A New Day Dawns For Missouri's Wetlands

By Brett Dufur | November 15, 2011
From Missouri Conservationist: Dec 2011

MDC is celebrating the 75th anniversary of putting the state’s citizen-led conservation efforts into action. In this issue, we highlight the conservation and restoration of important public wetlands throughout the state. Many have undergone extensive renovations to improve both wildlife habitat and access that will benefit generations to come.

When you see a sunrise at a wetland, it will change your perception of the place forever. From the darkness, liquid light pours forth and fills the wetland. The world takes on a golden hue. The sound of thousands of gabbling waterfowl electrifies the air. You’ll get pulled right into the pulse of the wetland.

These dynamic interchanges between land and water have long held a special place in the hearts of Missourians. As they should. Wetlands are the most productive ecosystems in the world. Because of their value to countless species of plants and animals, conserving and restoring wetlands is a primary goal of MDC.

“Our mission is to conserve fish, forest and wildlife resources. And wetlands are very productive in terms of all three,” says Gene Gardner, MDC’s wildlife diversity chief. “Even Missourians who never visit wetlands are better off because healthy wetlands exist. Wetlands improve water quality, help reduce flood damage to farms and communities, and help recharge local water supplies.”

Wetlands Benefit Wildlife

Wetlands are biologically rich, with a greater mix of plant and animal species than is found in drier habitats. They provide excellent habitat for all kinds of waterfowl, shorebirds and songbirds. More than a third of the birds that regularly nest in, or migrate through, the state depend on wetlands for part of their life cycle. More than 200 rare or endangered wildlife species use wetlands as their primary habitat. Wetlands along streams and rivers are important as fish spawning and rearing areas, too.

Managed wetlands benefit from vegetation and water level management because waterfowl, migrating shorebirds and hundreds of other wetland-associated wildlife require a variety of wetland habitats and water depths. Some migratory birds require deep, open water. Others require shallow water or newly exposed mud flats. Just as each species of bird has different migration times, they also have different habitat needs during migration. 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 result in greater wildlife diversity.

The Ebb and Flow of Missouri’s Wetlands

Missouri once had about 4.8 million acres of wetlands, created by the state’s two major river systems and their tributaries. Today, about 90 percent of Missouri’s historic wetlands have been lost through filling, draining or by changing the flow of groundwater.

More than 50 years ago, MDC began developing conservation areas to recreate a small portion of the wetlands lost in the previous 150 years. Fountain Grove and Ted Shanks conservation areas (CAs) in the north, Duck Creek CA in southeastern Missouri, and Montrose and Schell-Osage CAs in the west, were the vanguard of Missouri’s wetland restoration.

Beginning in the 1940s and 1950s, wetland managers began restoring wetlands 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, such as valves, screw gates and culverts, were built so managers could manipulate water levels. Where natural flooding was lacking, pumps were installed to ensure water supplies.

Today, many of these early wetland areas are facing significant challenges. Not only are original working parts, including levees, water control structures, canals and pumps beyond their life expectancy, but extreme landscape changes including severe flooding and heavy sedimentation have had unforeseen and devastating effects on certain areas.

Initiative Improves Missouri’s Oldest Public Wetlands

Today, we know far more about the science of wetland ecology and management. MDC’s Golden Anniversary Wetland Initiative allows us to put that knowledge to work at Missouri’s oldest wetlands to benefit wildlife and the people that enjoy these areas.

“No two wetland areas were alike when we built them, and no two will be alike as we return to give them new life,” says Dick Vaught, retired MDC waterfowl research biologist.

These improvements are diverse and serve the unique needs and demands of local wildlife habitat and different water management challenges. Guiding principles of these improvements are to develop ecologically based rehabilitation concepts, to incorporate 21st century engineering and science-based approaches, to avoid “continual repair” issues, and to assemble diverse partnerships with an eye toward innovation.

The interactions between plants, animals, soils and water within wetlands are intricate and complex. “Variety is not only the spice of life, but in wetland systems, it is also the glue that binds it all together,” says Frank Nelson, project manager for the Duck Creek CA renovation. “It is the overall number of different species that allows the food webs to be connected, keeps nutrient cycles churning, and allows Missouri’s wetlands to stay healthy.”

To get that biodiversity, wetland managers need subtle control over the water that ebbs and flows over wetlands. Better water management infrastructure is at the heart of managing Missouri’s wetlands.

One tool that has led to a greater understanding of how water flows through these areas is LIDAR radar mapping from low-flying aircraft. Area managers and project engineers study LIDAR maps to better understand slight elevation changes and topography details. This lets them do a better job of placing water control structures to mimic natural water flow while reducing infrastructure.

