Wetlands Reimagined

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Published on: Feb. 15, 2013

Wetlands are amazing but complicated habitats, with unique management challenges. To understand their importance it helps to know that the landscape you see today is nothing like the landscape prior to European settlement.

 

Two hundred years ago, the Missouri River corridor was a broad, flat river floodplain that was full of tree snags and sandbars. It was not a river that maintained water levels throughout the course of a year; instead, it would have peak flows in March and June due to snowmelt runoff from the far northern extent of its drainage system. It was a river that made colonization of the Midwest very difficult. To overcome this challenge, the U.S. government charged the Army Corps of Engineers to clear the river of snags. Over the years, they also erected a series of dams and reservoirs in the upper reaches of the river to combat frequent flooding. The goal was to make farming the river bottoms realistic, and to support a navigation channel for public travel and shipping commercial goods.

These changes helped settlers populate the Midwest, but they also affected natural communities and populations. Wetlands were reduced by as much as 95 percent in some states. Most of Missouri’s wetlands declined during the 20th century, and so did animal populations that required wetlands. Hundreds of species use wetlands for some or all of their life cycles.

Waterfowl declined in the 20th century until conservation agencies and partner organizations like Ducks Unlimited made efforts to conserve land and populations. Efforts like outlawing market hunting and enacting conservation legislation, including the Federal Duck Stamp Program, Wetland Reserve Program, and the North American Wetland Management Plan, have helped restore critical wetland habitat for ducks, geese, and swans, as well as other migratory and non-migratory species. Additional wetland restoration has been possible due to partnerships with the Army Corps of Engineers, now an active player in mitigating wetland loss in the U.S.

The landscape of today is much improved from that of 50 years ago; 140,000 acres of wetlands have been restored in Missouri since 1994. But the alterations to the big river systems remain, and restoring the landscape to its former state is not economically or logistically realistic. Instead, wildlife professionals have worked out creative solutions to provide stopover habitat for animals along the route of their migration paths. Government agencies manage wetland areas to provide maximum food and habitat conditions for these animals. The Department of Conservation intensively manages 15 of these areas throughout the state. These remnants of what was once a continuous chain of wetlands stretching thousands of miles are essential to sustain the wildlife that depends on wetlands.

Wildlife Management on MDC Wetlands

A basic understanding of biology, ecology, geology, and water chemistry — the processes that make life work — is needed to manage our wetland areas. We must also consider the timing of migration events, reproductive events, and area-use needs as we plan our activities. Often these plans get reworked several times in a year as conditions change. Each of our intensively managed wetland areas has its own unique combination of factors that managers must learn. Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area in Boone County, for example, is dominated by the Missouri River. When the river is high, ground water levels are also high, making it easier to flood pools and more difficult to drain them. If the river is low, the sandy soils of the river bottom that dominate Eagle Bluffs makes it impossible to flood pools to their full level — the soils will not hold enough water to make it happen. These are the basic conditions that dictate what we can accomplish at any point in the year — and throughout the year, wetland area managers find themselves doing many different things.

Wetland managers spend a lot of time observing the land for signs of how management decisions are affecting habitat and wildlife populations, or for signals that intervention is needed to cause or prevent a certain condition. There could be changes to trees or plants, or we might detect an invasive species. Unfortunately, most of our wetlands do have some invasives, species such as purple loosestrife, Eurasian water milfoil, and phragmites. Most wetlands near larger rivers also have populations of Asian carp. We work to reduce nonnative species whenever we can.

Other activities take place on wetland areas that tie into our essential management duties. We contract farming on our conservation areas and coordinate MDC crop shares with farmers to ensure that wildlife species benefit. (Having local farmers plant and harvest crops saves time and money and helps achieve management goals.) We also manage water levels for important fisheries resources, help mark and monitor waterfowl populations, provide feedback to biologists responsible for managing deer, turkey, quail, dove, and waterfowl populations, and assist with counts of migratory bird species. We monitor the stability of levee systems that surround our wetland areas and the surrounding private landscape, and we are often asked to be a part of local levee boards due to our role as water consumers.

Moist Soil Management

We use a variety of methods to try and simulate the conditions that existed before European settlement to annually re-create wetland habitat. Most of these efforts are referred to as moist soil management — the act of drawing water down on a wetland area to stimulate moist soil seeds into germination. Native wetland plants that grow from these seeds provide food and cover for a variety of wildlife. From time to time, we will reset the succession of these pools by mowing, spraying, or burning them. Another common technique is soil disturbance. This helps rotate nutrients and seeds from lower depths back to the surface, stimulating another round of moist soil vegetation growth. Placing pools into an agricultural crop rotation can also help achieve soil disturbance goals.

Moist soil management requires good access to water, which is challenging in drought years, or if pumps malfunction. Flooding is also a problem, though, because wetland soils hold on to water. However, these areas also serve as important flood barriers — wetland plants use water to grow, and can prevent more flooding damage by soaking water up like a sponge.

Involving and Serving the Public

Wetland area staff often interact with students and the public and participate in partnerships with the local community. We help with outreach efforts and our facilities are sometimes used for hunter education courses or other outreach opportunities. We are often asked to serve on civic committees or with area schools. Many of our areas are used by hunting dog clubs for field trials. At Eagle Bluffs CA, one of our primary goals is to involve the public and our nongovernment organization partners as much as possible. A good example is outside our headquarters building, where a native plant garden was established and is maintained by the Boone’s Lick Chapter of the Master Naturalists. Other examples of projects include:

Wood Duck Boxes At Eagle Bluffs CA, we maintain wood duck nesting boxes and check them for the previous year’s successful hatches, as well as any repairs that need to be addressed. This is a great activity for volunteers, and we typically have plenty of people come out to help us get the job done. Organizations like Missouri Waterfowl Association, the University of Missouri Student Chapter of The Wildlife Society, and the Boone’s Lick Chapter of The Missouri Master Naturalists have been involved in wood duck box cleanup on Eagle Bluffs CA for many years. These boxes provide critical nesting habitat for wood ducks, which typically nest in old-growth bottomland hardwood forests, a habitat that has been largely lost in Missouri. The boxes at Eagle Bluffs CA have contributed to more than 250 wood duck nests during 2009–2012. They will also sometimes provide cover for unintended users, such as raccoons and screech owls.

