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Wetland Conservation and Protection

Click here to view full size picture The following information is from Living With Michigan's Wetlands: A Landowner's Guide, copyright 1996, Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council

Wetland Conservation
Nest Boxes
Buffers and Greenbelts
Adjacent Habitat
Fencing
Stormwater Runoff
Septic Systems
Fertilizers and Pesticides
Recreational Use
Beaver Management
Shoreline Erosion
Exotic Species

Wetland Conservation

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The most important thing to remember about managing to protect your wetland is to work with what you have. For many wetland property owners, the best way to manage the wetland for protection and maintenance of the functions it serves is a hands-off approach. The hands-off approach means that you are not actively changing the key components of the wetland to modify the functions it naturally provides. It means that you are conscious of the potential threats to your wetland and are actively managing those threats If you can protect a wetland and its surrounding uplands from potential threats, the wetland will take care of itself and provide a range of beneficial functions.

The simplest way to manage your wetland is not to engage in land use changes or hydrologic modifications. In addition, many landowners want to engage in low level enhancement activities or do more to ensure that their wetlands are protected for the long term. All too often our thoughts about what we can do to protect wetlands is limited to activities within the wetland. Many of the management activities that landowners can take to guard their wetlands can occur outside the wetland boundaries.
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Nest Boxes

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One popular reason why people own wetlands is because of the bountiful wildlife habitat they provide. It follows then that most landowners who want to actively manage their property do so for the purpose of enhancing the area for wildlife. One of the most critical components of wildlife habitat is the availability of safe nesting areas. For ground nesters such as the mallard, wetlands that have no upland buffer provide little opportunity for nesting. For cavity nesters such as the wood duck and hooded merganser, the removal of large trees and snags adjacent to and in wetlands has severely limited their nesting opportunities. Landowners who want to create nesting areas for these and other species can build nest boxes, cylinders, and platforms, and place them in appropriate locations in their wetland. Unless you are willing to maintain the nest box or cylinder annually (i.e. clean out and replace wood shavings), it is best not to install them at all.

Buffers and Greenbelts

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Perhaps the most effective management practice to protect wetlands from adjacent human activities is to establish and maintain a vegetative buffer (or greenbelt) around the wetland. A greenbelt is simply a strip of upland surrounding the wetland that is maintained in a natural vegetated state. On properties which have had the natural vegetation removed, establishing a greenbelt involves planting native trees, shrubs, and ground cover, ceasing use of fertilizers and pesticides, and only cutting or removing select vegetation.

Greenbelts around wetlands provide many valuable functions. The vegetation in the greenbelt uptakes excess nutrients and pollutants in overland flow and thereby protects the wetland. The vegetation also serves to slow the velocity of overland flow which helps to prevent erosion and creates a better opportunity for the water to percolate into the soils. This helps to reduce the "flashy" nature of runoff from urbanized areas. Greenbelts are very important from a wildlife standpoint. The greenbelt serves as a visual and noise barrier to the interior of the wetland, which is beneficial to wildlife that are sensitive to human disturbance. The greenbelt also serves as a habitat connector between the wetland and upland habitats, or as a protective pathway between different wetlands. Such wildlife corridors are very important to many animals, especially those with large ranges.

The ideal greenbelt width ranges from 50 to 300 feet or more depending on a variety of factors, including slope, soil type, amount of water flowing through the greenbelt, size of wetland, functions the wetland provides, activities in the watershed, and management goals, such as attracting certain types of wildlife into the greenbelt area. Even if you cannot install a greenbelt of the ideal width, it is important to remember that a greenbelt of any width is better than no green belt at all.
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Adjacent Habitat

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What happens in your wetland is influenced by what happens in the upland parts of your wetland's watershed. The establishment and maintenance of a greenbelt is considered the first line of defense against pollutant-laden stormwater and as a buffer against upland activity that might adversely impact the wetland. However, just as a wetland can be over stressed by too much sediment and nutrient input, greenbelts cannot be expected to handle the stormwater, sediment, and other pollutants resulting from poor land use management activities in adjacent uplands.

Most wetland wildlife, including many waterfowl species, benefit from upland nesting and feeding areas adjacent to wetlands. Ground nesting species such as mallard and black ducks require either uplands adjacent to wetlands, nesting islands, or artificial platforms. Establishing native vegetation in the upland around your wetland can meet the needs of these and numerous other wildlife species. Songbirds, raptors (such as the threatened red-shouldered hawk and bald eagle), and game birds such as woodcock, pheasant, and ruffed grouse all benefit from undeveloped uplands adjacent to wetlands. For recommendations on what plant species should be established to attract certain types of wildlife, contact your County Soil and Water Conservation District, groups that focus on particular species (e.g., Ducks Unlimited), or other conservation agencies.

