Golden Anniversary Wetland Initiative

By Gene Gardner | March 2, 2006
From Missouri Conservationist: Mar 2006

You may think that wetlands are everywhere—after all, they’re scattered throughout our state. Yet more than 87 percent of Missouri’s historic wetlands have been lost through filling, draining or by changing the flow of groundwater.

By the beginning of the 1900s, man had severely reduced Missouri’s wetlands. Improper forest clearing, drainage projects, stream channelization and levee systems that prevented flooding interrupted natural wetland processes. Severe floods filled wetlands with sediment and erosion created deepwater areas.

Why is wetland conservation so important? Wetlands filter pollutants and improve water quality, and they support a diverse population of fish, wildlife and plants with high economic and social value. Many threatened and endangered species are also dependent on wetlands.

During the last half-century, wetland restoration has focused on increasing habitats, restoring floodplains and managing for a greater diversity of species.

Today, the value of these areas is more apparent because they provide recreation for millions of people through hunting, fishing, boating and wildlife viewing.

Although the Department now manages more than 112,000 acres of diverse wetland habitats throughout the state, the wetland management program had its modest beginnings some 50 years ago. The time has come for us to pause and reflect on our past accomplishments, and to use what we’ve learned to plan the future of our wetlands. We call this special review our Golden Anniversary Wetland Initiative.

Important From the Start

We wouldn’t have the wetlands we do today if not for the foresight of early conservationists.

In Missouri, the first attempt at wetland conservation began around 1939, when a handful of biologists served as extension agents for the newly formed Department of Conservation.

These agents brought landowners and sportsmen together in a habitat improvement program on private lands called the Cooperative Wildlife Management Program. Establishing wildlife/waterfowl refuges was the Department’s only wildlife program in those days.

In 1947, wetland managers began restoring wetlands the only way they knew how, through engineering. Low areas that were formerly wetlands were excavated so they would hold more water. Levees were built, not to keep water out, but to hold water in. Water control structures (valves, screw gates, culverts, etc.) were built so managers could manipulate water levels. Where natural flooding was lacking, pumps were installed to ensure water supplies. These wetland areas, developed by the Department of Conservation, had a dual purpose that included providing waterfowl hunting opportunities.

Missouri’s Oldest Wetland Areas

Fountain Grove Conservation Area in Linn and Livingston counties was the first wetland/waterfowl area developed. An initial land purchase of 3,433 acres in 1947 was followed by others in subsequent decades, resulting in a current conservation area of 7,145 acres. Damage from floods and aging water control structures now requires immediate attention. Some restoration work is already underway, but more work will be needed.

Portions of Ted Shanks Conservation Area, in Pike county, were originally purchased by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers prior to the completion, in 1940, of the Saverton lock and dam on the Mississippi River. The Department took over management of these lands in 1954. In 1970, four additional tracts of land were purchased, and waterfowl hunting began in 1978. Today, an elevated water table, due to the lock and dam, combined with major floods, has killed most of the bottomland forests on the area. As a result, the wetlands are being invaded by exotic reed canary grass.

Duck Creek Conservation Area, purchased in 1950 to provide hunting opportunities in southeast Missouri, encompasses 6,234 acres. Duck Creek may be the most technically challenging of the Golden Anniversary projects. Wetland managers struggle to find a balance between providing a premier fishing lake and providing shallow water levels to accommodate thousands of migrating waterfowl and public hunting.

The 3,600-acre Montrose Conservation Area in Henry County centers on a 1600-acre lake that provides cooling water for an electrical generation plant. The Department began managing the area in 1956 as a fishing area, but later as a waterfowl/wetland area. During the late 1960s and through the 1970s, several small auxiliary wetland units were developed around the margins of the lake. These wetland units have trapped over 15 feet of silt in some portions, creating serious management challenges and limiting public use.

Much of the 8,633-acre Schell-Osage Conservation Area was initially purchased in 1957. Waterfowl hunting began at the area in 1963. In wetter years, management of the Schell-Osage wetlands is complicated by floodwaters from the Harry S. Truman Reservoir that was completed in 1979. Without major renovation wetland management capabilities will continue to be compromised.

