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Too much water, now too little for wildlife refuge

Friday, December 14, 2012 | 3:49 p.m. CST

ST. JOSEPH — A three-month flood in 2011 left the 7,800-acre Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge with too much water. But a year later the refuge is fighting for every drop.

Typically, the refuge has 3,800 acres made up of 12 pools and 10 moist soil units that provide the water for migrating birds, said Ron Bell, the refuge manager.

But this isn't a typical year. Last fall, the staff worked to evacuate all the flood waters and remove as much sediment as possible.

"There's still a lot of subsoil moisture," said Corey Kudrna, a wildlife refuge assistant. "And we've been capturing every drop of runoff since July."

Other than flood waters from the Missouri River, all of the refuge's water comes from Squaw Creek, Davis Creek and a pump that delivers 2,500 gallons of water per minute from an aquifer well, Bell said.

The Missouri River is five miles from the refuge and doesn't normally contribute moisture to the wetlands.

"The good news in August was that the area received a 5-inch rain," Kudrna said. "We worked all night long to make sure we captured every drop that night."

A 60,000-acre watershed north and northeast of the refuge drains into the two creeks to provide the wetlands with their normal moisture.

"It's why the Mallard and Pintail pools still have water this year," Kudrna said. "Basically, we're tied to whatever moisture comes off the bluffs."

This year, the Bluff, Cattail and Eagle pools don't have much if any water. They do have a lot of American lotus plants.

"It's not a plant we want a lot of, but it's the one that survived the flood," Bell said.

Typically, the American lotus plant has large, waxy leaves that block out sunlight, preventing more favorable plants such as millet from growing and producing seeds.

The refuge has managed to still have a lot of seed-producing plants, especially smartweed or the pepper plant.

"It's a reddish-brown plant that produces a lot of seeds from what normally is a pencil-thin stalk that stands about 3 feet tall," Bell said. "This year with the fields and ponds saturated by farm sediment, heavy with nitrogen from last year's floodwaters, those smartplants are about 8 feet tall with 1 and 1/2-inch stalk."

Red-winged blackbirds, ducks and geese all eat those seeds. So the refuge has food but only a little water.

"Instead of that 3,800 acres of water, there's only 1,700 acres covered by shallow water," Bell said. "And in really cold weather the pools are freezing over."

It will take all the winter water the seven-member staff can capture to get the pool water levels up and ready for the spring northern migration.

The birds that haven't been seen much this fall are the Canada and snow geese.

Last week, the bird count included about 100,000 ducks, 24 Sandhill cranes, some 170 trumpeter and tundra swans, a number of pelicans that are staying longer than usual and some 70 eagles, Kudrna said.

This year, there was some interesting nesting news for the refuge. Three eagle nests can be seen when visitors drive the circular road through the refuge. And staff say four eagles hatched at Squaw Creek this year. Also, a growing group of sandhill cranes have been staying from spring until winter.

Trumpeter swans used to be a seldom-seen sight at the refuge, but as many as 178 have been viewed in the pools this year, Bell said.

All roads and trails are open year round from sunrise to sunset, and the staff is sure people will still see plenty of birds throughout winter and into the spring migration. There are no fees charged for this family-oriented nature adventure. Some 250,000 people visit the refuge every year. For more information about this natural wonder in Northwest Missouri, visit the refuge's page on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's website.


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