Illinois Birds Need Wetlands. We Must Protect Them.

The Wetlands Protection Act would protect wetlands left vulnerable by federal rollbacks of the Clean Water Act.

The time that birders wait for all year is upon us: spring migration, when millions of birds will come pouring through Illinois on their way to their breeding grounds. We can protect the birds we love to watch by protecting the habitat they need to rest and refuel on their long migration journeys. Wetlands are one of these critical habitats and they’re under threat.  

If you tuned into the news last summer, you might recall a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in Sackett v. EPA. This decision undermined decades of clean water protection by stripping federal protections for the majority of  wetlands across the country, including wetlands right here in Illinois. We have an opportunity to fix this and bring wetlands protections back for the birds and communities that depend on them. The Wetlands and Small Streams Protection Act (SB3669/HB5386), introduced by State Sen. Laura Ellman (D-Naperville) and State Rep. Anna Moeller (D-Elgin) would enact state-level protections for  wetlands and waterways left vulnerable by the Supreme Court.  

Wetlands are amazing natural resources but Illinois has lost nearly 90 percent of its historic wetlands. This loss has far-reaching impacts for our communities. Just one acre of wetland, one foot deep, can store up to 1.5 million gallons of water. That’s a big deal for Great Lakes states like Illinois, where flooding is expected to worsen due to more extreme and unpridictable precipitation events in a changing climate. Wetlands also filter our water to keep it clean and store carbon. When wetlands are destroyed, the emissions locked in their soils are released, which contributes to climate change.  

Birds need wetlands. Numerous bird species depend on them, including many of Illinois’ most vulnerable. One of the smallest herons in the world, the Least Bittern has adapted to life in wetlands, where it climbs marsh cattails and reeds, hanging on with its long toes. It’s quite a sight – if you’re lucky enough to spot one. Least Bitterns are secretive marsh birds that prefer to stay hidden, but they are also harder to spot (and hear!) because there are fewer of them than ever before. Least Bitterns are listed as state-threatened in Illinois. Protecting the wetlands they need are essential to helping their populations recover.  

Great Lakes populations of breeding marsh birds have declined significantly over the past 30 years, but the good news is that if you build habitat, birds will return. We’re working in the places birds need us the most to restore wetlands habitat. One of these areas is the Calumet region of northeastern Illinois.  

We recently celebrated the completion of a three-year-long habitat restoration project at Powderhorn Lake Forest Preserve that adds urban green space and reconnects waterways to bring back fish and declining bird species, and alleviate flooding. This project was possible thanks to Forest Preserve District of Cook County along with partners at Great Lakes Commission and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Also within the region is Deadstick Pond, where we’re monitoring vulnerable marsh birds to understand how they’re faring, and working to restore 55 acres of wetlands habitat in partnership with Friends of Big Marsh and the Chicago Park District. 

Wetlands are also just fun places to visit. From birdwatching to kayaking, wetlands support outdoor recreation that generates $21.9 billion to Illinois' economy and supports more than 170,000 jobs, according to statistics released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis in 2022.  

It’s not hard to love wetlands. Eighty percent of Illinoisans support protections for outdoor areas, including wetlands, prairies and forests. If you want to protect the places birds need, take action. Urge your state lawmakers to vote ‘yes’ and cosponsor the Wetlands and Small Streams Protection Act.  

How you can help, right now