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Illinois hunting and fishing

Above average precipitation the past few years have made it tough for site managers to control water at public waterfowl hunting areas. This aerial of the Sanganois State Fish and WIldlife Area was taken in 2008. Repairs to a major levee breach were completed in December. Chris Young/The State Journal-Register.

Waterfowl areas could use a break

January 16, 2011 at 07:23 AM

The State Journal-Register

Managers of central Illinois waterfowl hunting and refuge areas can be forgiven for looking forward to a long hot summer.

For one, it would give them a chance to work on the infrastructure needed to control water and mimic natural wet and dry cycles along the Illinois River.

Continual flooding has battered and bruised levees, access roads and other equipment.

“For us, a drought would be good so we can make repairs,” says Bill Douglass, site superintendent of a complex of state sites including Banner Marsh, Rice Lake and the Double T management area. The sites are north of Havana and south of Peoria.

“We’ve had floods in spring, summer, fall and winter,” he says. “When you can’t get the water off, it is hard to make any repairs.

“A lot of our levees are eroded and the tubes are bad. Every bit of the infrastructure — there is something wrong with it.”

Levees used to manage waterfowl areas are not as high as neighboring levees that protect towns and farms.

“Our levees are meant to keep water in, not keep flood water out,” says Ray Marshalla, state waterfowl biologist with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

Even a modest flood event will send river water flowing in and prevent managers from controlling water levels.

“We’ve had some pretty poor habitat conditions the past three years due to high water,” Marshalla says.

In dry months, water levels drop, exposing mudflats where annual plants like smartweed, arrowhead, wild millet and others grow and set seed.

When water levels rise, the weeds are flooded and ducks can paddle in and help themselves to the buffet.

“We had high water so late in the summer that those mud flats were not exposed, or they were not exposed until August,” Marshalla says. “And plants did not have time to set seed before the frost killed them.”

Despite weather-related setbacks, hunters still had a decent year.

At the Sanganois State Fish and Wildlife Area near Chandlerville, 3,074 hunters killed 4,221 ducks.

“I’m really pleased with the season despite the amount of feed available, which was absolutely none,” says site superintendent Doug Jallas. “I don’t know about a drought, but we sure could use some drier weather.”

The report from Rice Lake and Banner Marsh was similar.

At Rice Lake, 2,405 hunters killed 2,867 ducks. At Banner Marsh, 1,188 hunters tallied 904 ducks.

Hunters at walk-in areas of both sites had similar success ratios.

One site that consistently held large numbers of waterfowl was The Nature Conservancy’s Emiquon Preserve across the river from Havana.

TNC’s Jason Beverlin says about 70,000 ducks and 20,000 coots were counted using the preserve at the peak of migration.

The Emiquon Preserve is separated from the Illinois River by a higher levee, originally designed to protect farmland from flooding.

“I think they were here because they were finding what they were needing,” Beverlin says. “Some of it is related to the weather conditions of the year that prevented other sites from having much habitat.”

While Sanganois completed some repairs to its levees recently, other state sites are still waiting to update aging equipment.

Some relief from the weather would be a good start.

“We are hoping for a much drier year,” Douglass says. “Four wet years in a row — it’s almost been too much for us.”

Chris Young can be reached at (217) 788-1528

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