Just eight years ago, this was a cornfield. Today, hundreds of thousands of coots and other waterfowl flock to Emiquon Preserve. Matt Miller/TNC
By Mat Miller, senior science writer
The airboat whirs over the shallow wetland, as huge flocks of coots, ducks, herons and other birds flush before me.
It’s the kind of scene that could entice one to wax rhapsodic on the beauties of untrammeled nature.
Except this isn’t. Not quite.
Just six years ago, this expansive wetland was cornfields and a cattle feedlot.
It’s now Emiquon Preserve, a 6,600-acre project on the Illinois River that is one of the largest floodplain restoration projects in the Midwest.
How do you go from cornfield to wildlife paradise?
The easy answer is to invoke Field of Dreams: Build it, and they will come.
The hard answer: Research, and lots of it. Behind Emiquon’s incredible conservation success is an extensive science program.
Each March, the University of Illinois at Springfield’s Therkilsden Field Station at Emiquon—the preserve’s flagship research center—convenes a gathering of researchers to share results from their studies.
While it may look like the wetland is nature primeval, it is this research that is restoring what once was known as the “inland fishing capital of North America.”
Jewel of the Illinois River
Once this area contained one of the greatest concentrations of fish, waterfowl and mussels on the continent. Can such abundance return? Matt Miller/TNC
Jason Beverlin, the Conservancy’s Illinois River program director, stands on a grassy bluff overlooking the wetland. “Before European contact, six hundred generations of people lived here,” he says. “There are unbelievable numbers of artifacts, burial grounds and building sites. “
People settled here for the incredibly productive wetlands—brimming with fish, waterfowl and mussels. Even as late as 1908, 12 million pounds of fish were harvested on or near Emiquon, an incredible natural bounty.
But like so many river floodplains, this one was leveed and ditched, and cleared for farmland. In 2000, the Conservancy purchased the property and began studying how it could be restored.
Emiquon before restoration: cornfields and feedlots. TNC archive
“We wanted to reconnect the floodplain with the river, but it has to be a managed reconnection,” says Beverlin.
In spring 2007, The Nature Conservancy turned off the pumps that had drained Emiquon since the 1920s. Soon, water reappeared and native plans flourished. Working with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, 2.2 million native fish comprising 31 species were stocked. And researchers began studying the return of the floodplain.
“Everything We Need for Science”
Researchers examine fingernail clams under a miscroscope in the Therkildsen Field Station at Emiquon. Matt Miller/TNC
Tucked back from the wetland is an unimposing building that blends into the prairie. Inside, though, is a state-of-the-art research facility operated by the University of Illinois-Springfield in cooperation with The Nature Conservancy.
On any given day, the Therkildsen Field Station at Emiquon could be host to everything from a researchers studying carp eDNA to a university student sampling microbe diversity to an elementary school class trying their hand on natural history illustration.
“The center has everything we need to conduct any level of ecological science,” says Beverlin.
The goal is not to restore Emiquon to pre-European conditions, but rather, to manage a functioning floodplain wetland that provides habitat for wildlife, clean water for the Illinois River and recreation for people.
“We aren’t going to eliminate every problem,” says Beverlin. “We’re not going to completely solve the carp problem. We’re not going to solve the flooding problems on Midwest rivers. But we can demonstrate how we can reduce those problems while also benefiting both people and biodiversity.”
Emiquon hosts 15-20 active research projects a year, including a mussel propagation experiment. Matt Miller/TNC
Each year, the preserve hosts 15 to 20 active research projects, all aimed at ensuring the success of the restoration.
This year’s projects include:
A study of zooplankton at Emiquon, comparing post-restoration communities to pre-restoration communities.
A survey of microbial ecology of Thompson Lake.
An experiment to determine if freshwater mussels can be propagated in wetlands for release into the Illinois River.
Research into diving duck ecology; diving ducks like scaup and canvasbacks are among the few waterfowl species in decline.
A comparison of current water bird use at the preserve with past records.
A study of carbon storage in different types of wetland plants.
An analysis of projected impacts of climate change on the wetlands.
An archaeological field school investigating the Emiquon Morton site, a pre-European settlement.
This research is shared during the annual science symposium. The 2013 event, “Ecological Restoration for Nature and People,” was held last week at the nearby Dickson Mounds Museum. Nearly 100 people attended including more than 25 researchers.
The key note address was delivered by Jeff Opperman, the Conservancy’s senior freshwater scientist, who spoke on managing floodplains to benefit people, from the Mekong to the Mississippi.
“This year’s symposium not only featured Emiquon ecology but also the recreation, education and economics of floodplain restoration. says Beverlin. “The data gathered here will be vital as we move forward in restoring this once-abundant wetland for people and nature.”
The Conservancy’s Illinois River program director, Jason Beverlin (right), shares lessons learned with Lou Lunte of the Conservancy’s Idaho program.
Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy.