Features

The Life-Sustaining Sugar River

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Several factors combine to make the Sugar River an extraordinary sustainer of life to a staggering variety of creatures – including many weary migratory visitors. Learn what makes this river special, what threatens it, and who’s protecting it.

The quiet, serene Sugar River. (David C. Olson photo)

Wildlife might simply describe the Sugar River as “life-sustaining.” State biologists use terms like “exceptional resource water” and “resource-rich area.” Poetic paddlers like Rockford resident Don Miller describe it as “meandering wild and free.” Conservationists, like Megan Phillips, coordinator of the Upper Sugar River Watershed Association (USRWA), call the river “an ecological gem.”

To Shirland resident Lynda Johnson, the Sugar River corridor is “transformational, a source of inspiration.” She first discovered it in 1980, while visiting Colored Sands Forest Preserve near Durand, Ill.

“I felt transformed by the sounds of the forest birds, the beavers slapping their tails on the river, the frogs and toads singing,” she recalls. “After that, I was drawn to the Sugar in every season.” She still is. In February, she looks for the incredible display of the woodcock. In summer, she stands on the riverbank and watches the tiny, bright yellow prothonatory warbler fly from its nest in the hole of a tree. After three decades, the rhythms of the river, and the diverse plant and animal life along its banks, still fascinate her.

Rising in the hills of southwest Wisconsin near Madison, the upper watershed of the Sugar River flows southeast, past Paoli and Belleville, where it’s dammed to form Lake Belleville. From there, it meanders east of Monticello, where it’s joined by the Little Sugar River and flows south through Albany, Wis. The lower watershed begins in Brodhead, Wis., and flows southward into Illinois, where it runs past several Winnebago County Forest Preserve properties, before joining the Pecatonica River near Shirland, Ill.

A Unique and Healthy River

Even among the many scenic waterways in our region, the Sugar River is exceptional. For starters, it’s cleaner than most. “The water quality of the Sugar River is good and free of toxic substances, for the most part,” says Robert Hansis, fish biologist at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR).

This mature river offers more of the quiet, shallow water habitats that many species need for nesting and breeding, thanks to its old oxbows (horseshoe-shaped ponds) and swampy areas.

Also unique to the Sugar is its path through St. Peter sandstone during much of its Wisconsin course, the erosion providing a sandy riverbed in Rock County, Wis., and Winnebago Co., Ill. The sand has blown from the flood plain to areas east of the river, creating extensive, rare habitats that support sand prairie plants and animals.

The result of these unique attributes is that the Sugar River supports a stunning spectrum of plants and animals, a fact appreciated by scientist and poet alike.

Threats & Champions

While the Sugar is healthy, it isn’t without threats. Those who seek to protect it are watching three situations in particular: depletion of flow, as Madison diverts the Sugar’s headwaters to its public water supply; agricultural run-off, a serious problem for most Midwestern rivers; and the arrival of invasive aquatic species that could compromise the Sugar’s uniquely rich biodiversity.

The pristine condition of the Sugar River is no accident. It’s due, in part, to a large cooperative effort begun in the 1980s, coordinated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), with local and state cooperation, focused on the west branch.

The west branch of the Sugar River historically supported a native trout population, but had suffered from sedimentation, overgrazing of its banks and warming water. “Restoration efforts in the Dane County portion of the watershed reduced nonpoint source pollution, installed riverbank vegetative filter strips, improved in-stream habitat, restricted cattle access to streams, and improved management of animal waste from barnyards,” says Hansis. “Nearly 30 years and $1 million in private, local, state and federal watershed restoration activities resulted in the removal of all three segments from the EPA’s 2004 impaired water list.”

As a result of the effort, coldwater brown trout sports fisheries were restored. These fisheries support fish population reproduction either by restocking with fingerlings (baby fish) or by encouraging natural reproduction, or a combination. Megan Phillips, USRWA member, explains that her association worked with government agencies and other groups to install LUNKERS (Little Underwater Neighborhood Keepers Encompassing Rheotactic Salmonids), which are wooden structures that are placed beneath undercut stream banks. They stabilize the stream banks and give fish shelter. Similar structures have been installed recently on the Little Sugar River in New Glarus, due to the collaboration of local landowners and the Trout Unlimited Driftless Area Restoration Effort.

