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Federal repeal of wetland protections shines light on Emiquon Nature Preserve

The Emiquon Nature Preserve is made up of more that 6 thousand acres and has wetland, two lakes and prairie.
Camryn Cutinello
The Emiquon Nature Preserve is made up of more than 6,000 acres and has wetland, two lakes and prairie.

A U.S. Supreme Court decision last year stripping wetlands of most federal protections is drawing more attention to the threatened ecosystems, and what states can do in response.

The Nature Conservancy, an international non-profit that purchases and restores habitats, bought the Emiquon Nature Preserve in 2000, and began restoring the original wetlands.

Located in Fulton County, Emiquon had been completely drained in 1924 and was once the largest agricultural farm in Illinois. The site is made up of more than 6,000 acres, including the wetland, two lakes and prairie.

Federal protections for wetlands were weakened by a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2023. The ruling rolled back Clean Water Act protections for wetlands, allowing them to be destroyed without a permit. A bill proposed in the Illinois General Assembly would create a requirement for those permits again at the state level.

The high court decision didn't impact the Nature Conservancy, but instead hurts the equally important wetlands that can be found on farmland and private property across the state, said Randy Smith, Illinois River project director for The Nature Conservancy.

He said they’ve learned a lot over the years. They’ve had to manage floods and droughts, invasive species and almost saw a collapse of the levee that prevents the Illinois River from completely flooding the land.

The space where the land meets the water is some of the most important for the animals and plants in Emiquon. Levees keep the Illinois River from flooding the site and destroying this space.
Camryn Cutinello
The space where the land meets the water is some of the most important for animals and plants in Emiquon. Levees keep the Illinois River from flooding the site and destroying this space.

Smith said they follow a science-based approach, and a lot of thought goes into every decision made at Emiquon. What they learn gets shared with sites across the world.

“Those are research opportunities and management opportunities that if we can be the guinea pig to figure out some different removal techniques or more efficient removal techniques, and then can use those techniques in other places and expand that work, we're happy to do that,” he said.

One of the projects currently being tested at Emiquon comes from a Washington company called Whooshh — testing a machine they hope will help manage silver carp populations in the Illinois River.

The machine originally was created to assist salmon in getting past man-made dams. The new edition would use artificial intelligence to identify fish as they travel through the fishway. Silver carp would be placed in a holding tank and native species would be released.

Emiquon’s lakes are connected to the Illinois River, which means silver carp have threatened the native species in the area. Smith said some invasive plant life and birds also have established themselves at the site, such as mute swans.

Smith said they’re working to manage the invasive species. Some, such as mute swans, are protected by federal or state law.

Native species

Emiquon is home to frogs, toads, snakes, turtles, ducks, deer, coyotes and more. Smith said the last estimate showed around 287 species living there. He thinks that number’s now approaching 300. Many of the animals deep in the preserve spend very little time around humans.

“We maybe get here maybe at most once a week and there's pretty high numbers of all that stuff,” he said. “So the chances of them being on the log when we've driven through before is probably fairly rare.”

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources [IDNR] stocks and monitors fish in the two lakes. Smith said the initial stocking included around 33 species, including catfish, bluegill, sunfish and endangered species. Along with silver carp, the site now also has bighead carp, grass carp and common carp. Smith said they’re working with commercial fishermen to manage those populations.

“We're seeing some changes long term in our vegetation, in different habitat assemblages, and things and so that submerged aquatic vegetation component that's so important here to the site, as well as within the region, because it just doesn't exist in a lot of other places has really declined over time,” Smith said.

A bend on the Illinois River viewable from Emiquon. The site is connected to the river through pumps.
Camryn Cutinello
A bend on the Illinois River viewable from Emiquon. The site is connected to the river through pumps.

Smith said the success of the site helps impact the Illinois River as a whole.

“Emiquon is really important. It's an important site,” he said. “It's a high quality wetland, all of those things are great, but maybe the bigger broader issue is the river as a whole. What can we do to help the river? And we can't help the river get better without letting these places have some access to it.”

The site has pumps that connect the lakes in Emiquon to the river.

Visiting Emiquon

Emiquon is open to visits from the general public and is a popular spot for school trips. People can use paddle boats on the water and use viewing towers to see the expansive wetland. There also are fishing and hunting leases for deer and waterfowl.

Smith said they offer these licenses for a specific reason.

“As a nonprofit, we are not required to pay property taxes that we contribute to the local school district and whatnot,” he said. “But as a show of good faith to the local communities, we have continued to pay our property taxes. Now, because we're under a conservation easement and some other things, it's at a reduced rate from what it would have been when it was still agricultural land. But still it's not it's not zero.”

More than 12 thousand acres of wetland is being preserved between Emiquon Nature Preserve and the Emiquon National Refuge.
Camryn Cutinello
More than 12,000 acres of wetland are being preserved between Emiquon Nature Preserve and the Emiquon National Refuge.

The money made from these licenses pays off that tax bill, so they don’t have to ask donors to foot the bill. Smith said they haven’t had any real issues with population. He said deer populations have impacted some of the plant life, but the ecosystem seems to balance itself out.

Smith said the site has had a positive economic impact on nearby Lewistown and he hopes that continues, adding they want Emiquon to be a must-see spot in Central Illinois.

Migratory birds

Emiquon sees tens of thousands of migratory birds each year, usually as a stopping ground during the larger migration.

Smith said many birds follow temperature changes when migrating.

He said birds want to be in their nesting spots when the ice melts and bugs emerge. In a year like this when the weather warms sooner, the birds also leave sooner and make it in time for the bugs.

“A lot of those species are our early nesters,” Smith said. “And so that's part of it. They want to get to the breeding grounds. They want to establish those territories that they're going to defend and they want to find those best nesting sites. A lot of nesting ecology studies show that that within a species. birds that nest earlier in the season typically have higher nest survival and higher nest hatching rates.”

Hundred of thousands of Snow Geese pass through Illinois while migrating.
Camryn Cutinello
Hundred of thousands of Snow Geese pass through Illinois while migrating.

But some species leave when the day gets longer, meaning in years like 2024, they can miss that bug emergence.

“In theory, conditions have been good for this species to breed based on what we know about its breeding biology,” Smith said. “Why has the population not not reacted accordingly? It's either stayed flat, or it's continued to decline like a slow decline.”

Smith said studies are being done to see if temperatures warming earlier in the year are causing some of these declines.

Conserving wetlands in Illinois

Emiquon sits next to the Emiquon National Wildlife Refuge, which can cause some confusion for people. But Smith said the two sites often work together.

“We're trying to become more formal in our management and in our cooperative management having some, some established goals and things trying to provide the best habitat for our target groups of species that rely on these places,” Smith said.

According to IDNR, just 2.6% of Illinois’ landscape is wetland. But 40% of species depend on that wetland habitat.

Smith said wetlands are crucial for many species to thrive.

Camryn Cutinello is a reporter and digital content director at WCBU. You can reach Camryn at cncutin@illinoisstate.edu.