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Mallards rise from a marsh in November 1996.

Wetlands are an important — and in some areas — a disappearing — part of Missouri’s natural landscape.

May is American Wetlands Month. That means this time of year is a good opportunity to focus on a habitat most people have heard of, but when pressed for details, many might have a hard time defining. Sadly, wetlands aren’t as common in Missouri as they once were, either.

It’s estimated there were between six and nine million acres of wetland habitat in Missouri when the first settlers arrived. Things are much “drier” today — there’s under a million acres of wetland habitat in the state.

Missouri’s wetlands come in a variety of appearances. The wooded swamps in the southeastern part of the state are wetlands. So are the large state and federal-operated marsh-like areas that are managed for wetland-dependent plants and animals and provide excellent waterfowl hunting and viewing opportunities of aquatic birds. So are some of the small, low-lying places scattered throughout the state that retain water (or are muddy) for at least part of the year.

Some people envision wetlands as being any shallow-water area. While many fit this description, this definition is too simplistic. It’s more accurate to say a wetland area is defined by the interaction that occurs between water, soils and plants. 

The easiest wetland characteristic for people to notice is vegetation. A wetland is an area containing enough soil moisture to support a variety of water-tolerant plants. Coontail, smartweed, duckweed, wild millet and cottonwood trees are just a few of a number of plants that have adapted to growing in areas of standing water and/or saturated soils.

This vegetation serves a number of purposes to the wetland. The plants’ seeds, leaves, roots, fruits and nuts provide food for a variety of birds and mammals. Vegetation also provides nesting habitat and/or brood-rearing habitat for many birds and mammals and, in deeper water, spawning and egg-laying areas for fish and amphibians. Wetlands provide autumn and spring stop-over sites for millions of migrating waterfowl and year-round habitat for some. 

Put it all together and you have one of Missouri’s most diverse habitats. It’s estimated nearly half of the plant species found in the state are associated with wetlands and more than a quarter of Missouri’s nesting and migratory birds depend on wetlands for part of their life cycle.

But wetlands benefit more than just the plants and animals of the state. Studies have shown wetlands help reduce pollution levels in water. The thick vegetation also helps filter silt and other particles out of water that overflow from streams during a flood event. This results in clearer and healthier waterways once the water returns to the stream channel.

The types of naturally occurring wetlands in Missouri are marshes, sinkhole ponds, swamps, shrub swamps, bottomland forests, bottomland prairies, groundwater seeps, fens, oxbow lakes (sloughs), and stream riparian areas. All were found here in pre-settlement times. Some were created by the periodic flooding of large rivers like the Missouri and Mississippi and the many streams that meander through the state’s low-lying floodplains. Others resulted from stream flow that was backed up by the numerous beaver dams found in parts of the state. Still others were the results of groundwater seeping from the base bluffs or hills or where water pooled in low-lying areas.

As Missouri became settled, many of these areas were viewed as sites that had greater potential as farmland than wildlife habitat. Stream channels were straightened and/or diverted, beavers were trapped out in many areas of the state, and swamps were drained and cleared. Some areas were logged for timber while others were plowed and planted with crops. The habitat these areas provided to wildlife disappeared and, along with it, the environmentally beneficial functions that had been provided by the wetland.

Today, the values of wetlands are being re-discovered. Many people are realizing the important roles wetlands play in re-charging and stabilizing underground aquifers, moderating flood waters and governing the flow of water. On top of these qualities are the recreational benefits some of our wetlands provide to millions of hunters, anglers and nature-viewers each year. Because of these characteristics, wetland protection and restoration has become one of the biggest conservation missions — and challenges — in Missouri and elsewhere around the country.

Although people are most familiar with publicly owned wetlands, privately owned wetland areas play a vital role in maintaining the region’s natural diversity, too. More information about wetland management can be found at your nearest Missouri Department of Conservation office or at mdc.mo.gov

Francis Skalicky is the media specialist for the Missouri Department of Conservation’s Southwest Region. For more information about conservation issues, call 895-6880.

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