• Kirk Gaw

Returning To A Kankakee National Wildlife Refuge Reality

By Kirk Gaw

Once decades ago, an Environmental Assessment was prepared by the Clinton Administration to improve Refuge management with an order between 1996 and 1999. The Executive order by the President was to publicly disclose the possible environmental consequences that development of the Grand Kankakee Marsh National Wildlife Refuge could have on the Kankakee River Basin. The Grand Kankakee Marsh was the largest inland wetland in the contiguous US until it was drained for agriculture during the early 20th century. The bi-state plan coordinated by leaders from Indiana and Illinois searched for a restoration that could offer a quality experience for the physical, biological, and human environment for residents of the Northern Indiana / Eastern Illinois region. The federal government's assessment made by William F. Hartwig, 1990's era Regional Director at the US Fish & Wildlife Service, presented five alternatives for a contingency including a "No Action" alternative to maintain the status quo. The four other "Action" alternatives were selected for implementation and were meant to impact threatened wildlife species, waterfowl and other migratory birds, native fish, and resident flora and fauna. The proposed National Park was to provide the public with additional wildlife-dependent recreation and education opportunities.

(Pelicans gathering - photo by local wildlife photographer Gregg Ladewski)

Today, thanks to efforts by local activists, The Nature Conservancy, Izaak Walton League Of America, and the Indiana Department of Natural Resources are managing 20 years of studies and conservation. They continue to maintain the creation of a bi-state Kankakee National Wildlife Refuge, spanning the Illinois-Indiana border. The Clinton era plans shelved in 2000 were mostly due to opposition by landowners who feared their land would be taken without their consent. Fears of eminent domain were unfounded on the Indiana side where the US Fish And Wildlife Service has not used eminent domain to acquire refuge lands in over 20 years. The Environmental Assessment of the Refuge proposal specifically states this numerous times. By law, the Service is required to pay fair market value for land and can also buy conservation easements. But, the final acreage of land in federal ownership within this area is unknown because the Service works only with people interested and willing to sell property or wildlife-related easements to willing sellers. The Conservation Area in Indiana will consist mostly of the USFWS working with public and private entities to meet the Service goals for the Indiana portion of the watershed. No new acquisition of land or easements is currently planned for Indiana. Instead, the Indiana side is relying on gifting or willing sellers.

(Kankakee Marsh - photo by Dan Dzurisin)

Though the Clinton Administration suspended ideas, the Minnesota regional office of the US Fish & Wildlife Service actually, approved the Refuge proposal back in 1999. They started toward the next stage of planning after the 2000 election. The "then new" Bush administration had different priorities and stalled the planning of the Refuge for that time. But it took 8 years later for the US Fish and Wildlife Service in Washington to approve moving forward with the planning by 2015. They accepted a donation of 66 acres from the Friends of the Kankakee in 2016 and it was then that the Kankakee Refuge became formally established.

Funding came from the Federal Land and Water Conservation Fund and the Migratory Bird Conservation Act. The Land Water Conservation Fund derives its money primarily from royalties on offshore oil and gas leases. Funds for the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund come from the sale of federal Duck Stamps to hunters and conservationists. Through mutual agreement, the state of Indiana has taken the lead on efforts. They continue to support conservation by local landowners on properties through technical assistance and cost-sharing of habitat restoration under our Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program. The future of the nation’s fish and wildlife depends on private landowners – more than 90% of land in the Midwest is in private ownership. Providing more high quality habitat not only helps wildlife - by contributing to a healthy landscape, you create a conservation legacy to pass on to future generations.

The next step in the refuge planning process has been to develop a Land Protection Plan. The purpose of the LPP is to communicate the priorities for wildlife conservation and strategies within the authorized focus areas. These priorities serve as a guide for prioritizing the work happening with interested landowners on wildlife conservation within the focus area planning units.

(Diversity - Kankakee Wildlife series by local wildlife photographer Gina Altieri)

In October 2016, organizers presented the initial ideas for prioritizing work done at a public meeting held in Momence, Illinois. After that meeting, planners solicited constructive comments on the priorities through April 2017. That input helped to develop the Land Protection Plan, which is currently on hold due to the redirection of planning staff to opening recreational access on existing refuge properties in the eight states within the Great Lakes Region.

There are two planning units of the Refuge; the wetland planning unit and the oak savanna and prairie planning unit. These planning units are estimations of historical natural areas. They are areas that if a landowner were interested in working with them, the conservation work would succeed based on landscape factors such as soils, water features of wetlands and rivers, location of floodplain, existing vegetation and location of intact rare habitats. From this, the Land Protection Plan will identify places within each planning unit. Organizers prioritize places to work collaboratively with interested citizens, organizations and agencies to achieve the mission of “working with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of citizens.

