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Restoration Effort Protects Wetlands

Rare Habitats Endure with Help from NRCS’s Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP)

By:   Jill Rees, NRCS Public Affairs Specialist
        Ellen Starr, NRCS Biologist

Date: November 2004

wetland with tupelo and baldcypress trees
Photo Caption: Nick-named the Dancing Tupelo Swamp, this wetland within the Cache River State Natural Area is a magical place where buttressed cypresses mingle with tupelo trees in shallow, tea-colored water.


Dotted with pristine wetlands that range from intermittently flooded forests to cypress-tupelo swamps, the Cache River Basin in southern Illinois abounds with biological diversity. The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is helping to protect some of these sensitive wetlands in the Cache River State Natural Area near Belknap, Illinois with cost-share and technical assistance through the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP).

The 12,000-acre Cache River State Natural Area provides a rare glimpse of primordial wetlands reminiscent of the deep south. The site hosts 1,000-year old bald cypress trees and more than 100 state threatened and endangered plants and animals. Celebrated species like the bald eagle, river otter, barn owl, and wood duck thrive here, as do lesser-known species like the tiny Indiana bat and scores of salamanders, snakes and migratory birds.

“These pristine wetland areas have survived land use change over the years, but now they’re threatened by long-term consequences of modifications in the area’s hydrology,” said NRCS State Biologist Gene Barickman.

Water-Pennywort gully

Photo Caption: Water-Pennywort, Hydrocotyle ranunculoides, is a native wetland species common to the area.

Photo Caption: Gullies as large as 35 feet wide and 20 feet deep were draining sensitive wetland habitats in the Cache River State Natural Area.

The hydrologic changes that jeopardize these wetlands were set in motion in 1915 with completion of the Post Creek Cut-Off, diverting the Upper Cache River into the Ohio River to reduce flooding. As a result, the Upper Cache began to seek equilibrium with the Ohio River and, over time, has incised approximately 15-20 feet from the original river bed. Because of the extreme down-cutting, the channel has widened and formed lateral gullies that began to drain 600 acres of off-channel swamps and more than 4,000 acres of wet soils that support bottomland hardwoods.

In 2003 and 2004, NRCS worked with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) to treat a series of gullies that were draining sensitive wetland habitats in the Cache River State Natural Area. With 75% cost-share through WHIP, nine gully plugs constructed with earthen fill, geotextile fabric and rock rip rap were installed to repair gullies as large as 35 feet wide and 20 feet deep.

To address larger issues with the stream dynamics of the Upper Cache, IDNR secured state and private funding to install Newberry weirs across the river channel in critical areas. The weirs work to stop the channel incision while bringing back the natural pool-riffle sequence of the stream flow which improves habitat for aquatic species. Stream-bed restoration will protect nearby wetlands by halting the processes that encouraged the damaging gullies to form.

This partnership restoration effort will help ensure that the bottomland forests and swamps of the Cache River State Natural Area remain an unspoiled haven for wildlife and a peaceful retreat for outdoor enthusiasts.

For more information on the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program or other NRCS conservation programs, go to the Illinois NRCS WHIP Web site. For more on the Cache River State Natural Area, visit the IDNR Web site at:

NRCS and IDNR staff gully plug

Photo Caption: “WHIP can help landowners manage for wildlife and plants like the bird voiced tree frog and cypress knee sedge,” said NRCS Biologist Ellen Starr pictured with IDNR site manager Jim Waycuilis.

“While NRCS’s Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) is popular with landowners interested in restoring frequently flooded marginal cropland back to wetlands, WHIP provides opportunities to protect and improve existing wetlands,” Starr said.

Photo Caption: Gully plugs installed with cost-share through the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP) protect sensitive forested wetlands in the Cache River Basin. Each gully plug contains an average of 184 tons of rock rip-rap.