Illinois Natural History Survey - University of Illinois

Land Management for Waterfowl in the Illinois and Mississippi Floodplains

Illinois is an important migration area for waterfowl in the Mississippi Flyway, with some 22 species of waterfowl passing through the state each spring and fall. From 1955 to 1992, the flyway supported an average of 36 percent of all ducks in the contiguous United States during the midwinter waterfowl surveys. A majority of mallards in the U.S. uses the flyway and stays an average of 28 days on traditional fall migration areas in Illinois, displaying an area of activity around each migration area of approximately 30 miles. Consequently, waterfowl refuges used by migrating birds should be about 50 miles apart in areas where habitat is continuous so that rest areas are within their daily flight range. If rest areas or food are scarce, ducks will stay only a day or two before continuing their migration, usually flying at least 100 miles between stops.

This study investigated the acreage of public and private land managed for waterfowl with water level control capabilities for moist-soil or other food production in the floodplain of the Illinois River and the floodplain of the Mississippi River, including Illinois, Missouri, and Iowa from St. Louis northward to the Illinois-Wisconsin border. These two floodplains were selected because they include the Upper Mississippi River Environmental Management Program's Habitat Rehabilitation and Enhancement Projects and because of the long tradition of private duck clubs in the Illinois Valley.

The primary objective of moist-soil management is to mimic the natural water regime and lower water levels during summer to expose mudflats through drawdown. Historically, water levels typically receded in the summer months in the Illinois Valley, exposing mudflats. In autumn, water levels would increase, inundating the mudflats and the sources of food provided by moist-soil plants.

Moist-soil plants that germinate on these exposed soils provide the primary source of natural food for waterfowl migrating through Illinois. Water levels must remain low for at least 70 days to allow moist-soil plants time to mature and produce seeds and tubers; optimum seed production usually occurs when moist-soil plants are not inundated for 90 days. By controlling the frequency, timing, length, and depth of water level manipulations, the necessary habitat resources for waterfowl can be produced at times that coincide with migration and other critical events in their annual cycle.

Waterfowl Over Lake Chautauqua

In the late 1930s, some duck clubs in the Illinois River valley began to use moist-soil management as a way to attract ducks to their property. Moist-soil management continues to be one of the most effective and beneficial waterfowl management techniques for improving habitat for migratory waterfowl on public and private lands in Illinois. Over 80 percent of the national wildlife refuges in the United States practice moist-soil management. When compared with waste grain from agricultural fields, such as corn, moist-soil plants may provide waterfowl with lower levels of metabolizable energy, but they contain a better balance of nutrients.

Potentially, there are about 31,000 acres of mudflats and natural moist-soil plants in the Illinois River floodplain. However, because of fluctuating water levels, usually only 7-45 percent of them are available each year.

From questionnaires we circulated to public area managers and private duck clubs concerning their management practices, the responses indicated that of the 110,000 total acres in the Illinois River floodplain on public areas and private duck clubs, there were about 25,000 acres reported as having some water management capabilities for waterfowl, or approximately 23 percent of the public and private duck club land. This leaves around 85,000 acres (77%) of the total public and private duck club land available to the river without any influences from low levees or other structures associated with waterfowl management. Additionally, much of the 25,000 acres of land with water control capabilities used for waterfowl management is available to the river near bankfull conditions. As a result, most of the public and private waterfowl land is available to the river under high water conditions.

Overall, public and private duck club lands with water management capabilities in the Illinois River floodplain represented less than 6 percent of the total 426,000 acres in the floodplain or about 10 percent of the acres in the nonleveed floodplain. We should note that 187,000 acres (44 percent of the floodplain) have been protected in levee and drainage districts for agriculture.

Mallards feeding om moist soil plant seeds.

In the Mississippi River floodplain in Illinois, Iowa, and Missouri from Pool 12 (Wisconsin-Illinois border) through Pool 26 near St. Louis, about 617,000 acres (57 percent in the 1.1 million acres of the floodplain) are devoted to agriculture. We found that wetland and deepwater habitats occupied 227,000 acres of the state and federal public areas, or about 21 percent of the floodplain. On these public areas, there were approximately 32,400 acres with water control capabilities for use in waterfowl management, which represented about 14 percent of all the public land in this segment of the floodplain. Consequently, approximately 195,000 acres, or 86 percent, of the public lands in the floodplain from St. Louis to the Wisconsin-Illinois border were accessible by the river and not managed with water control capabilities for waterfowl. We also found that virtually no acres of private duck clubs with water management capabilities occurred outside of levees constructed for other purposes in this stretch of the Mississippi River.

The small percentages of public and private lands managed for waterfowl in these segments of the Illinois and Mississippi river floodplains are (1) providing important midmigrational habitat during fall and spring to migrating waterfowl in the Mississippi Flyway where we have lost approximately 90 percent of our presettlement wetlands; (2) hosting a multitude of plant, game, and nongame species, as well as threatened and endangered species throughout most of the year; and (3) protecting riverine habitat from agricultural and other types of development.

Stephen P. Havera, Aaron P. Yetter, Christopher S. Hine, and Michelle M. Georgi, Center for Wildlife Ecology

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Subject: INHSPUB-00408
Last Modified 3/5/96


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Subject: INHSPUB-2154
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