What’s next at Willowbrook Wildlife Center? Restoration of ‘Back 40’ natural area

Willowbrook Wildlife Center is buzzing with the construction of a new animal clinic and visitor center as veterinarians and volunteers tend to red-tailed hawks, cottontails, owlets and the occasional American woodcock.

But deep within the property is a landscape unto itself. Willowbrook’s back 40 acres hold a pond, a nature trail and a sense of tranquility.

“While it’s an animal hospital for our native wildlife, it’s really a forest preserve, and we want to get people out there to see all these native wildlife in their own habitat,” DuPage County Forest Preserve President Daniel Hebreard said.

To that end, the forest preserve district is launching a restoration effort to improve the natural environment in what’s commonly known as the “Back 40.” Forest preserve officials hope to provide a mosaic of ecosystems to attract songbirds, migratory waterfowl, pollinators, raptors, small mammals and amphibians.

The project will develop five “restoration zones” depicting an expanse of prairie, woodlands, savanna, creek and wetland areas.

Forest preserve commissioners have authorized a $732,882 contract with Baxter & Woodman for the restoration work. The project also involves the construction of a limestone trail, stormwater drainage facilities, a masonry seat wall, a wooden boardwalk and a wildlife viewing blind.

“There’ll be additional opportunities to see wildlife in their natural habitats from various observation nodes through vignette restoration landscapes while also learning skills to go observe wildlife in other preserves,” said Kevin Horsfall, the district’s planning and development director.

The forest preserve board also has awarded a $719,090 contract to Dimensional Innovations to fabricate and install exhibits in the new visitor center, itself a model of sustainable building design. All told, roughly $800,000 of the $1.45 million in contract costs will be covered by various grants.

A three-dimensional bird mobile inside the exhibit hall will show the scale and motion of a merlin in flight. Birds often arrive at the center with fractures or head trauma after crashing into windows or being hit by cars. Special glass will keep birds from striking the building’s windows.

A new animal rehabilitation clinic and visitor center is well under construction at the Willowbrook Wildlife Center in Glen Ellyn. It’s the forest preserve district’s first “net zero” project — meaning the building will produce at least as much energy as it consumes. Courtesy of Forest Preserve District of DuPage County

The restoration efforts combined with the exhibits will educate visitors about the removal of invasive species, protection and propagation of endangered species, wildlife care and renewable energy — “all while providing a beautiful natural setting for our residents,” Hebreard said.

A “woodland node” will include native ground covers and small understory trees reflecting the forest floor. The prairie node will have a council ring, a hallmark of prairie school landscape architect Jens Jensen, doubling as an outdoor classroom or place of rest. A boardwalk and observation deck will draw visitors closer to the wetland area.

On the south side of the property, the building housing the visitor center and clinic is on schedule to be completed in late summer or early fall. There will be a transition period for staff and wildlife currently in rehabilitation to move into the new facility. Public access to the visitor center is expected by the end of 2024, Horsfall said.

Forest preserve officials formally broke ground on an estimated $29.2 million transformation of the campus in August 2022. The overall project is still tracking on budget, Horsfall said, even though officials have seen higher costs with permit fees and some materials.

To date, the district has received approximately 30% of the project costs from grants and private donations and is approaching 90% of its original goal.

The restoration work could start as early as next month and wrap up by late summer, Horsfall recently told commissioners.

The existing wildlife clinic, meanwhile, has not stopped operating and will continue to do so during the move-in transition period. The center cares for its patients — injured and baby animals and birds — until they can be released back into the wild.

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