“The diversity and abundance of aquatic and wetland species in the Sugar River is probably some of the best in southern Wisconsin,” says Lisie Kitchel, who works for the WDNR’s Bureau of Endangered Resources. Today, Kitchel is concerned about the impact that water depletion may have on both water quality and wildlife habitat, as the growing Madison region diverts groundwater from the Upper Sugar basin. The city’s wastewater treatment plant discharges into the Rock River basin. A regional groundwater study is underway to determine what impact groundwater diversion has on the Sugar’s base flow.

The diversity and abundance of wildlife species in the Sugar River is stunning, thanks to wetlands like this one. (David Olson Photo)

Continuing efforts to reduce the runoff of farming chemicals seem to be paying off. “Historically, there have been agricultural impacts to the main Sugar River stem river and its branches,” says Kitchel. “But recent efforts to restore stream banks and limit runoff have resulted in noticeable improvements in water quality.”

A third major threat to the river’s biodiversity comes in the form of invasive species like Japanese knotweed, Eurasian watermilfoil, curly-leaf pondweed and purple loosestrife. The concern has prompted the USRWA to apply for funds to implement an education and prevention campaign. The idea is to encourage local anglers and paddlers to practice responsible recreation on Wisconsin’s lakes and rivers, by asking them to do the following:

  • Drain water and remove mud from boats, hip boots and fishing equipment before transporting
  • Clean boats and gear with hot water, or
  • Dry everything for at least five days

The lower end of the river has a champion, too, in the newly-formed Lower Sugar River Watershed Association (LSRWA). “We want to involve anyone who is in any way connected to the river and the lands surrounding it,” explains ecologist Susan Lehnhardt, co-founder. “This includes anglers, bird watchers, conservationists, boaters, economic development and tourism officials, farmers and hunters.”
The group’s first goal is to draw local people with different interests together to share ideas.

“We want to protect sites, such as Sugar River Alder Forest Preserve and Colored Sands Forest Preserve, that are ecologically healthy,” says John Nelson, who works closely with LSRWA and is a member of the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission. “The quality of the land along the river plays an enormous role in the health of the river and its plant and animal communities.”

Nelson also works closely with the Winnebago County Forest Preserve District, to assess high-quality habitat areas on the Sugar River and designate them as Illinois Nature Preserves. Permanently protected by state law, such preserves have rare plants or animals or other unique natural features. The connected forest preserves along the Sugar River in Winnebago County host many natural communities in one place. Rare wetland habitat is provided by flood plain marshes and oxbow ponds. Many rare and endangered species, such as Blanding’s turtles, ornate box turtles, musk turtles and the eastern newt, nest and breed in the quiet waters there.

Birds Need Water, Too

It’s no surprise that many native birds thrive in these floodplain wetlands, including the blue-gray gnatcatcher, tufted titmouse, blue-winged teal, green-winged teal and wood duck. But migrating grassland songbirds also depend heavily upon the forest and prairie habitats along the Sugar River corridor.

“Imagine all our migrating songbirds flying north for thousands of miles, and all across southern and central Illinois, it’s only cornfields, with no food or shelter for them,” says Lee G. Johnson, naturalist and licensed birdbander at Sand Bluff Bird Observatory (SBBO) in Colored Sands Forest Preserve. “Then finally they reach the forests, grasslands and wetlands of western Winnebago County.”

These habitats have helped to make SBBO one of the premier bird-banding facilities in the United States. More than 150 species have been documented there and Johnson personally has spotted endangered/threatened birds like the yellow-throated warbler, yellow-crowned night heron, cerulean warbler and Henslow’s sparrow.

The Sugar River corridor also contains 15 native mussel species, four listed by state biologists as endangered, threatened or of special concern: buckhorn, elktoe, round pigtoe and ellipse. Mussels were once so abundant that pearl button factories operated along the shores of the Sugar River.

Mussels are sensitive barometers of environmental quality. Because they feed by filtering water through their bodies, they are among the first organisms to be adversely affected by pollution and sedimentation. The status of mussel populations present in the water is a widely accepted measure of the stream’s overall biological health, and to find 15 species is a positive indicator.

An impressive array of insects exists in the lower watershed, too, including seven rare types of dragonflies and mayflies. According to Kitchel, the fish fauna is some of the most diverse in southern Wisconsin, with both coldwater and warm-water species, including eight listed as threatened, endangered or of special concern.

Herptiles (amphibians and reptile) in the Lower Sugar Watershed also are quite abundant and diverse. Three types are listed as endangered and one as threatened: northern cricket frog, queen snake, eastern massasauga rattlesnake and Blanding’s turtle, respectively. Large floodplain wetland complexes, of high value to wildlife, are encompassed in the Avon Bottoms State Wildlife Area and Avon Bottoms State Natural Area, in Rock County, Wis.