Duck and Goose Banding Wetland area managers conduct annual Canada goose and wood duck banding operations. For wood ducks, bait piles and rocket nets are used to capture the ducks, then bands are attached to their legs. Canada geese are banded during a “goose roundup” held during the early summer when adult birds have hatched their young and have molted their flight feathers. These exercises involve corralling geese into a standing net where they can be handled easily and safely. Banded birds can be reported by hunters who harvest them during waterfowl season to the Bird Banding Lab operated by the USGS. This banding information is used by state and federal biologists to keep track of population and harvest information, which aids decisions about the length of seasons and the bag limits for different species.

Turtle Trapping During the spring and summer, we trap turtles on Eagle Bluffs CA as part of a mark-recapture program. Aquatic turtles benefit from our wetland management and use our pools to feed, rest, reproduce, and overwinter. The turtle project began in 2011 to help answer questions regarding how these animals respond to our intensive management of water and wetland habitat. So far, we have marked more than 700 turtles in two years. This project has been made possible by volunteers from the Missouri Master Naturalists, the Student Chapter of The Wildlife Society, researchers at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, the University of Missouri Herpetology Club, and local Eagle Scout groups.

Local Bird-Watching Community Many bird species pass through Missouri on their annual migration, and we try and provide habitat needs for those that come through our area. Shorebirds and wading birds are commonly seen on our area, as well as hawks and pelicans. These events are highly anticipated by local birdwatchers and wildlife photographers, and we see many area users during the spring and fall. We also attract an interesting assortment of year-round birds, including sandhill cranes and bald eagles that have successfully reproduced on our area. Area users often report their sightings to CACHE (Conservation Area Checklist), an online database run by The Audubon Society of Missouri where wildlife professionals and the public can access information for conservation areas statewide (to learn more about CACHE, visit www.mobirds.org). This database can be a useful source of information on the timing of migration events from year to year.Local organizations like the Missouri River Bird Observatory and the Columbia Audubon Society have helped us by assisting with bird counts, leading groups of students on bird watching trips, monitoring purple martin houses for nesting activity, and observing bird use of habitat that has been impacted by a management action.

Columbia Wastewater Eagle Bluffs CA is unique amongst our wetland areas due to its partnership with the City of Columbia. Wastewater in Columbia initially is treated at the City of Columbia Regional Waste Water Treatment Plant (CRWWTP). This is a mechanical waste-water treatment facility that provides primary and secondary treatment of waste water. The effluent from the CRWWTP is then discharged to the City’s Wetland Treatment Units. These facilities provide additional secondary treatment to the effluent utilizing cattails to remove nutrients from the waste water. Once it has passed through the constructed wetland system, the water is sent to Eagle Bluffs CA for use in wetland management. This invaluable resource accomplishes multiple goals, it is an efficient use of water for both entities — MDC gets water at no cost, and the City turns a byproduct into a tool for wetland management that has paid benefits to the local community hundreds of times over. Because of this water, we are able to moist-soil manage the area during the summer months without running our pumps, improving the value of the wetlands for wildlife dramatically while saving the Department the cost of higher electric bills.

Waterfowl Hunting

Waterfowl hunting season is one of the busiest times of the year on a wetland area. For 59 days, our areas are almost exclusively used by waterfowl hunters as North American waterfowl populations complete annual migrations to their wintering grounds. Hunters try their luck at one of our intensively managed areas in a lottery-style draw system. Area staff start their days as early as 2 a.m. to be prepared for prospective waterfowl hunters.

Many of our waterfowl positions are “wade and shoot,” and have shallow water so hunters who don’t own a boat can still find opportunities to hunt. Prior to duck season, we make sure to create areas free of vegetation for wade and shoot hunters, as well as provide open water for migrating ducks to land. We also provide duck hunting blinds for disabled and nondisabled hunters alike, and maintain them each year for use. This includes repairing any damage, removing pests like wasps and hornets, and disguising the blinds using grass mats and tree limbs.

Our partner organizations are also busy during duck season. Delta Waterfowl recently helped bring area youths to our 2012 youth hunt weekend. Missouri Waterfowl Association has had a long-standing partnership with the Department to provide waders for youth hunters to borrow at many of our intensively managed wetland areas. Many of the Department’s wetland areas have some wetland habitat that has been restored by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and are supported financially to assist with the cost of pumping during duck season.

We run weekly duck surveys either by ground or by air to provide hunters with an estimate of our duck population, as well as contributing to nationwide surveys like the mallard migration network (visit mdc.mo.gov/node/2614 to learn more). These numbers help hunters decide which areas to hunt, and provide researchers and managers with information about migration and duck harvest numbers (for more information on waterfowl hunting on conservation areas, visit mdc.mo.gov/node/303).

Throughout the hunting season we are still watching our water levels and pumping activities closely, focusing on the preferred feeding depths of different waterfowl and wildlife species.

There are many moving parts and changing priorities for wetland managers. Shifting patterns of area use, weather, rainfall, and hydrology add to the challenge. Our goal remains the same, however; we manage a much-reduced resource to provide the best possible habitat conditions and make our areas as user-friendly for as many people as possible. The instruction manual for wetland management gets rewritten each year, but that’s part of what makes the job fun.

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