A Wetland of International Importance

Transformation of Emiquon

This slideshow of images reveals the restoration process of the Emiquon Preserve.

We asked our Director of River Conservation Doug Blodgett about Emiquon's recent designation as a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance. He tells us what this means, why it's so significant and what's in store for the future. 


The Emiquon Preserve is part of a larger complex recently designated as a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance. What does this mean?

Doug Blodgett:

The Nature Conservancy owns and manages the Emiquon Preserve, but this designation is for the total Emiquon Complex, which also includes properties owned and managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—the Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge and Emiquon National Wildlife Refuge.

To be designated a Wetland of International Importance, a proposed site must meet at least one of nine established criteria that validate its global importance. The Emiquon Complex met or exceeded eight of the nine criteria outlined by Ramsar. For example, our Emiquon Preserve noted the presence of—in one day— 135,000 American coots, which is 4.5 percent of the continental population. The Ramsar criterion is to regularly support 1 percent. And, the Emiquon Complex supports hundreds of thousands of waterbirds, far surpassing the Ramsar criterion of 20,000.

The one criterion not meet by the Emiquon Complex was number 9.


What are the nine criteria?

Doug Blodgett:

A wetland should be considered internationally important if it:
Criterion 1: contains a representative, rare, or unique example of a natural or near-natural wetland type found within the appropriate biogeographic region.
Criterion 2: supports vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered species or threatened ecological communities.
Criterion 3: supports populations of plant and/or animal species important for maintaining the biological diversity of a particular biogeographic region.
Criterion 4: supports plant and/or animal species at a critical stage in their life cycles, or provides refuge during adverse conditions.
Criterion 5: regularly supports 20,000 or more waterbirds.
Criterion 6: regularly supports 1% of the individuals in a population of one species or subspecies of waterbird.
Criterion 7: supports a significant proportion of indigenous fish subspecies, species or families, life-history stages, species interactions and/or populations that are representative of wetland benefits and/or values and thereby contributes to global biological diversity.
Criterion 8: is an important source of food for fishes, spawning ground, nursery and/or migration path on which fish stocks, either within the wetland or elsewhere, depend.
Criterion 9: A wetland should be considered internationally important if it regularly supports 1% of the individuals in a population of one species or subspecies of wetland-dependent non-avian animal species.


How did Emiquon meet or exceed these requirements?

Doug Blodgett:

The Emiquon Complex supports an interconnected mosaic of rivers, streams and lakes with flood-pulsed wetlands and adjacent upland communities, all representing the former diverse habitat of the natural floodplain of the Illinois River. Plant communities include bottomland hardwood forest and shrub-scrub; emergent, floating leaved and submersed aquatic plants; areas of seasonally inundated moist-soil plants; wet, mesic and dry prairie; and upland forest and scrub-shrub.
Illinois State threatened or endangered species documented on the complex include at least 23 bird, 3 fish and 1 mammal species.

The complex provides wetland habitat vital for the federally-listed plant species Decurrent False Aster (Boltonia decurrens). Other federally endangered species documented include migrating Least Tern (Sterna antillarum) and Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus). The complex also supports nesting and wintering American Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), a recently de-listed species.

The Emiquon Complex is located in the middle Illinois River, historically the most productive area of the river because of the abundance and diversity of floodplain habitats; the complex and adjacent lands support at least 87 species of fish, 23 freshwater mussels, 19 amphibians, 41 reptiles, 260 birds and 28 mammals, many of which are state endangered, threatened or rare.

The complex provides a haven for migratory birds, supporting roughly 45% of the waterfowl using the Illinois segment of the Mississippi Flyway and nearly 70% of the waterfowl that use the Illinois River corridor (USFWS 2004). Fall 2010 waterfowl surveys at EP alone indicated the abundance (use-days) of Blue-winged Teal(Anas discors), American Green-Winged Teal (Anas carolinensis), and Gadwall (Anas strepera) were the highest ever recorded for a single location in the Illinois River valley and Northern Pintail (Anas acuta) were the third highest in the valley since inventories began in 1948 (Hine et al 2011).

The complex supports hundreds of thousands of migratory birds, especially waterfowl, as they stop to rest and feed during the spring and fall migration along the Illinois River. Recent (2000-2010) waterfowl surveys conducted by the Illinois Natural History Survey documented an average fall peak abundance of 71,450 ducks on the complex (Hine et al 2011) with historic peaks at Chautauqua as great as 1,500,000 Mallard (Anas platyrynchos) and Black Duck (Anas rubribes) alone in 1944 (Havera 1999).