The Big Five Turn Fifty

Aging affects us all, and wetlands are no different. The original man-made structures (levees, pipes, water control gates, etc.) installed 50 years ago on these five wetland areas have outlived their life expectancy.

Pumps require daily maintenance during seasonal operation and frequent overhauling in between. Levees and dikes are under constant attack by erosion, and burrowing animals (such as muskrats) can cause serious leaks or collapse. In addition, no one could have foreseen the extreme landscape changes and record-setting floods that have continued to impact these older areas.

Fifty years ago, wetland construction was considered cutting edge. However, we know far more about the science of wetland ecology and management today. Even basic engineering, design and construction technology have vastly improved from the early days. We would build wetlands differently today based on our knowledge and experiences.

Funding the Initiative

Due to the condition of these wetland areas, the Golden Anniversary Wetland Initiative is the Department’s top priority for wetland-directed capital improvements. A considerable amount of planning and funding will be dedicated to restorations, ensuring that these five oldest wetland areas will be around for at least another 50 years. Wetland ecologists and managers will join with our conservation partners and public supporters to determine future renovation and management efforts.

Traditionally, funds for wetland conservation were provided through sales of hunting licenses and the “duck stamp,” now called the federal migratory bird hunting and conservation stamp, and a federal excise tax on sporting arms and ammunition.

Today, migratory bird hunters continue to support wetland conservation through purchasing permits, the federal migratory bird stamp and by purchasing firearms and ammunition. Ironically, at a time when many waterfowl and other wetland wildlife populations are increasing in numbers, the number of hunters is decreasing. In 1970, Missouri had almost 60,000 duck hunters, but 30 years later, slightly more than half that many take to the wetlands. We can no longer expect waterfowl and other migratory bird hunters alone to carry the weight of wetland conservation.

Fortunately, Missouri citizens recognized the need for everyone to contribute support for conservation programs when they passed the 1/8 of 1 percent Design for Conservation sales tax in 1976. Today funding for wetland conservation and renovation will be the result of the combined efforts of the public, hunters, a long list of conservation organizations, and conservation agencies. If you want to help conserve Missouri’s wetlands, consider joining a conservation advocacy group to strengthen your voice for wetland conservation.

We know that wetlands are important to more than just duck hunters in Missouri. During the 2003 Conservation Opinion Survey, 91 percent of Missourians agreed, “It is important for outdoor places to be protected even if you don’t plan to visit the area.” Almost 70 percent of Missouri’s citizens indicated they enjoy outdoor activities such as “watching birds or wildlife,” and 50 percent “hike in the outdoors.”

Department wetland areas are popular places year-round for wildlife viewing from an automobile or while hiking. Through the Golden Anniversary Wetland Initiative, the Department will continue to work hard to restore wetland areas so that everyone can enjoy them for generations to come. Our passion for wild things and wild places leaves us little choice.

More Than Duck Ponds

In addition to waterfowl, migrating shorebirds, dowitchers, sandpipers, yellowlegs and hundreds of other wetland-associated wildlife require a variety of wetland habitats.

Some migratory birds require deep, open water. Others require shallow water or just-exposed wet mud flats. Birds migrate at different times and they can have special habitat needs during migration, which can also vary from one year to the next.

Raised hills or mounds in a wetland can increase the attractiveness of the area for shorebirds. Vegetation on these mounds attracts nesting birds. Varying water depths usually results in greater wildlife diversity.

The management of wetlands to ensure that adequate habitats are available to the most number of species presents a big challenge to wetland managers. They must be doing a good job though, because about 64 percent of waterfowl and other wetland-dependent migratory bird species have shown significant increasing long-term population trends due to wetland conservation.

This Issue's Staff

Editor in Chief - Ara Clark
Managing Editor - Nichole LeClair
Art Director - Cliff White
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Writer/editor - Tom Cwynar
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Designer - Susan Fine
Circulation - Laura Scheuler