News Story

Managing WRP for Waterfowl

Posted on 4/20/2009 by Sarah Fleming

What do you envision when you hear or read the words "moist-soil wetland"? Do you think mud, shallow water, and weeds? Indeed these are all components of moist-soil wetlands. Researchers at Mississippi State University (MSU) and Arkansas Tech University (ATU) are working with the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) to evaluate the effect of management on moist-soil plant and wildlife communities in Mississippi and Arkansas. The NRCS and university biologists are working with private landowners to increase habitat for wetland wildlife by increasing number and area of managed moist-soil wetlands on private properties enrolled in the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP).

Conservation initiatives of the Farm Bill, such as WRP, are helping restore former agricultural lands to wetlands with native grasses and bottomland trees. The WRP provides landowners with technical and financial assistance to restore and enhance habitat for migratory birds and other wetland plants and wildlife.

Moist-soil management generally entails gradually draining water from wetland impoundments in spring or summer, followed by soil disturbance by disking. This management sequence promotes growth of annual plants. Annual plants are targeted in moist-soil management because they produce abundant seeds and tubers with high nutritional value for a variety of wetland wildlife. Managed moist-soil areas are flooded in fall and winter, making seeds, tubers, and aquatic invertebrates available to migratory and wintering birds. "However, management intensity and seasonal water draw-down dates vary among landowners, and understanding how different management regimes affect plants and wildlife will help evaluate how well conservation goals of the WRP are being met," said Sarah Fleming, a MSU student working on the project in partial fulfillment for her M.S. degree in wildlife science.

Mississippians and Arkansans have seen an average loss of over 60% of wetland and forested wetland habitat since the 1950s. Fortunately, over the past decade conservation programs have helped increase total wetland acreage. Conservation programs are essential for restoration of lost habitat. Also, there is need for a monitoring tool that biologists and landowners can use to evaluate moist-soil and other wetland enhancement efforts. This need is why NRCS partnered with MSU and ATU to evaluate if different management techniques on WRP moist-soil wetlands were influencing plant and bird communities. "We hope to provide an answer to the question: ’what can I do as a landowner to improve moist-soil wetlands for wildlife‘," said Fleming.

Fleming has completed one of two years of her research. Her preliminary results are consistent with past?? research indicating that actively managed moist-soil wetlands (e.g., annual or regular soil disking, mowing, or herbicide control of invasive plants) provided the greatest diversity and occurrence of seed producing annual plants for waterfowl and other wildlife. Past research from MSU demonstrated that seed production?? in managed moist-soil wetlands throughout the Lower Mississippi Valley averages 500 lbs/acre. Energy and other nutrient values of many moist-soil seeds and tubers consumed by waterfowl often compare with agricultural seeds, but nutrient diversity is greater in moist-soil wetlands than croplands because of plant species diversity in these wetlands.

Fleming’s preliminary results also suggest that retaining water on moist-soil wetlands into early summer (i.e., draw-down by July) produced desirable annual plant communities. Although plants began growing later in the growing season, the quality of food resources available to fall and winter migrating birds were similar to areas where water was removed in spring. Indeed, wetlands with late draw-down retained water longer and were used by shorebirds, resident wading birds, and other wetland dependent wildlife during summer.

Funding for this project was graciously provided by NRCS Agriculture, Wildlife Conservation Center through the Cooperative Ecosystem Studies Units (CESU). Support for this project is offered through Mississippi State University, Department of Wildlife and Fisheries and the Forest and Wildlife Research Center. Similarly, Fleming would also like acknowledge all the private WRP landowners and WRP managers in Grenada, Quitman, Sharkey, Sunflower, Tallahatchie, Tunica, Warren, and Yazoo counties for gracious use of their land and support for this project.

Sarah’s 2008 results contribute to an increasing body of literature suggesting that active management is important to maintain early succession, diverse plant communities in moist-soil wetlands that are favored by waterbirds and wetland wildlife, remarked Dr. Rick Kaminski, Fleming’s co-major professor and waterfowl-wetland ecologist. "Clearly, WRP landowners should observe positive results when they gradually de-water wetlands during spring and summer and maintain early succession plant communities by regular disking," said Kaminski.

Fleming will continue her research to determine how different management techniques influence waterbird use and the 2009 plant communities. Final results of Fleming’s study, including "best management" practices for WRP landowners, will be available in early 2010.