How you protect and enhance adjacent upland habitat will depend on your unique circumstances and primary management goals. Accordingly, there is no practical way to address the wide range of options in this space. Regardless of what you are planning to do in the uplands (e.g., nothing, farm corn, build homes, etc.), there are several things that you must keep in mind: How can I manage stormwater runoff so that its quantity is as close as possible to the original flow? What pollutants might my upland activities be generating and how can I control them on site? What wildlife use the upland/wetland complex and how can I manage the upland to benefit these species? Once these questions are answered, how to manage the uplands to benefit your wetland will become more clear.
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Fencing

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In areas where livestock grazing in wetlands or excessive human use is degrading wetlands, fencing is one of the simplest ways to protect your wetland. This is especially critical in wetlands along streams and lakes where the degradation is directly impacting water quality through erosion and sedimentation. Even if you can't fence all of your wetland, you can often fence off overused places where extra protection is necessary. There are several things to consider when determining what fencing is best for you. First, fencing should be placed as far from the wetland as is reasonably possible. In this way, the fenced area also includes a protective buffer between the activity and the wetland. Second, choosing the correct fence material for the purpose will save money and maintenance time. For example, a single-strand, high-tensile fence with flexible line posts will keep cattle out of an area, will collect less debris, and is less likely to be damaged during flooding than a woven wire fence.
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Stormwater Runoff

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Runoff is an important component of a wetland's hydrologic budget. However, what stormwater picks up from the ground surface on its way to the wetland can be damaging, especially in urban areas. In an undeveloped vegetated landscape a majority of the precipitation soaks into the ground and becomes ground water. In areas that are urbanized, much of the ground is covered with impervious surfaces such as roof and concrete. As a result, there is an increase in the quantity and a decrease in the quality of water entering the wetland. There are three primary issues related to stormwater runoff that landowners must consider when protecting wetlands. The first is to minimize the amount of stormwater runoff that is generated beyond background levels. The second is to consider where and how to convey the stormwater. The third is to refrain from activities that pollute stormwater runoff.

The best way to minimize stormwater is to minimize the amount of impervious surfaces that cover the ground. For projects that will generate runoff no matter what you do (like building the roof of a house), it is best to do what you can to encourage the water to soak into the ground, thus minimizing the runoff that leaves the sites and enters the wetland. If enough runoff is generated so that it must be conveyed somewhere, the best option is to construct a grass-lined swale. The grass will help to slow the runoff so it does not cause erosion, the living plants will take up nutrients, and the physical structure of the plants will help trap sediments.

The third issue noted above deals with being conscious of the fact that what we put on the land ends up in our water. Every year in Michigan, millions of gallons of oil are still poured on the ground during "do-it-yourself" oil changes. This oil then ends up contaminating ground water. Pesticides and herbicides flow off the land with the water and enter our wetlands, lakes, and streams. What we put on the ground around our home or farm ends up in our drinking water or surface water. Before you decide to dump something on the ground, ask yourself, "is this something that I would want to drink or swim in?"
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Septic Systems

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Septic systems also are a source of pollutants to wetlands. Be sure your septic system is operating properly. If you notice the area over your drain field is wet or particularly green, or if you can smell sewage during rainy periods, then your system is not working properly. Seepage from your system may be polluting nearby areas, including your wetland. To avoid this problem, have your septic system pumped and inspected every three to five years (or less, depending on the system) and commit to upgrading the system when necessary. In addition, water conservation practices such as installing low-flow toilets and shower heads can extend the life of a septic system.

Fertilizers and Pesticides

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There are many safe alternatives to chemical fertilizers and pesticides around the home. Organic pesticide formulations, use of other insects to fight pests, and composting kitchen and yard waste to enrich soil have all been successful in meeting the needs of homeowners. The MSU Extension Agent in your county and many environmental organizations can recommend alternatives to using chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Many homeowners use fertilizers when they do not need to. Before you decide to use fertilizers, you should get your soil tested to see if it is even necessary. If you do use fertilizers or pesticides, follow manufacturer's directions carefully. Never apply more than is recommended. On the farm, use pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers only when needed and within product guidelines. Research into the technology and practice of Integrated Pest Management (IPM) has provided an excellent way to reduce reliance on heavy inputs of pesticides. Contact the NRCS, your Soil and Water Conservation District, or MSU Extension Agent to find out about IPM practices in your area. The establishment of a chemical - free greenbelt to buffer the wetland from upland use of fertilizers and pesticides is very important.
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Recreational Use

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Waves from motorboats can cause erosion damage to riparian wetlands. Although wetlands serve to dampen wave energy, the waves from boats often generate much larger waves than the physical parameters of the water body would normally generate. One way to protect these areas is to establish "No Wake Zones." In other cases it may be appropriate to limit the speed or motor size on an entire lake. To find out how to establish a no wake zone near your wetland or a speed limit on your lake, contact the marine division of your county sheriff's office. Because of the damage to soils and vegetation, the use of ORVs such as dirt bikes, all-terrain vehicles, and even mountain bikes should not be permitted in wetlands.

