Partnerships Put Conservation on the Ground

Northern pintails, river otters, prairie cordgrass, blue-winged teal, king rails, mink and common snipe all have new homes or important migration stopovers thanks to recent partnerships for wetland restoration in northeast Lincoln County. Two additions to B.K. Leach Memorial Conservation Area, the Kings Lake Tract and Bittern Basin Unit, encompass more than 2,500 acres that will be restored to freshwater marsh, wet prairie and bottomland hardwoods.

Since 2001, 14 individual partner groups consisting of government agencies, nonprofit conservation organizations and one local business have been involved in the acquisition, restoration and management of the two tracts.

Not any wetland will do

The additions are significant because of their size and their rare and important habitat type: extensive seasonally flooded marshes dominated by smartweeds, rushes, wild millets and pondweeds. Before restoration, these shallow and treeless wetlands were dominated by shrub swamp and bottomland forest, which are still relatively common along the upper Mississippi River.

Restoration of shallow, seasonally flooded marshes provides vital migration habitats for waterfowl and shorebird species on their transcontinental flights. The same areas also provide habitat for resident birds, mammals, amphibians and wetland plants. Unfortunately, restoring wetlands of this type (due to the ease in which they can be drained) is usually expensive and dependent on major infrastructure, an obstacle that makes partnerships so important for these projects.

Where we began

In 2001, the previous landowner enrolled 2,800 acres into the Wetland Reserve Program (WRP), a federal program administered by the United States Department of Agriculture. This program uses easements to restore former wetland areas on private land. Following the enrollment, a group of conservation partners applied for and received a North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA) grant to acquire the two tracts.

NAWCA, passed in 1989 and governed by partnerships, allows the federal government to provide matching funds to partnerships with the common goal of wetland conservation. Partners in the NAWCA project included the Natural Resources Conservation Service (United States Department of Agriculture), United States Fish and Wildlife Service, Missouri Department of Conservation, The American Land Conservancy, Mary E. Leach Trust, Ducks Unlimited, Waterfowl USA (currently MO Waterfowl Association), and Forrest Keeling Nursery.

The acquisition of the property was an impressive example of the effectiveness of partnerships, and the actual restoration and management of the land required still more partners. The NRCS funded efforts to build the levees and structures necessary to make former wetlands wet again.

Certain restrictions have been placed on the property to secure the WRP easement, and some of these restrict public use by limiting the development of access roads and other facilities. However, it is important to note that the WRP enrollment was the impetus that allowed the entire project to proceed in 2001. Without WRP, the acquisition would have stalled and most likely would not have occurred.

Partner projects

Several other projects concurrent with the area's development were completed using partnership organizations:

  • Ducks Unlimited contributed major funding for a well on the Bittern Basin Unit through their marsh grant program. The well is critical for providing flooded habitats in the fall. It is also used to supplement water levels at other times of the year.
  • The St. Louis Audubon Society contributed many hours of birding expertise while assisting with a marsh bird survey on the Bittern Basin Unit in 2005 and 2006. The survey documented breeding season use of the wetland pools in just the second year by king rails, least bitterns, sora rails, and pied-billed grebes. Uncommon breeding birds in Missouri, king rails and least bitterns are facing major declines throughout most of their range.
  • Researchers from the University of Arkansas and Louisiana State University USGS Cooperative Wildlife Research Units are using the newly created wetlands as a key site for a study of king rail distribution in the lower Mississippi Flyway.
  • The Elsberry FFA chapter has expanded their volunteer effort in wood duck banding to sites on the new additions. A favorite activity of many of the students, it is also the first exposure to conservation that many of the students receive.
  • The Mississippi Valley Duck Hunters Association also purchased a boat blind for public waterfowl hunter use.

Due to the efforts of a wide variety of partner agencies and organizations, duck hunters have new pools to ply with layout boats; king rails have an abundance of new nesting habitat; birders have a new destination for spotting the vagrant sandhill crane, black-necked stilt, or glossy ibis; mallards, pintail, gadwall, teal, and at least a dozen other duck species, have a new destination during fall flights and an equally important stopover on the spring return. Although the restoration is still in its infancy, the response of wetland-dependent species and the continued involvement of outside partner groups will be worth watching