(Diversity - Kankakee Wildlife Series by local wildlife photographer Gregg Ladewski)

The Wetland Planning Unit runs along the Kankakee River starting at Indiana State LaSalle Fish and Wildlife Area at the Illinois-Indiana border. It extends westward, connecting to Island Park in Momence, Illinois. From a wildlife conservation perspective, this corridor is important for the survival of wetland-dependent migratory birds. Although seemingly plentiful there, Illinois has lost more than 90 percent of its wetlands statewide and many animals dependent on these habitats are in decline. One of the main objectives in this planning unit would be to increase breeding populations of dabbling ducks, such as mallards, blue-winged teal, and wood ducks, and other wetland birds of concern such as the prothonotary warbler, cerulean warbler, black tern, American woodcock, least bittern, and king rail. To achieve this objective, work will be done with others to maintain the existing bottomland hardwood forest habitat and to enhance and restore more. They want to build a connected corridor of protected and managed land in public and private ownership along the Kankakee River.

According to Dustin Brewer, author at The Earth Island Journal, "Illinois citizens are also influenced by management of the Kankakee River in Indiana, so their input about what happens across the border is important, too. Poor Illinois, They’ve been getting all our sand and silt. And it’s causing a problem over there."

(Diversity - Kankakee Wildlife Series by local wildlife photographer Dave Bannwart)

He said, "Because it’s been straightened in Indiana, the Kankakee flows much faster than it did historically. Consequently, so much sediment settles in the Illinois part of the river where it wasn’t straightened that some boats can no longer pass through. Restoring wetlands and the Kankakee River’s natural course in Indiana would help to fix this problem. Refuge approval, though, will likely require many letters to Indiana’s governor."

He added, "Every day, the Kankakee’s flow gradually returns to a more natural path, as the river carves away the unnatural banks. Similarly, every day more people like Manes, Sweeney, and myself understand more and more clearly the sum of the parts that we’ve seen."

"Like the glacier that created the Grand Kankakee Marsh, we hope that together our movement, which I’m now proud to be a part, will generate enough weight and power to create something beautiful. When that happens, I believe that the Kankakee ditch will be reborn as a river that will flow through the center of a marsh that will again be called grand."

Next concern, the ancient Prairie and Oak Savanna Planning Unit lies 3 miles to the south of the Wetlands Planning Unit and extends southward into Iroquois County, Illinois and westward to include remnant stands of globally rare black oak savannas and prairies that were once dominant plant communities in Illinois and Indiana. These two prehistoric habitats are now among the most imperiled. Currently, less than 0.01% of Illinois’ original 5.5 million acres of oak savanna and less than 1% of the more than 22 million acres of prairie remains. With the loss of these habitats, there has been a similarly steep decline in the wildlife dependent on them for their survival.

(Diversity - Kankakee Wildlife Series by local wildlife photographer Steve Jacobs)

The dinosaur age prairie and oak savanna habitats are important to many grassland-dependent migratory birds species that are declining, such as the Henslow’s sparrow, bobolink, dickcissel, meadowlark, and grasshopper sparrow. They are also important to savanna bird species of concern such as the red-headed woodpecker, northern bobwhite, northern flicker, field sparrow, and Baltimore oriole. The overall wildlife conservation objective is to increase the diversity of the species in the area and their numbers. To do this, conservationists will work with others to maintain the existing high quality oak savanna and grassland habitat in the area. They want to enhance and restore other areas on a voluntary basis striving to create connections between the current natural lands in the area, including Iroquois County State Wildlife Area, Willow Slough State Fish and Wildlife Area and private conservation lands along the Indiana banks.

Both of these planning areas exist not only because of the needs of wildlife, but also because of the conservation that has already been accomplished and continues to be accomplished in the area. By authorizing this Refuge in 2000 and accepting the first parcel of land back in 2016, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is showing its desire to be a conservation partner to sustain the valuable area for wildlife and people to thrive. Additional detail about prioritization for conservation work will be provided in the Land Protection Plan. Once they have completed a draft LPP, it will be available for review and additional input. After the release of the final LPP the planners will work only with interested landowners on wildlife conservation at the level they wish to participate.

Learn More about Kankakee National Wildlife Refuge & Conservation Area

You can find more information about visiting at

To Get More Information about the planning process

To get more information on the Kankakee National Wildlife Refuge and Conservation Area planning process please contact us by emailing, calling, or writing the Midwest Region Division of Natural Resources and Conservation Planning at:

Phone: 612-713-5327

People with hearing impairments are invited to use the Federal Information Relay System: 1-800-877-8339

Email: (Please put Kankakee NWR&CA in the subject)

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