Recreational activities such as hunting, fishing, hiking, canoeing, and bird watching are compatible with wetland protection as long as wildlife and their habitat are not disturbed by overuse. If you and your family and friends are the only individuals using the wetland, then recreation activities are not likely to be a problem. However, if you have many other individuals using your land who may not be sensitive to the needs of wildlife, then you may need to limit some uses during critical times such as breeding or nesting seasons. Accomplishing this might be as simple as a sign at access points of something more complicated like installing a fence or constructing a boardwalk to manage where people go in the wetland.
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Beaver Management

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Beavers can be a very important component of wetland systems. However, they can also be a nuisance. The most important part of beaver management is population regulation. Beavers have one or two kits each year. An established beaver colony is usually composed of three generations: kits, yearlings, and a pair of adults. When the yearlings become two-year-olds, they usually leave the parental colony and set up their own colony elsewhere, which makes room for the next litter of kits. An established colony of beavers can sustain the removal of between one and two beavers each year. If fewer beavers are removed, then colonization of additional habitat will occur and the chances for nuisance beaver activity will increase.

The removal of established dams should be avoided unless it is determined necessary for the benefit of the river or stream system by a competent biologist. Even then, beaver dam removal should be done slowly and carefully to avoid downstream scouring from increased flows and to reduce downstream siltation. It should also be noted that beaver dam removal will not solve the problems associated with beavers unless the activity is coupled with beaver removal.

Shoreline Erosion

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In shoreline areas that are experiencing erosion, controlling erosion is very important. The first step in controlling erosion is to evaluate the nature and extent of the problem and determine if the problem is serious enough to warrant corrective action. There are two basic reasons for controlling erosion: to protect property and to protect the environment. If the erosion is largely the result of natural processes that do not harm the environment and that do not threaten property, then erosion control may not be necessary. Assuming that you determine the nature and extent of the erosion warrant corrective measures, the next step is to look at the alternative methods of control and select the one that is most appropriate.

Exotic Species

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Management activities to control the spread or invasion of exotic plant species which impact wetland vegetation communities and wildlife habitat vary depending on the size and type of the wetland, the invading species, the extent of the invasion, and the resources available to the landowner. The most ubiquitous exotic or nuisance plant species impacting Michigan's wetlands are reed canary grass, buckthorn (common & glossy), phragmites, and purple loosestrife. The worst of these is purple loosestrife. Although each of these plants looks different they share many similarities. They have few pests, they form dense stands which crowd out other vegetation, and they have little value as food or cover for native wildlife.

The first and best line of defense is to minimize the opportunities for invasion by nuisance species. Landowners should refrain from growing invasive species in their yards or gardens and should discourage their neighbors from doing so also.

Given that plant seeds can be transported into your wetland by other sources (flowing water, birds, and other animals, etc.), it will not be possible to stop all introduction of exotic and nuisance species into your wetland. Accordingly, the next line of defense is to destroy those plants that do make it into your wetland and take root. If the introduced population is small, and they are recognized and removed early, there is a good chance that you can keep your wetland from being completely overrun. Removal methods include hand pulling or cutting the vegetation before the seeds set and cautious use of herbicides that affect broad-leaved plant species. Hand pulling may require gently "teasing" the roots to facilitate pulling the entire plant. Although hand pulling involves the most time, some consider it the most effective way to eradicate new stands.

Vegetation cutting alone will limit seed production and dramatically slow the spread of a loosestrife or phragmites stand, but it will not remove it. This is because invasive plants like purple loosestrife and phragmites can reproduce from the root stock. In addition, purple loosestrife can sprout from plant pieces. For this reason it is important to be careful to remove all plant pieces from the wetland when hand pulling or cutting these species.

Perhaps the best method for the removal of small numbers of purple loosestrife is a combination of cutting and herbicide application. The MDNR Wildlife Division recommends cutting the vegetation near the ground and applying a broadleaf herbicide by "painting" it directly on the cut stem. Painting the herbicide directly on the stem minimizes potential impacts on nontarget plants. The optimum time for this procedure is during the flowering stage but before the seeds set (late July and August).
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