Wetlands Reimagined

Wetlands are amazing but complicated habitats, with unique management challenges. To understand their importance it helps to know that the landscape you see today is nothing like the landscape prior to European settlement.


Two hundred years ago, the Missouri River corridor was a broad, flat river floodplain that was full of tree snags and sandbars. It was not a river that maintained water levels throughout the course of a year; instead, it would have peak flows in March and June due to snowmelt runoff from the far northern extent of its drainage system. It was a river that made colonization of the Midwest very difficult. To overcome this challenge, the U.S. government charged the Army Corps of Engineers to clear the river of snags. Over the years, they also erected a series of dams and reservoirs in the upper reaches of the river to combat frequent flooding. The goal was to make farming the river bottoms realistic, and to support a navigation channel for public travel and shipping commercial goods.

These changes helped settlers populate the Midwest, but they also affected natural communities and populations. Wetlands were reduced by as much as 95 percent in some states. Most of Missouri’s wetlands declined during the 20th century, and so did animal populations that required wetlands. Hundreds of species use wetlands for some or all of their life cycles.

Waterfowl declined in the 20th century until conservation agencies and partner organizations like Ducks Unlimited made efforts to conserve land and populations. Efforts like outlawing market hunting and enacting conservation legislation, including the Federal Duck Stamp Program, Wetland Reserve Program, and the North American Wetland Management Plan, have helped restore critical wetland habitat for ducks, geese, and swans, as well as other migratory and non-migratory species. Additional wetland restoration has been possible due to partnerships with the Army Corps of Engineers, now an active player in mitigating wetland loss in the U.S.

The landscape of today is much improved from that of 50 years ago; 140,000 acres of wetlands have been restored in Missouri since 1994. But the alterations to the big river systems remain, and restoring the landscape to its former state is not economically or logistically realistic. Instead, wildlife professionals have worked out creative solutions to provide stopover habitat for animals along the route of their migration paths. Government agencies manage wetland areas to provide maximum food and habitat conditions for these