“This is incredibly important for areas in wetlands such as mud flats, where a few inches of water can spell the difference between successful feeding for migratory waterfowl, or something akin to leaving the back door open for invasive species that can quickly inundate an area,” says Nelson.

Wetlands Benefit People

MDC now manages more than 112,000 acres of diverse wetland habitats throughout the state. Missouri’s citizen- led efforts have helped to restore waterfowl populations to levels that rival the plentiful 1970s. Although waterfowl are sometimes the most visible of Missouri’s wetland achievements, the value of these areas reaches far beyond ducks and geese.

During the past half-century, wetland restoration efforts have 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.

Wetland ecosystems also play an important role in water quality, pollution control and flood control. Wetlands improve water quality by acting as settling basins for upland runoff. Because of their low gradient and thick vegetation, wetlands slow the flow of water, allowing suspended soil particles to settle out. The filtered water is then released into adjacent streams and aquifers.

Wetlands reduce pollution levels by absorbing some of the soluble nutrients in the water flowing through them. In partnership with MDC, wetlands at Eagle Bluffs CA accept wastewater from the City of Columbia as a secondary wastewater treatment. The effluent provides water and nutrients for wetland habitats.

Wetlands also play a vital role in flood control. Wetlands act as giant sponges made up of organic matter and specialized plants—some of which can absorb up to 18 times their weight in water. During periods of heavy rains, wetlands hold water and release it gradually back into the watershed. This helps reduce peak water flows and diminish flood risks for communities and farmland downriver.

Following the devastating flood of 1993, some badly damaged areas were purchased as public lands and restored to wetlands, such as the Big Muddy National Wildlife Refuge. These restored areas provide not only wetland wildlife habitat, but additional water storage during times of peak flow and flooding.

Partnerships Make for Wetland Conservation Success

The renovation and expansion of Missouri’s public wetlands requires funding and partnerships as diverse as the wetland habitats themselves. Waterfowl hunters continue to support wetland conservation by purchasing hunting permits, “duck stamps,” and by paying federal excise taxes on guns and ammunition. In addition, funding for wetland habitat restoration in Missouri also comes from permit sales and the one-eighth of 1 percent conservation sales tax. The dedicated sales tax provides consistent, long-term funding for the conservation of our fish, forests and wildlife resources and preserves Missouri’s outdoor heritage.

Key partnerships helped achieve a partner-driven wetland management plan for Missouri. MDC partners with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the North American Wetlands Conservation Council, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Ducks Unlimited, Missouri Waterfowl Association and many others. The tireless efforts of many conservation-minded citizens, local duck clubs and many other partners have also helped to make wetland restoration a reality.

Since 1989, the North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA) has also provided funding to improve and expand Missouri’s wetlands. To date, more than $14 million in project funding has conserved more than 86,000 acres of wetland habitat in the Show-Me State. Many partnerships that include state agencies, private landowners, corporations and other non government organizations continue to work together to develop projects to conserve Missouri’s wildlife habitat through NAWCA grants.

The Farm Bill’s Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) and Conservation Reserve Program also help Missouri’s landowners protect, restore and enhance wetlands on their property. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) provides technical and financial support to help landowners restore wetlands. Missouri is one of the top ten states in the nation in acres of wetlands restored through the WRP. Currently, there are more than 140,000 acres of WRP in Missouri, with the majority of these acres enrolled in permanent easements. These wetlands will remain on the Missouri landscape indefinitely.

The Future of Our Wetlands

As human populations increase, the pressure for converting wetlands to less “natural” uses will continue. To support the conservation of our remaining wetlands, we must continue to seek a better understanding of how wetlands work to benefit wildlife and people.

That job has gotten easier with science-based research and a decade of wetland renovation projects. However, attempting to manage highly erratic water flow in an altered landscape, as well as predicting and attempting to reduce invasive species, is a never-ending mission.

“One of the challenges for conservation area managers is that plant and animal communities never sit still. There is always a group of species on the rise while others are on the fall,” Nelson says. “Management is the art of trying to tweak the system in a way to get a reliable response to benefit public use while serving resource needs. For every one of our actions there is a response. Some of these can be anticipated while others cannot. No doubt nature will always have a new challenge for us tomorrow.”

Gardner echoes Nelson’s acknowledgment of the tough job of managing Missouri’s wetlands in the future. “In managing wetlands, challenges will become even greater. We’ve already seen that in 2011, with elevated river levels and local drought conditions. Continued population growth and changing land use also influence our wetlands and how they function. It is up to us to find a balance so these wetlands will continue to benefit people and wildlife.”

