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The Sugar River

The Sugar River is a high quality stream that flows through rural lands and native grasslands in southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois. It is classified as an Exceptional Resource Water in Wisconsin and as a Resource Rich Area in Illinois because of the abundance and diversity of the wildlife its watershed supports. The Sugar, rising in the hills of southwest Wisconsin near Madison, meanders southeast, past Paoli and Belleville where it is dammed to form Lake Belleville. From there it flows east of Monticello where it is joined by the Little Sugar River and streams south through Albany, and Brodhead, into Illinois where it joins the Pecatonica River. The Sugar River’s 115 mile course is divided into Upper and Lower watersheds.  The Upper Sugar River Watershed is located in Dane County in southern Wisconsin. The Lower Sugar River Watershed extends from Albany, WI to Shirland, IL.

The Sugar River runs through St. Peter Sandstone much of its course in Wisconsin, and as a result, has a sandy bottom in Rock and Winnebago Counties. The sand carried by this river through the years has blown from the flood plain to areas east of the river, creating extensive sandy areas and the resulting sand prairie plants and animals. The Sugar is a mature river with many old ox bows ponds and swampy areas in its flood plain. This unique geology and unusual complex of various habitats provides a remarkable spectrum of plants and animals.

Ecological Health & Water Quality

The Sugar River in Wisconsin is an ecological gem. Its water quality is good, and, for the most part, is free of toxic substances. Point source pollution from municipal and industrial discharge is not a large problem in this river, yet there are threats to its health that have spurred scientists and concerned citizens to take protective action. Urban growth in Dane County, WI  is the biggest concern. Land development and water use in the Madison area has major impact since it is at the headwaters of the system.

Historically, there have been agricultural impacts to the main stem river, and its branches, but recent efforts to restore stream banks and limit runoff have resulted in noticeable improvements in water quality. Beginning in the early 1980’s, a major cooperative effort between state, local and federal agencies on the West Branch of the Sugar resulted in restoration of the cold-water brown trout fishery and is touted by EPA as a demonstration ‘success story’. Wisconsin removed all three segments from its 2004 303(d) impaired waters list. These segments of the West Branch Sugar River are the first to be removed from Wisconsin’s impaired waters list as a result of environmental restoration. There are still agricultural concerns for water quality in the Sugar, especially in the lower watershed, but local efforts have been working hard to address farm runoff, and those efforts continue. Ultimately, urban sprawl is of greater concern for the future.

The Illinois Nature Preserves Commission is currently working with WCFPD to asses high-quality habitat areas on the Sugar and designate them as Illinois Nature Preserves. Permanently protected by state law, nature preserves are sites that have rare plants, animals, or other unique natural features. The Nature Preserves Commission recently expanded protected areas in Sugar River Alder Forest Preserve and Colored Sands Forest Preserve because the high quality restored land along the river plays an enormous role in the health of the river and its plant and animal communities.  What’s wonderful about the connected forest preserves along the Sugar River in Winnebago County is that one can see many natural communities in one place. Rare wetland habitat is provided by flood plain marshes and ox bow ponds. Many rare and endangered species such as Blanding’s turtles, ornate box turtles, musk turtles and the eastern newt require these quiet shallow conditions for nesting and breeding. Many bird species use these floodplain wetlands including Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Tufted Titmouse, Blue-winged Teal, Green-winged Teal and Wood Duck.

The Sugar River corridor in IL and southern WI also provides forested habitat that is very important for migrating birds and prairie areas critical to the survival of grassland nesting birds. Imagine all our migrating song birds flying north for thousands of miles, and all across southern and central Illinois its only cornfields. No food or shelter for them. Then finally they reach the forests, grasslands  and wetlands of western Winnebago County.  The Sugar River’s quality habitats that attract diverse bird species have helped make Sand Bluff  Bird Observatory one of the premier bird-banding facilities in the U.S. Over 150 species of birds have been documented at SBBO. Some of the unusual birds that have been sighted on the Sugar include Prothonotary Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler, Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, Cerulean Warbler and Henslow’s Sparrow.

The diversity and abundance of aquatic and wetland species in the Sugar River is probably some of the best in the Midwest. It contains an abundant and diverse native mussel fauna of 15 species, 4 of which are listed as Endangered, Threatened or Special Concern (Buckhorn, Elktoe, Round Pigtoe, Ellipse).  Historically, mussels were abundant enough that there used to be pearl button factories along the Sugar. An impressive array of insects exists in the lower watershed , including seven Special Concern dragonflies and mayflies.  The fish fauna is some of the most diverse of southern WI & IL, ranging from cold-water to warm-water species, including eight rare species listed as threatened, endangered or special concert. The herptiles (amphibians and reptiles) in the Lower Sugar Watershed are also quite abundant and diverse, and include some of our rarest herps, with three listed as endangered and one listed as threatened (Northern Cricket frog, Queen snake, Ornate Box turtle and Blanding’s turtle).

The Sugar’s outstanding wildlife viewing opportunities are the primary attraction for canoeists, kayakers and tubers who appreciate the opportunity to glide quietly among the river’s 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. While canoeing the Sugar one can easily spot pileated wood peckers, green herons, blue herons, river otters and Blanding’s turtles.

Fisherman report catching walleye, largemouth bass, northern pike, and channel cat fish. The Sugar River supports at least 40 species of fish, many of them game fish.