As Gerald Mestl piloted his flat-bottom boat through the turbid, earthy waters of the Missouri River, the Nebraska Game and Parks biologist pointed to a nearby sandbar. There, nearly two dozen snow geese sat sunning themselves on a brilliant fall day.
“This is where waterfowl should be, instead of out on a golf course,” Mestl said.
On another sandbar nearby, he noted a spot where a hunter had planted a marker staking out a spot for a hunting blind.
Neither of those river sandbars just off Pelican Point State Recreation Area in northeast Nebraska existed three years ago. They were created by a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project intended to restore shallow-water habitat to a river that decades ago was drastically altered into a highway for river barges.
Nebraska Rep. Jeff Fortenberry said such habitat restoration projects make sense not only for wildlife and sportsmen, but also for all with economic or environmental interests along the river. That’s why the Republican from Lincoln will soon be introducing in Congress a bipartisan bill to greatly enhance federal funding to restore threatened ecosystems.
“Protecting wildlife and enhancing the space so wildlife can flourish not only is right in itself, but it brings extraordinary benefits to us for both recreation and hunting,” Fortenberry said.
The Recovering America’s Wildlife Act would designate $1.3 billion annually to fund state wildlife conservation programs.
All states more than a decade ago were required to come up with State Wildlife Action Plans, designating ecosystems in their states that are threatened, endangered, rare or declining.
Nebraska’s Game and Parks Commission identified 38 such ecosystems across the state, from the Wildcat Hills and Pine Ridge in the Panhandle to the wetlands of Cherry County, the loess hills of Custer County, the headwaters of the Elkhorn and Dismal Rivers and the bluffs along the Missouri at Indian Cave.
But while requiring the plans, the federal government has provided little financial assistance to implement them.
The State of Nebraska currently receives about $500,000 annually, using those dollars to work with willing landowners to restore critical habitat. Kristal Stoner, wildlife diversity manager for Game and Parks, said it’s estimated that the Fortenberry bill would mean an additional $15 million annually in Nebraska.
“We are really set to go,” Stoner said. “We just need additional funding.”
Fortenberry said the federal government often isn’t spurred to action on habitat until a species becomes endangered, a federal designation that often leads to drastic actions that affect economic interests in the region. He said it would make more sense to work proactively with willing landowners to restore habitat before things get to that point.
“Why not get out in front of that?” he said.
Fortenberry said the Deer Island project along the troubled Missouri River shows the promise of such habitat restoration.
Beginning in the 1930s, the federal government heavily engineered the Missouri from St. Louis to Sioux City to spur barge traffic. A wide, meandering and shallow river that at some points spread 4,000 feet wide was severely narrowed and deepened to create a 600-foot navigable waterway.
Ironically, the barge traffic never materialized. Today, the equivalent of about four trainloads of barge commerce plies the Missouri north of Kansas City each year, said Mestl, Missouri River program manager for Game and Parks. But much damage was done, with some 500,000 acres of forests, wetlands and other habitat lost in Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri and Kansas.
Nearly 80 percent of the fish species in the Missouri have been in serious decline, largely because of the loss of the shallow and slow waters they need to feed and spawn.
The Army Corps of Engineers began efforts to restore lost habitat about three decades ago when the pallid sturgeon, an ancient fish that has plied the river’s muddy bottoms since dinosaur days, and two species of river shorebirds were officially declared endangered.
Deer Island is one of the latest such efforts. The corps removed tons of soil along a 3-mile bend in the river to widen the river to roughly 1,400 feet. In addition, rock dikes were piled in the river perpendicular to the current to slow the water. Sandbars tend to form behind the dikes, as silt drops to the bottom from the slow-moving current.
For those used to traversing miles and miles of a 600-foot-wide river, Deer Island seems as wide as the ocean, Mestl said. And wildlife seem to have taken notice, too. “When they opened it up the first year, waterfowl found it right away,” he said, “and hunters found it right after that.”
It’s possible that the pallid sturgeon has also taken notice. Mestl said a Game and Parks team recently hooked some 50 pallids just downriver from Deer Island. The catch was bound for a hatchery, part of an effort to artificially prop up the population until more natural biological processes are restored.
Looking at the restored river at Deer Island, Mestl said it’s easy to see how it benefits all the river’s fish.
“You can see calm water, you can see slow water, you can see water going back upstream,” he said. “We have all kinds of diversity in depth and velocity. That’s our goal.”
Source: Henry Cordes