-tailed deer, wild turkey or squirrel hunt. These trails also provide birders and photographers the opportunity to locate a rich variety of forest and grassland birds, and visitors with a botanical interest can find plant and animal species more typical of the Great Lakes region and New England than the Prairie State.

Three white-tailed deer standing in a green, lush grassland. In the background is a forest.
Photo by Michael R. Jeffords.

Bypassed by the last continental glaciers of the Pleistocene Epoch, the Driftless Area—so named because it has little or no “drift,” which is material deposited by glaciers—is a 24,000-square-mile region covering portions of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois. In Illinois, the Driftless Area covers Jo Daviess County and portions of Carroll, Stephenson and Winnebago counties. Unlike the vast, flat prairie regions of Illinois that glaciers scraped level, the bedrock elevation in the Driftless Area is close to the surface. At 1,245 feet, Charles Mound, located near Stockton, is the highest natural point in Illinois and a few miles northeast of Witkowsky SWA.

Initiated with the 1990 acquisition of approximately 400 acres from the Iris and Jack Witkowsky Family, the site now totals 1,086 acres of upland forest, prairie restorations, hayfields, row crops and tree plantings, and is managed to provide habitat and hunting opportunities for deer, turkey, squirrel and rabbit. Development of the State Wildlife Area could not have been accomplished without public/private partnership between the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR), Jo Daviess Conservation Foundation (JDCF) and JDCF’s Friends of Witkowsky volunteer group. 

A aerial map with an outline in yellow of the Witkowsky State Wildlife Area
Map courtesy of Jeff Horn.

IDNR staff from the Divisions of Forestry, Natural Heritage and Wildlife Resources, as well as staff from the Office of Land Management, have provided “boots on the ground” assistance throughout the partnership project, leading planning efforts, undertaking routine maintenance activities and providing scientific expertise.

Founded in 1993, the purpose of the Jo Daviess Conservation Foundation is to permanently protect from development the area considered ‘the Gateway to Galena.’ Today, JDCF works to preserve land, educate people about land stewardship and resource conservation, and partner with other like-minded organizations.

A pile of brush and tree limbs is on fire. Behind the fire are concrete structures. In the background is a woodland. In the foreground is a grassy area and a small tractor.
Photo courtesy of Brad Petersburg.

Assisting with the public/private partnership for the development of 10 new miles of hiking trails was the volunteer group, the Friends of Witkowsky. In 2012, local resident Brad Petersburg, the spokesman for a small group of area trail riders, approached JDCF with the idea of forming a Friends group to take on the task of clearing and maintaining hiking and riding trails in the Wildlife Area. Financial support came from the Witkowsky family, an Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation amenities grant and Galena Country Tourism. The Friends group contributed thousands of volunteer hours over a six-year period, with the new trail system completed in 2019.

“People will love the diversity to be experienced on the new hiking trails at the Witkowsky State Wildlife Area,” Petersburg said. “It was a pleasure working with IDNR staff to ensure that the trails would provide visitor access with minimal impact on the environment.” 

According to Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) District Wildlife Biologist Jeff Horn, maintaining quality woodland and prairie wildlife habitats has entailed the removal of exotic, invasive species and implementation of prescribed fires. The newly created trails serve a dual purpose, also serving as fire breaks during prescribed fires.

A man wearing a wide brimmed hat drives a tractor and pulls a tree planting implements with two men working on it. The tractor is moving across an agricultural field.
Photo courtesy of Brad Petersburg.

Reforestation efforts under way are converting several acres of crop ground to forest, which will aid in providing critical breeding habitat for neotropical migratory birds impacted by forest fragmentation. Located less than 5 miles from the Mississippi River, Witkowsky SWA’s forested habitats also serve as a critical feeding and resting corridor for migratory songbirds. Species selected for the plantings are mainly hardwoods and shrubs, such as bur oak, white oak, red oak, dogwoods, American hazelnut and several others—all species that are valuable food resources supporting white-tailed deer, wild turkey, squirrels and a variety of other wildlife.

The ancient landscape also provides critical habitat for dozens of Species of Concern identified in the Illinois Wildlife Action Plan, including the state-endangered Iowa amphipod and the state-threatened timber rattlesnake, cerulean warbler, four-toed salamander, and two mussels, the black sandshell and the slippershell.

A brown, tan, and black timber rattlesnake curls up near a fallen log amongst some leaf litter.
Photo by Michael R. Jeffords.

The mix of habitat types makes this a prime location for avid birdwatchers and nature photographers. Most of the trail system passes through forest, so a hiker might expect to see pileated woodpeckers, wild turkeys, great-crested flycatchers, red-eyed vireos, ovenbirds, scarlet tanagers, wood thrushes and many other woodland species. The prairie and grassland areas may be inhabited by bobolink, western and eastern meadowlarks, dickcissels, loggerhead shrikes and several species of sparrows, including grasshopper, Henslow’s, lark and savannah.

Like other sites in northwestern Illinois, outdoor enthusiasts will find the trails are a bit rugged as they meander from deep forests with unique rock outcroppings, pass through shallow streams and provide open scenes across restored prairies. Along the way, visitors can pause and look across an ancient countryside that is unlike anything else in Illinois.

Plan Your Visit to Witkowsy State Wildlife Area

A man stands atop a hill and looks out over a country side of rolling hills and forest. In the background is a partly cloudy sunny blue sky.
Photo courtesy of Jeff Horn.
  • The site is a satellite of Apple River Canyon State Park, Apple River, IL 61001; (815) 745-3302.
  • The site is located 7 miles north of Hanover on Blackjack Road.
  • View the Trail Map.
  • Open daily dawn to dusk.
  • Dogs on leashes are allowed.
  • The trail system is open, with visitors advised to review the rules posted at the parking lot kiosks before setting off on an adventure. A grand opening of the trail system will be scheduled as COVID-19 restrictions allow.
  • Trails are closed to hikers during firearms hunting seasons. Hunting season dates are posted at the kiosks near the parking areas and on the IDNR website.

Kathy Andrews Wright is retired from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources where she was editor of Outdoor Illinois magazine. She is currently the editor of Outdoor Illinois Wildlife Journal and Illinois Audubon magazine.