Illinois Department of Natural Resources
May 2022
May 2, 2022
Photo courtesy of Ducks Unlimited.

The Rivers and Prairies of Northwest Illinois

By Madelyn McFarland
A wetland surrounded by tan grasses. The surface of the water is reflecting the clear blue sky of a winter day. In the background are tees.
Photo courtesy of Ducks Unlimited.

Ducks Unlimited was recently awarded a $1 million North American Wetlands Conservation Act grant to protect, restore, and enhance 1,668 acres of wetlands and uplands on public and private lands across northwestern Illinois. Our efforts will target areas within the wetlands, floodplains, and upland corridors of the Mississippi, Pecatonica, Rock, Green, Fox and Illinois rivers to provide water quality benefits, wildlife habitat and public recreation opportunities. Ducks Unlimited and its conservation partners (listed below) aim to permanently protect more than 300 acres of wetlands and grasslands, restore more than 400 acres of agricultural fields to floodplain wetlands, prairies, and oak savanna habitats, and enhance more than 800 acres of existing wetland and upland habitats that have degraded due to various causes, such as hydrological manipulation, insufficient management infrastructure and vegetation encroachment. 

The project area is located where the landscape transitions from the Prairie Hardwoods of the Upper Great Lakes with its morainal topography of potholes and lakelands, southwestward across the glacial plain and outwash of the Eastern Prairie. With its small rivers and riparian corridors coursing through a region where row-crop agriculture has replaced once vast grasslands and oak savannas, these gradually growing rivers finally empty into the bluff-lined floodplains of the upper Mississippi and upper Illinois rivers. This landscape provides a wide mixture of both wetland and upland habitats, though often abutted by highly productive agricultural lands. Despite this, the diversity of habitats found in the 15-county project area supports an abundance of wildlife throughout their annual life cycles, including migrating and breeding waterfowl and other wetland-dependent migratory birds and rare species. 

A map indicating the prairies and rivers of Northwest Illinois.
Map courtesy of Ducks Unlimited.

The project area is located near the “top of the funnel” of the Mississippi Flyway, where waterfowl from across the prairie potholes, boreal forest, Arctic tundra, and other northern breeding grounds begin to slowly gather in increasingly larger numbers as they move southward through the “neck of the funnel,” the confluence region of the Missouri, Mississippi, Illinois and Ohio rivers. From there, waterfowl disperse out across the wintering grounds of the Gulf Coast, Mississippi Alluvial Valley and other southern wintering areas. “The Rivers & Prairies of Northwest Illinois” project area provides the critical habitat needed for these waterfowl, and other migratory birds, to replenish nutrients and stop-over to rest as they begin to gather in increasingly larger flocks and numbers for their long southward journey. In the spring, these same habitats provide not only northward migration habitat as the birds begin to fan out across the northern breeding grounds, but also breeding and nesting habitat for those species that are summer residents in northwestern Illinois. Protection, restoration, and enhancement of wetland and upland habitats will benefit numerous waterfowl species, including mallards, blue-winged teal and wood ducks, as well as multiple species of migratory birds, such as sandhill cranes and red-headed woodpeckers, and other wetland-dependent species, such as the federally endangered rusty patched bumble bee and state endangered king rail.

A graphic with two adult male tan, green, black, and brown ducks swimming on a wetland. Below the photo of two ducks is text indicating who the partners are of the Ducks Unlimited organization.
Photo by Michael R Jeffords.

The upper Midwest has suffered some of the highest percentages of wetland loss in the country, with an estimated 85 percent loss in Illinois. Equally concerning is that recent landscape assessments have indicated that important land cover types, such as upland forest and even agricultural lands, are giving way to irreversible urban development. Closely correlated, Illinois has some of the lowest percentages of public land ownership in the country. Much of the publicly owned land in Illinois exists at the southern end of the state along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, which can lie five to eight-hours south of the project area. The majority of the projects proposed under this NAWCA grant will provide much needed public recreational opportunities, such as hunting and fishing, wildlife viewing and hiking, across northwestern Illinois. Though publicly owned lands are relied on heavily by wildlife, conservation programs focusing only on public lands would limit effectiveness across a broad landscape. This gives credence to robust partnerships with the many non-profits in the project area that own and/or are expanding their wildlife and nature preserve systems. By bringing together both the public-lands and non-profit conservation partners with conservation-minded private landowners, a larger more meaningful partnership can be formed to conserve the many small wetlands and once vast native prairie habitats of “The Rivers & Prairies of Northwest Illinois” project area.

Madelyn McFarland is the new Ducks Unlimited biologist for northern Illinois and Indiana. McFarland will deliver DU’s conservation programs across the northern tiers of Illinois and Indiana, an agriculturally dominant landscape that lies in the transitional zone between waterfowl breeding and migratory habitats. Her time will also be spent promoting conservation within the Chicago Wilderness Area.