For many, the word wetland conjures images of gator-filled Everglades and slow-moving bayous, but wetlands extend further north than the stretch between Louisiana and Florida, including right here in Omaha.
World Wetlands Day is Feb. 2nd each year and is a day for the Global Community to learn and reflect on the importance of wetlands. The day honors the signing of the Convention on Wetlands, Feb. 2nd 1971, in the Iranian city of Ramsar. The Convention is an intergovernmental treaty that calls for the “conservation and wise use of all wetlands through local and national actions and international cooperation.”
The first World Wetlands Day was celebrated in 1997. The slogan for the 2010 celebration is “Caring for wetlands–an answer to climate change.”
Although Nebraska’s primary biome is tall and short-grass prairie, we also boast more wetlands than any surrounding state.
“Wetlands are highly dynamic and productive systems. Wetlands produce more plant and animal life per unit area than woodlands, prairies, or cropland,” says Ted LaGrange, Wetland Program Manager with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.
“Many of our wetlands are critically important for migrating waterbirds and the Rainwater Basin and Central Platte River wetlands are recognized as being of international importance,” LaGrange added. “The wetlands in Nebraska’s Sandhills are very important to a number of nesting birds, including waterfowl.”
There are many different varieties of wetlands, and Nebraska is home to most types. They include oxbows (river bends, which have been cut off from the main river), forested swamps, marshes, seep areas, wet meadows, and fens (which are fed by ground or surface water as opposed to rain water).
The commonly accepted definition of a wetland is an area that is home to rooted, water-loving plants. This would exclude open and fast-running water, where these plants are not able to root, and fully terrestrial habitats, which have plants that require only average amounts of water.
Wetlands differ by the rate of water flow, seasonality, and their water chemistry. Fens, for example, are more alkaline or neutral, while bogs are more acidic. Each type of wetlands is important because different plants and animals are adapted to different conditions. These specialized flora and fauna also become distinguishing features between the different types of wetlands.
As you might imagine, many of the more shallow and slower-moving wetlands in Nebraska freeze over or are dry part of the year.
“Most of Nebraska’s wetlands are seasonally or temporarily flooded. These wetlands may only hold water for a few weeks each year,” LaGrange says.
Don’t let their seasonal absences lead you to believe they’re not important.
“These wetlands are very important for a wide variety of functions, including providing wildlife habitat, flood retention, water quality improvement, and groundwater recharge.”
Wetlands are often called the kidneys of the landscape because of their role in filtering water. The roots of the plants absorb pollutants. The plants can change many of these pollutants to make them less harmful before releasing them, leaving clean water to fill our lakes and rivers. Bacteria and other microorganisms that live in the wet soil also have a tremendous ability to change harmful substances into less harmful substances before they enter the groundwater supply. Some of these microbial organisms even posses the ability to remove nitrates, a carcinogen (or cancer-causing substance), from water. This “scrubbed” water eventually becomes human drinking water.
Considered at one time to be worthless, wetlands are now known to harbor varied communities of many plants and animals whose survival depends on the specialized conditions of the wetland. Although wetlands compose only five percent of the total landscape in the United States, more than one-third of our endangered species are associated with them, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
Nine out of Nebraska’s 12 federally endangered and threatened species, and 19 of 27 of our state listed threatened and endangered species, use wetlands, LaGrange said. Some of these species include Whooping Cranes, western prairie fringed orchid, river otter, and Salt Creek tiger beetles (a critically endangered subspecies, one of the rarest insects in North America, endemic to Lancaster Country).
You may not have to travel as far as you think from the Metro to find vibrant wetlands:
Heron Haven, one of the last remaining oxbows of the Big Papillion Creek, is a spring-fed wetland located off 120th and Maple Streets. The urban refuge features natural trails and a boardwalk. Depending on the season, Canadian geese, Wood Ducks, Painted Turtles, and Green Herons are just a few of the species which can be seen at the haven. Over 100 species of birds have been sited at Heron Haven, including Great Blue Herons.
Wetlands are not just a habitat favored by birds. Mammals that can be fountd at Heron Haven include woodchucks, American Mink, muskrat, and White-tailed Deer. There is also a garden featuring native plants that attracts butterflies and humming birds. Different types of native prairie grass are planted in a plot to educate visitors on the varying vegetation of the praire.
Heron Haven is managed by the Friends of Heron Haven, a non-profit organization.
DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge
If you are up for a little drive, another great wetland lies just north of Omaha, in Iowa: the DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge. It was founded in 1958 under the Migratory Bird Conservation Act of 1929 as a sanctuary for migratory birds on their bi-annual journey across the United States during fall and spring.
The refuge, located about 25 miles north of Omaha, is a former bend in the Missouri River. Varied bird species can be viewed there all year long, but the largest number of birds can seen during the spring and winter migrations, September through December and then again in starting in March.
Commonly seen birds include Canadian geese, bald eagles, mallards, kingfishers, herons, pelicans, different types of hawks, and mergansers and many more.
The refuge, which lies on the Missouri River flood plane, had been filled in and used as farmland before 1958. Since then the refuge staff has managed much of the wetlands on the refuge, regulating the amount of water maximizing the productivity of the wetland.
“Shorebirds are attracted to shallow water that they wade in to feed,” said Mindy Sheets, Deputy Refuge Manager. “Ducks and geese prefer deeper water. All of this is incorporated into our wetland management.”
There are unmanaged wetlands located at the refuge in the form of ephemeral wetlands or ponds. The water level of these seasonal, aquatic ecosystems is dependent on rainfall.
While the refuge was founded with migratory birds in mind, other animals benefit from the varied ecosystems at the refuge, including raccoons, whitetail deer, muskrats, foxes, snakes, and frogs.
Although the refuge has a very large lake, the wetland habitat is still very important to meet the needs of all the plants and animals.
“Wetlands are very different from large, deep bodies of water,” Sheets says. “They serve an entirely different habitat need and [..] are extremely biologically diverse.”
Wetlands are in Danger
Despite all their value, wetlands are still threatened.
“Over 30 percent of Nebraska’s wetlands have been destroyed. The number would be much higher except for the large wetland resource that remains in the Sandhills,” LaGrange says.
“In some parts of the state, we have lost over 90% of our wetlands. The remaining wetlands face many threats, including: continued drainage, filling with sediment from erosion, loss of water flow and delivery, and invasive species”
Most of the invasive species are plant species, including Purple Loosestrife, common reed, Russian olive, and Saltcedar. These species were introduced from other countries, either because they were valued in gardens or for certain agricultural benefits. These plants found the rich Nebraska soil favorable, and began growing rapidly in the wild, choking out native plants.
“There are a number of projects and programs to address elimination or at least management of these [plants],” LaGrange says, “but it’s a huge task.”
Although much research has been documented on the importance of wetlands, their importance is still often not recognized.
“Wetlands are definitively a misunderstood habitat,” Sheets says. “They are so biologically diverse and critical.”
Wetlands are a complex ecosystem, which requires much study and observation to fully understand. Part of why they are misunderstood may stem from their complex nature, or, as LaGrange puts it, “Because wetlands occupy a continuum between wet and dry conditions.”
“They undergo a variety of unique changes both seasonally and from year-to year. Wetlands become dry and then flood, are burned by prairie fires, and are subjected to other disturbances such as grazing. These are natural processes that don’t harm the wetland. In fact, it is the interaction of all of these dynamic processes that make wetlands so productive.”
It is not fully known if or to what extent climate change has affected Nebraska’s wetlands. Effects on wetlands from climate change are “something that we are evaluating and beginning to plan for,” LaGrange said.
There are many ways each of us can do our part to preserve Nebraska’s wetlands. LaGrange offers the following recommendations:
- Purchase a Federal Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp (duck stamp) and a Nebraska Habitat and Duck Stamp. Wetlands conservation is a high priority of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, and these efforts are funded through the sale of habitat stamps as well as hunting, fishing, and fur harvest permits. Funds raised by the sale of duck and habitat stamps all go into wildlife habitat projects.
- Join and support wetlands conservation groups.
- Volunteer to adopt a wetland area. There are many projects that could use your help.
- Participate in wetland restoration and management. If you own land, there are numerous programs available to help you with your wetland. If you don’t own land, inform your friends and neighbors who do about these opportunities and encourage them to participate.
- Learn more about wetlands and share your knowledge with others including school classes and youth groups.
- Support wetlands conservation legislation, programs and proposals. Be active in policy decisions–your voice counts.
- Seek to incorporate wetlands conservation into city, county, and natural resources district planning.
- Report illegal wetland drainage. Many activities are allowed in wetlands; however, if you’re uncertain, contact the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at (402) 896-0723 or your local Natural Resources Conservation Service office.
Is Nebraska doing enough to protect its wetlands? Are you doing something special to help conserve these vital resources? Let me know below!