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Wetlands of the United States

Their Extent and Their Value To Waterfowl and Other Wildlife

The Problem of Saving Wetlands

The great natural wealth that originally made possible the growth and development of the United States included a generous endowment of shallow-water and waterlogged lands. The original inhabitants of the New World had utilized the animals living among these wet places for food and clothing, but they permitted the land to remain essentially unchanged.

Mallards landing on a stream

The advent of European settlers brought great changes in the land, and aquatic habitats were particularly vulnerable to the settlers' activities. Kenney and McAtee wrote in 1938:

Among the assets of mankind, wildlife receives its true appraisal only in advanced stages of civilization, when, owing to the heedless destruction of earlier times, it has been seriously if not irreparably reduced. Under pioneer conditions the rules for the treatment of wildlife are immediate exploitation of the useful and drastic destruction of the useless, and these rules tend to remain in effect long after the original motives are gone. In the earlier stages of settlement no one thinks of allotting any land for the use of wildlife; the effort is to wrest every possible acre from nature and make it yield an income. There is no vision to see, there is no time to learn, that land units with their natural occupants, as exemplified by a beaver meadow, a muskrat marsh, a duck lake, a deer forest, or an antelope mesa, are productive entities that under certain circumstances may be worth far more than anything man can put in their place and that once destroyed may never be reestablished. [7] 1


The term "wetlands," as used in this report and in the wildlife field generally, refers to lowlands covered with shallow and sometimes temporary or intermittent waters. They are referred to by such names as marshes, swamps, bogs, wet meadows, potholes, sloughs, and river-overflow lands. Shallow lakes and ponds, usually with emergent vegetation as a conspicuous feature, are included in the definition, but the permanent waters of streams, reservoirs, and deep lakes are not included. Neither are water areas that are so temporary as to have little or no effect on the development of moist-soil vegetation. Usually these very temporary areas are of no appreciable value to the species of wildlife considered in this report.

Most wetlands can be drained or filled to create suitable land for agricultural, industrial, or residential expansion. Others lie in potential impoundment sites where permanent deep-water environments can be developed. If either type of project is carried out, however, the food and cover plants required by waterfowl and other wetland wildlife no longer grow in abundance. These aquatic plants need waterlogged or shallow-water soils in order to thrive.

Apparently, a great many people still think that until one of these two courses is followed, any wetland area is just so much wasteland--an unfortunate occurrence in the land-economist's classification of productive land uses. So long as this belief prevails, wetlands will continue to be drained, filled, diked, impounded, or otherwise altered, and thus will lose their identity as wetlands and their value as wildlife habitat.


State and Federal agencies engaged in conflicting programs of wetland destruction and wetland preservation must work together to develop unified wetland-use programs that are both acceptable to the landowner and beneficial to the Nation.

It is one-sided planning, for example, if a flood-control agency neglects wildlife values as it plans for the elimination of river-overflow areas, when these areas are used by millions of ducks during the winter season.

In land-use planning, an agency dealing with drainage projects would be subject to criticism if its plans to remove water from extensive marshlands or scattered potholes were developed without regard for the fact that, individually or collectively, they provide essential habitat for thousands of duck broods, as well as homes for economically important muskrats and other fur animals.

Total-resource planning would be equally ineffective if the wetland preservationists sat on the sidelines and objected to all drainage and flood-control projects without appreciating the requirements of these other interests or offering to cooperate in a plan to help preserve the best wildlife wetlands.

Within the past decade, there has been an increased awareness on the part of game and fish administrators and the general public that the preservation of aquatic habitats must be a cooperative endeavor. Fish and wildlife agencies, because of limited funds and personnel, could never hope to do an adequate job by themselves. They need the help of other land-use agencies whose primary responsibilities lie outside the fish and game field. Cooperative planning with these agencies can go a long way in preserving and improving conditions for wetland-inhabiting fish and wildlife -- by providing that proper attention is given to their habitat needs.

The ultimate importance of waterfowl and other wetland wildlife in furnishing recreation for the growing population of our country will depend on the extent to which wetlands are preserved as wildlife habitat in connection with the use and development of other resource needs. In many instances, wildlife must be a byproduct of more essential land and water uses; in others, wildlife production should be the primary objective of land use. In any case, advance planning must be done before it is too late.

As a basic step to such planning, the Fish and Wildlife Service, with full cooperation of the State game agencies, began an extensive inventory of the wetlands in the United States to determine (a) the location and extent of wetlands in each of the 48 States, (b) the wetland types in each area or group of areas, and (c) their relative usefulness to wildlife, particularly waterfowl, in the States where they are found. More than 74 million acres of wetlands were delineated, classified, and evaluated. The inventory covered both private and public lands.

Detailed information on local wetland areas is contained on county maps and tables filed in the Regional Offices of the Fish and Wildlife Service, which are located in Portland, Oreg., Albuquerque, N. Mex., Minneapolis, Minn., Atlanta, Ga., and Boston, Mass. These maps and data are available for cooperative planning with State and Federal conservation agencies.

This report presents the general results of the inventory from a national point of view, and lays the groundwork for a greater appreciation of the problems, challenges, and opportunities connected with the preservation and improvement of wetlands for wildlife use.

1Italic numbers in brackets refer to items in the List of References.
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