By Nick Simonson
As snow piles higher and higher across the region and cold temperatures refuse to lift, the one-two punch of a suddenly very real winter has many conservationists worried for wildlife. Additionally, looking forward to an eventual melt, concern also rises in regard to spring flooding as coulees, drains, creeks and streams will swell with the onset of any extended warm conditions. While elevators and sportsmen dump corn alongside the roads in an effort to feed pheasants and deer, and anyone near a flood plain wrings their hands with the growing reality of spring floods following a super-snowy February, the real solution to the problems of both stressed wildlife and springtime flooding goes unconsidered, because without walking through the answer, it’s tough to see the benefits.
While scattered grain is a feel-good activity in areas where wildlife are stressed by winter conditions, the real solution to their long-term survival is the restoration and improvement of wetlands and thermal habitat that protects pheasants in the coldest of winters and provides a place to bunker down for deer in the deepest of chills. Reversing years of drain tiling and improving wetlands creates cattail cover which is vital for wildlife to survive the coldest stretches of winter and provides spring nesting areas for upland game and waterfowl. These deep areas are also the last places to fill in with snow and can be utilized by animals in all but the snowiest seasons. The money spent on broadcasting corn cobs behind a truck would be better utilized toward building wildlife areas and improving and expanding habitat on existing public and private spaces.
On top of the habitat that results from improving these places for wildlife are the benefits that come for people in all areas, from rural to urban. Sloughs and wetland areas are nature’s sponges. They slow down and absorb spring meltwater, keeping it all from dumping into the nearest river in a turbid rush. As wetlands have disappeared across the northern plains and drains and tiling have been installed to turn marginal lands into borderline-productive tilled acres, flooding problems have been exacerbated downstream, especially in springs like the one that is to be anticipated with this season’s recent snows. One need only look at a flow like the Red River on the border of North Dakota and Minnesota to see the impact in spring when diversions and floodwalls are deployed to prevent damage to downtown areas along the waterway, as it surges with the rapid discharge of tributary drainages no longer benefiting from the sloughs that once slowed down rushing meltwater from their feeder streams.
What’s more, upon closer inspection of big rivers like the Red, and smaller ones like the Minnesota River in southwestern Minnesota, it’s easy to see the other impact these missing marginal lands have on water quality. A fast warm-up in spring or a three-inch rain in summer turns these flows into chocolate milk in a matter of hours, further evidence that the empty fields quickly turn their water – and sediments, along with chemicals and other additives – over to the natural drain. Beyond the turbidity is the influx of insecticides, herbicides and nutrients which cause algae blooms, sedimentation, low oxygen levels and other conditions which greatly decrease biodiversity and desirable fish and wildlife populations in the immediate region on down to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico which seasonally increases to up to 6,500 square miles in area.
In some areas of the upper Midwest, where drain tiling is now the norm, people need only look to see the green lakes at the end of each drainage filled with carp and bullheads, where sportfish used to be. In other areas, the process of reversing 75 years of those projects has already begun through the passage of conservation legislation, installation of buffer strips, repair of lowland and wetland habitat areas, and protection of streams that feed into major river systems. In those places, the example of repairing and preserving sloughs and wetlands is already paying off with better water quality, quality fishing, less flooding, deeper habitat and more wildlife.
While we wait for a break in the weather, and any sign of spring, the worry for wildlife and for our own well-being will continue, due in no small part to the disappearance of swampy sloughs and deep cattail stands that once broke the flow of meltwater and provided cover for those animals struggling in the last stretch of winter. All hope is not lost, however, as conservation groups from local sportsmen’s clubs to national organizations like Ducks Unlimited and Pheasants Forever work to reverse the trend and restore balance one slough at a time. Support of these organizations whether through memberships or donations, will have more of an impact on preserving and protecting the well being of wildlife and everyone who lives downstream…in our outdoors.