But Gardner is proud of where state wetlands have been and where they are going. “Generations of Missourians have enjoyed these for more than 50 years, and it’s our job to ensure these areas are here for their kids and grandkids to enjoy.”

Visit Missouri’s Public Wetlands

Enhancing Missouri’s wetland areas continues to be a primary goal of MDC. These areas provide critical habitat for migratory and resident wildlife, as well as creating excellent opportunities for a host of outdoor recreation activities. Learn more at mdc.mo.gov/node/4222.

  1.  B.K. Leach Memorial Conservation Area
  2. Bob Brown Conservation Area
  3. Duck Creek Conservation Area
  4. Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area
  5. Fountain Grove Conservation Area
  6. Four Rivers Conservation Area
  7. Grand Pass Conservation Area
  8. Marais Temps Clair Conservation Area
  9. Montrose Conservation Area
  10. Nodaway Valley Conservation Area
  11. Otter Slough Conservation Area
  12. Settle’s Ford Conservation Area
  13. Schell Osage Conservation Area
  14. Ted Shanks Conservation Area
  15. Ten Mile Pond Conservation Area

Ducks Unlimited

Ducks Unlimited (DU), a key partner in wetland conservation, also celebrates its 75th anniversary this year. DU is the world’s largest nonprofit organization dedicated to conserving North America’s continually disappearing waterfowl habitats.

“The Missouri Department of Conservation and Ducks Unlimited are natural partners. Our missions emerged from the visions of conservation leaders in 1937, and it is most fitting that we mobilize forces to revitalize the crown jewels of Missouri’s storied wetlands,” says Ken Babcock, DU’s national headquarters senior director of operations, and former MDC assistant director.

Like MDC, DU was founded in 1937 during the Dust Bowl era when habitat conditions were very bleak. The organization has since blossomed into the model for hunter-based conservation organizations, completing more than 20,000 projects, conserving more than 12 million acres and raising more than $3.1 billion for conservation.

Missouri continues to be one of the top states in Ducks Unlimited with more than 19,600 members statewide. Last year, more than 90 Missouri DU chapters held 140 events and raised nearly $950,000 for habitat conservation. To date, these Missouri DU chapters have helped conserve 105,000 acres in Missouri.

“The MDC partnership with Ducks Unlimited is one of the strongest and most effective in the nation,” says Mark Flaspohler, DU manager of conservation programs for Missouri. “Ensuring these critical habitats are forever protected from development is a significant step in the right direction for wildlife, waterfowl, flood protection and water quality.”

MDC and Ducks Unlimited work together to conserve critical waterfowl habitat in Missouri as well as the Prairie Pothole Region of Canada, known as the “duck factory,” where the majority of Missouri’s migratory waterfowl come from each year. Providing important wetland habitat from Canada to Mexico is a vital part of achieving the goals of the North American Waterfowl Management Plan. To make this possible, contributions from the states are matched by North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA) funds, as well as DU, Inc., and DU Canada.

With this year’s contribution of $275,000, MDC has reached the $5 million mark for donations to waterfowl breeding grounds in Canada. With the support of MDC during the past five years, Ducks Unlimited has conserved, enhanced and restored 235,059 acres of prime breeding habitat and positively influenced an additional 1.2 million acres.

“It is the committed support of partners like DU that makes waterfowl conservation and the North American Waterfowl Management Plan a success,” says DeeCee Darrow, MDC wildlife division chief.

In Canada, DU uses a combination of strategically targeted programs, agricultural extension and public policy efforts to advance conservation goals. Direct habitat programs such as land acquisition and conservation easements help secure the remaining habitat base and provide restoration opportunities. Agricultural extension programs focus on adding nesting cover and improving wetland conditions, while the promotion of waterfowl friendly agricultural practices provides positive economic benefits to producers.

“MDC’s investment in Canadian waterfowl habitat yields direct, tangible returns for Missourians,” says MDC Director Robert L. Ziehmer. “Leveraging our contribution and money from other states four-to-one lets us put $2 million into protecting critical nesting habitat that sends millions of ducks winging down the Mississippi Flyway to Missouri and beyond each fall.”

This Issue's Staff

Editor In Chief - Ara Clark
Managing Editor - Nichole LeClair Terrill
Art Director - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Bonnie Chasteen
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Photographer - Noppadol Paothong
Photographer - David Stonner
Designer - Stephanie Thurber
Artist - Mark Raithel
Circulation - Laura Scheuler