The prairie wetland cycle has several successional phases, ranging from dry marsh, where the basin is almost entirely filled with standing vegetation, to wetter phases where plant growth is interspersed with areas of open water, and ultimately, to an open marsh condition with limited emergent vegetation. Through this wetland cycle, the most productive for waterfowl is the “hemi-marsh” phase, where open water and emergent vegetation are interspersed in relatively equal proportions.
During periods of prolonged high water, most of the emergent vegetation in wetlands disappears, except for a narrow band of bulrushes or cattails along the water’s edge. Wetlands remain in this relatively unproductive state until they are once again reinvigorated by drought.
Unfortunately, widespread drought on the prairies also results in a decline in many waterfowl breeding populations, a smaller fall flight, and often, reduced hunting opportunity—something none of us enjoy. But take heart. Droughts are temporary, and when the water comes back, prairie wetlands will be teeming with breeding waterfowl and other wildlife. So the next time you hear reports about drought on the breeding grounds, just remember, “no pain, no gain.”
David Brakhage is the director of conservation programs at DU’s Great Lakes/ Atlantic office in Ann Arbor, Michigan.