Since the initiation of restoration at the Emiquon Preserve in 2007, peak one-day fall populations of American Coot (Fulica americana) on the complex have averaged 67,166 (Hine et al 2010; Hine et al 2011).

Over 100 fish species including the primitive Paddlefish (Polyodon spathula) and Lake Sturgeon (Acipenser fulvescens) have been documented in the complex or the adjacent Illinois River. The complex provides the diversity of aquatic habitats needed by a wide range of fishes and life stages (eggs, larvae, juveniles and adults) to carry out life requisites including spawning, development of young, feeding, and wintering.

Of special note is the abundance of aquatic vegetation at the complex that is relatively rare along the Illinois River; aquatic plant beds provide essential spawning and nesting habitat for some species that are relatively rare in the Illinois River (e.g., Bowfin [Amia calva] and Grass Pickerel [Esox americanus vermiculatus]) as well as high-quality nursery and refuge habitats for a multitude of species.


What is the Ramsar Convention?

Doug Blodgett:

The Convention on Wetlands of International Importance is an intergovernmental treaty that provides the framework for national action and international cooperation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources.

As of July 2, 2012, a total of 2,062 sites have been designated under the Ramsar Convention. Of those, 34 are in the United States. The Emiquon Complex was the 2,031st designation.


What is The Nature Conservancy’s relationship with the Ramsar Convention?

Doug Blodgett:

The Conservancy has signed a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) with the Ramsar Secretariat and we will be signing a new MOA at the 11th Conference of Contracting Parties (COP 11) being held this July in Bucharest.


For the first time in the United States, two sites on the same river are have earned Ramsar designation. How does it feel to share the prestigious acknowledgment with the Sue and Wes Dixon Waterfowl Refuge in Hennepin?

Doug Blodgett:

It makes a strong statement for the importance of the Illinois River and the effectiveness of our collective restoration and management efforts.


How does the work at the Emiquon Preserve fit into the Conservancy’s Great Rivers Partnership?

Doug Blodgett:

Two of our major goals for Emiquon are:
To directly contribute to the ecological health of the Illinois River by restoring and managing natural habitats and ecological processes at Emiquon and between Emiquon and the river.

To indirectly contribute to the health of the Illinois River and other large-floodplain rivers by sharing science and lessons learned and influencing other managers and decision makers.

Through help from the Conservancy’s’ Great Rivers Partnership (GRP), we have been able to access the resources (e.g., experts, funds, science/research/monitoring and equipment) we need to properly restore and manage Emiquon as functional floodplain. And secondly, the GRP has been paramount in helping us share lessons learned through exchanges and site visits, conferences, prepared materials, outreach, etc.


Does The Nature Conservancy have any other Ramsar designated lands?

Doug Blodgett:

Yes. In the U.S., the Conservancy owns land at several other designated sites including Connecticut River Estuary and Tidal River Wetlands Complex (CT), Cheyenne Bottoms (KS), Palmyra Atoll (HI), Francis Beidler Forest (SC), Cache River –Cypress Creek Wetlands (IL), and Upper Mississippi River Floodplain Wetlands (MN, WI, IA and IL).


How do you think the Ramsar designation will affect the future of Emiquon and the future of wetland conservation?

Doug Blodgett:

In addition to our direct conservation goals at Emiquon, we are developing this project as a model for restoration and management that will influence the conservation of other large floodplain river systems around the world. By bringing additional attention to this site, Ramsar designation will help us more effectively share our science and lessons learned.


Though Emiquon has been greatly restored, what projects are you working on now to further the restoration process?

Doug Blodgett:

While thus far we have been quite effective restoring a diversity of high-quality wetland habitats at the site, these restored habitats are still isolated from the river by a levee or earthen berm, which dramatically limits the restored wetland’s contributions to the river ecosystem.

For example, river fishes can’t access these restored high-quality habitats to carry out many of their life requisites such as feeding, reproducing, overwintering, etc. Additionally, much or even most of the primary and secondary productivity of the restored wetland (e.g., plant matter, zooplankton, fish) is not delivered to the river to provide food for a diversity of river animals including many insects, fish and mussels.

So, we’re working on a design for a gate that will be used to create and manage a connection to the river. It will be operated to manage the movements of water and aquatic organisms in a way that will contribute to-- as opposed to harming-- the restored wetlands and the high quality plant communities, especially aquatic plants. Experience at other sites shows that initial restoration of these high quality habitats can be relatively easy compared to their long-term maintenance, so we still have a challenge before us.


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