Paddle, Fish, Camp

Rockford resident Don Miller believes that two of the best river views in northern Illinois are along the banks above the Sugar River. “One is just north of the shelter house in Sugar River Forest Preserve, on the ridge trail, about a quarter-mile down the trail,” he says. “It overlooks an old craggy oak tree that’s been witnessing the Sugar River make an S-bend on its journey toward the Pecatonica River for over a century.”

Miller’s other favorite outlook: “It’s about three-quarters of a mile down the trail at Colored Sands Forest Preserve, toward the nature preserve. It gives you a sense of the true timelessness of the river as you watch it from a high sand bluff.”

More than just an observer of the Sugar River, Miller first paddled it in a canoe with his father and uncle when he was 4 years old. It was the beginning of a love affair with the stream he describes as “meandering, wild and free.” The Sugar’s outstanding wildlife viewing opportunities are the main attraction for Miller and other paddlers and tubers who enjoy gliding quietly alongside river creatures.

“Because so much of the lower Sugar is flanked by pastures, woods and prairies, the opportunities to see native species, especially birds, is unmatched in this area,” says Miller. On such paddling treks, he has spotted pileated woodpeckers, green herons, blue herons, river otters and Blanding’s turtles. His all-time favorite paddle, within 150 miles of Rockford, is a leisurely 3-hour float from Nelson Bridge on Nelson Road in Wisconsin, near the state line, to Yale Bridge Road in Illinois, where there’s a parking lot, outhouse and paved launch. Another popular route involves putting in at Avon, Wis., on Beloit-Newark Road, and paddling down to Yale Bridge, roughly a 4-hour trip.

“The Sugar in Wisconsin is a great river to paddle, for both novice and experienced paddlers,” says Kitchel. “It’s slow and easy, and you can jump out and look for mussel shells and other stuff anytime.” Due to the mostly wooded surroundings, trees and limbs in the water may cause navigational challenges, and occasional portaging may be required. Two dams must be portaged on the upper river. The Albany Dam has a stairway, and the Decatur Dam can be bypassed to Brodhead, using the millrace waterway.

Durand, Ill., resident Dave Mullen has lived and worked in the Sugar River area for more than 40 years. Like Miller, he’s drawn to the tranquility of this river’s surrounding woods, wetlands and prairies. “There’s something spiritual about sitting in a canoe under the shade of an oak tree that’s at least 250 years old,” says Mullen. He also enjoys fishing the river and reports catching walleye, largemouth bass, northern pike and channel catfish. The Sugar River supports at least 40 species of fish, many of them game fish.

In the Upper Sugar River corridor, the west branch Sugar River and Mt. Vernon Creek are classified as Class II trout streams. They support thriving coldwater fisheries, says Hansis at the WDNR. Fly fishermen visit these two streams for the rare opportunity to net brown trout up to 18 inches long.
The Sugar River also offers a unique opportunity to camp in unspoiled natural beauty along its banks. In Sugar River Forest Preserve, in Winnebago County, a walk-in “primitive” campground allows tent camping so close to the river’s edge that visitors can fall asleep listening to singing frogs and rippling water. The preserve offers a separate campground for RVs. Canoes can be launched or landed from the primitive camping area. Both campgrounds are open April through October.

Paddling isn’t the only activity Kitchel enjoys.

“The Sugar River Trail is really a great way to bike through the country and along the river,” she says. “Not many trails actually go along a river.”

The Sugar River State Trail follows an abandoned railroad line in south central Wisconsin for 24 miles, from New Glarus to Brodhead. Fourteen trestle bridges cross over the river and its tributaries. The trail offers views of farmland, woods, rolling hills and scenic meadows. North of Brodhead, it goes over a covered bridge.

A Different Light

Mullen suggests experiencing the Sugar River before sunrise and at sunset, to fully appreciate its rare qualities. “It’s the time when barred owls serenade one another and male frogs call for their mates,” he says. “It’s an entirely different life at night on the river. Glow worms glitter on the banks, and fish splash along the sand bars, preying on minnows.”

To glimpse the dynamic, complex and rich natural life of a healthy, wild river is an increasingly rare experience in our nation. We’re lucky that it’s only a short drive, hike or paddle away. Whatever words are used to describe it, the Sugar River is a precious resource in our corner of the Old Northwest Territory, for man and beast alike.

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