Success Story - The Cranes! Let’s Celebrate the REAL Wetland Story
Illinois Success Story
The Cranes! Let’s Celebrate the REAL Wetland Story
By: Jody Christiansen, NRCS Public Affairs Specialist
Date: April 2011
Champaign, IL — In February, 2011, a big
story emerged in Illinois when two unusual looking birds were seen foraging in a
recently restored floodplain. They were migrating whooping cranes--one of the
most endangered wetland-dependant species in North America. It was big news, but
there’s more to it than just the endangered birds.
While the initial photo of the cranes was extremely exciting, with a closer look
we can see an even bigger story. While the cranes were searching for food in the
far background, mallard ducks were feeding in the shallower water with teal,
shoveler and pintail ducks in the shallowest areas. The significance of this is
that the wetland had already begun to support a diverse group of bird species,
each with their specific needs.
Proximity of this floodplain with other wetland sites is another important
feature that demonstrates the positive and immediate usability for our traveling
friends. Just as we need hotels, restaurants and gas stations placed along the
highway to help us travel across the country, these wet areas work in the same
way. Migrating birds move extensive distances and need places to stop, rest and
refuel for the next leg of their trip.
The new floodplain that gained recognition for helping the whooping cranes was a
product of the President’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, where
flood-prone cropland was purchased and restored to its former wet state.
Similarly, since 1992, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS)
has offered options from the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) to landowners who
have agricultural land in these wet locations. Using this and other voluntary
NRCS programs such as the Emergency Watershed Protection program-Floodplain
Easement (FPE), Illinois has enhanced or restored almost 100,000 acres dedicated
to wetlands throughout the state.
Not all wetland projects are floodplains; some may be wet depressions in cropped
fields or edges of fields allowed to be reestablished. In Lawrence County alone,
there are 23 WRP and FPE easement sites covering 5,566 acres. Even though not
all are located next to each other, they are close enough to re-create what used
to be a continuous section of shallow water where birds and other wildlife can
find food and shelter. The floodplain that drew so much attention with the
whooping cranes is located within a contiguous area of 453 acres of floodplains
along the Embarras River.
The whooping crane event was not by accident, nor was it a surprise. It shows
that when we restore and protect wetlands like these, the benefits come quickly.
To take it a step further, the land alongside the floodplain can often be
converted back to a natural upland habitat. The upland habitat supports native
grasses and plants that produce food and shelter for other wildlife such as
pollinators, mammals, and game birds like quail. Insects and aquatic life
flourish when the plants protect the land from erosion and siltation of the
wetland below it. Bottom line, these two different habitats complement each
other by completing the whole package.
Not just for the Birds!
Floodplain benefits go far beyond just migrating birds and wildlife. They play
an important role for humans as well. From a monetary view, if you compare the
cost of flood and crop insurance on a yearly basis, with just one payment for a
floodplain easement and restoration, you have saved millions in tax dollars. We
often take for granted the broader view of what natural resources like
floodplains give us and our communities when properly restored. When done
correctly, this is how your tax dollars work for all of us.
Migratory birds - egrets, geese, ducks, and shorebirds - find a recently
restored wetland. In the background is an irrigated cornfield. This shows how a
diverse wetland can support a variety of migratory birds while still fitting
into an agricultural landscape.
Floodplains benefit people and wildlife by:
- holding water from heavy rains, preventing it from flowing downstream
and causing damage to roads, communities and agricultural lands, including
possible life-threatening events.
- filtering the water of excess nutrients and impurities; they process
organic wastes before water re-enters the ground water or other water
- enhancing communities by providing open space, restoring and enhancing
forest lands, creating recreational opportunities, or offering simple
enjoyment of their aesthetic beauty.
- providing a diverse habitat and homes for a variety of species which may
not - or cannot - exist in any other habitat. Many federal and state listed
endangered and threatened species live in these locations as we have
experienced in Illinois.
The next time you see a flock of migrating birds, ducks or other waterfowl,
or happen on some endangered species, remember that we are responsible for their
survival or their decline. Giving them back the land they need to survive is
what voluntary wetland restoration is all about. May is designated as Wetland
Month and what better way to celebrate.
If you think you have land that might be a candidate for the Wetlands Reserve
Program, contact your local USDA Service Center, NRCS or Soil and Water
Conservation District office. For more general information on Illinois NRCS, go
T o read the original whooping crane story, go to
The Cranes! let's celebrate the REAL Wetland Story (PDF, 1054kb)