Emiquon National Wildlife Refuge

A flight of shorebirds

Emiquon National Wildlife Refuge is an 11,122-acre property along the Illinois River near Havana, Illinois. It's one of those refuges where the US Fish & Wildlife Service has partnered with The Nature Conservancy to restore important wetlands to their pristine state. About 3,000 acres is owned by Fish & wildlife, another 7,100 acres by The Nature Conservancy and the rest is held in conservation easements.

At the center of Emiquon NWR are Thompson and Flag Lakes, two sections of riverbed abandoned by the Illinois river as it went through its annual ebb and flow. This was an area dense with populations of fish, shellfish, mammals and migratory birds. Native Americans occupied the area for thousands of years, leaving 149 identified archaeological sites on the land of the refuge alone. The Native American populations declined with the onset of Euro-American occupation and the land in the area was not conducive for European-style farming so the area was thinly populated for a long time.

In 1919, the Emiquon property was bought by a wealthy Chicago CEO who built dams, levees and dikes before draining the land to make it into farmland. However, the land wouldn't stay drained and needed to be pumped dry again every spring. The Nature Conservancy purchased their part of the property in 2000 and began what they think is the second largest wetland restoration project in the United States (second to the restoration of the Everglades). US Fish & Wildlife began purchasing land around what is now the Emiquon Project in 1993 and plans to eventually purchase the Nature Conservancy property, too.

At this point, Thompson Lake is estimated at 2,000 acres in size (compared to its 1,800-acre size 200 years ago). The open water has had more than 30 species of fish reintroduced and that has attracted numbers of fish-eating shorebirds. Future plans include reconstruction of a natural waterway between Thompson and Flag Lakes and the Illinois River and construction of a visitor center. For now, the office is at nearby Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge.

Wetlands at Emiquon National Wildlife Refuge
Wetlands and open water at Emiquon National Wildlife Refuge
Map of Emiquon National Wildlife Refuge
Map of the Illinois River National Wildlife Refuge Complex
Illinois River National Wildlife Refuge Complex

Upper photo courtesy of Kyle Hance, CCA-by-SA 3.0 License
Maps and other photos courtesy of the US Fish & Wildlife Service