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A Closer Look: Wetlands


Scott Gomes

JPG - Wetlands Picture

Originally published in:
North Dakota Outdoors
(June, 1998)

Official Publication of the
State Game and Fish Department
100 North Bismarck Expressway
Bismarck, North Dakota 58501-5095

This resource is based on the following source:
Gomes, Scott.  1998.  A closer look: Wetlands.  North Dakota Outdoors 60(10):
This resource should be cited as:
Gomes, Scott.  1998.  A closer look: Wetlands.  North Dakota Outdoors 60(10):
     12-13.  Jamestown, ND: Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center Online.
     (Version 01SEPT98).

Return to A Closer Look Series
North Dakota's valuable wetlands are back. They really didn't go anywhere, but were just missing a vital component - water.

From 1987 to 1992, much of North Dakota endured a severe drought and many wetlands, even small lakes, went dry. Duck populations suffered the biggest oecline since the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service started tracking numbers in 1955.

Wetlands are among the most biologically diverse ecosystems on earth, often compared to coral reefs and tropical rain forests. By definition, a wetland is "a transitional area between terrestrial and aquatic systems where water is the dominant factor determining types of plant growth and nature of soil development."

The USFWS basically has four classications for wetlands: temporary, seasonal, semi-permanent and permanent. A temporary wetland holds water for brief periods during spring or summer, usually for about two weeks. A seasonal wetland will hold water through much of the summer but will usually go dry by season's end.

A semi-permanent wetland will hold water throughout the summer but may become dry every two or three years. And finally, a permanent wetland holds water all year, every year. Even when water is not on the surface of these types of wetlands, they are still wetlands.

North Dakota is well-known for its wetlands. In fact, roughly two-thirds of North Dakota contains small, pothole-like wetlands. These wetlands are located largely north and east of the Missouri River in an area known as the Prairie Pothole Region.

Most of North Dakota's wetlands were formed by receding and melting glaciers about 14,000 years ago. The glaciers left large pits in the ground that filled with water, and also gouged trenches into the water table that exposed wet zones. These wetlands fill during spring from snow melt runoff, or during summer rain storms.

Wetlands provide nesting, rearing, feeding and predator escape habitat for a wide array of wildlife. Teachers can educate young students on the intriguing cycles of nature and college students can use wetlands for biology, medicine and economics research.

Wetlands also provide endless recreational opportunities such as bird watching, hunting, photography and fishing. Hunters spend well over $300 million annually in pursuit of waterfowl that use wetlands. An estimated 50 million people spend nearly $10 billion each year observing or photographing wetland-dependent birds, a truly amazing economic impact.

Wetlands provide other benefits, like storing flood water, preventing it from running into already rising rivers or large areas of sheet water. This protects adjacent and downstream property from flood damage. Wetlands also recharge ground-water supplies and help improve water quality by filtering surface water that could contain pollutants, organic waste or high sediment loads. A wetland located between a river and high ground will buffer the shoreline from excessive wave action and reduce erosion.

The benefits wetlands provide to humans and wildlife are enormous. Unfortunately, more than half of the wetlands in the United States have been lost due to draining or filling. From the mid-1970s to mid-'80s, the United States lost wetlands at a rate of 290,000 acres per year. This loss has led to increased flooding of cities, a decrease in natural water purification, reduction in aquifer recharging, habitat loss and species decline.

What can you do to prevent the loss of more wetlands? Economic assistance programs designed to maintain or restore wetlands are available to landowners from wildlife agencies or county extension offices. Purchase of federal duck stamps helps develop and preserve wetlands, whether you hunt waterfowl or just enjoy viewing. You can become a member of a conservation organization such as Ducks Unlimited or The Nature Conservancy, which contribute money for wetland development and protection. Above all, make sure your friends and family know about the importance of wetlands and the need to conserve wildlife habitat.

Scott Gomes is a technician with the Department's natural resources division.

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