Saving the Chenier Plain

Ducks Unlimited and its partners are working against time to conserve the vanishing wetlands of this vital Gulf Coast wintering area

Photo © TODDSTEELEPHOTOART.COM

By Todd Merendino, Ph.D.

Stretching more than 200 miles along the Gulf Coast from Galveston, Texas, to Vermilion Bay, Louisiana, and extending inland as far as 70 miles, the Chenier Plain encompasses more than 6.5 million acres of former coastal tallgrass prairie and marsh. Cheniers derive their name from the French word chêne, or oak, referring to the live oak−dominated, remnant beach ridges characteristic of this landscape. Historically, Native Americans occupied the region, relying on its rich diversity of food resources. Southwest Louisiana was later settled by Acadians—known today as Cajuns—who farmed and raised cattle in the extensive marshes and grasslands.

The Chenier Plain serves as the first line of defense for coastal communities against storm surges, as a nursery for recreationally and commercially important fisheries, and as crucial habitat for millions of migrating waterfowl, shorebirds, and wading birds. On this flat, wet landscape, chenier ridges provide elevated places for people, wildlife, and cattle to escape storm surges. Cheniers and the associated coastal marshes "trip" storm surges, reducing their energy and depth and protecting inland areas from flooding. The trees on the ridges provide vital stopover habitat for millions of migrating songbirds that cross the Gulf of Mexico. More than 360 bird species depend on these coastal habitats for breeding, migrating, and wintering habitat, and people flock to the area each year to enjoy this avian diversity.

The prairies of the Chenier Plain today produce rice and crawfish, and they are also the heart of the Gulf Coast energy industry. The region's ports, terminals, and petrochemical plants provide resources that are important to the nation and the world. Most of my relatives have made and continue to make their living in the oil industry, including both my grandfathers and my dad. Long before I knew or cared about its economic or biological importance, I knew and loved the Chenier Plain as a place to hunt and fish.

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DU biologists work with private landowners, government agencies, corporations, foundations, and other partners to restore and enhance wetlands on the Chenier Plain.

Photo © TODDSTEELEPHOTOART.COM

 

Keith Lake, J.D. Murphree Wildlife Management Area (WMA), Rollover Pass, Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), Sabine Lake, and the Shell Hole were among the places I hunted and fished with family and friends. On hot summer days when the wind settled down and the surf cleared, we would wade fish for speckled trout along the Texas beachfront. I remember the apprehension and excitement of a predawn boat ride to hunt ducks with my dad as he calmly piloted the small flat-bottom aluminum boat down winding bayous and ditches, navigating by memory without aid of a spotlight. 

My first Lab, Susie, made her first retrieve in Compartment 3 at J.D. Murphree WMA, a memory made even more vivid by a run-in with an American alligator. With a scar on her shoulder to remind us all, she retrieved at least 1,000 ducks over the next 12 years, and she retrieved each one cautiously, checking her surroundings for the toothy reptiles lying in wait. 

My grandfather caught a striped bass in the McFaddin Beach surf near High Island, described as a "first for Texas" by outdoor writer Ed Holder. My friends and I slowly graduated from a trolling motor to a 25-horsepower Evinrude as we grew up running trotlines in Taylor and Hildebrandt Bayous. I didn't realize at the time that the countless hours I spent in the marshes of the Chenier Plain would inspire me to earn degrees in wildlife management and eventually lead me to a career with Ducks Unlimited. Today, as manager of conservation programs for DU in the same region, I proudly play a role in conserving and restoring the very marshes that shaped me and sparked my curiosity about waterfowl and other wildlife. 

A Waterfowl Wonderland

What fueled my excitement and anticipation most as a kid—and today—is the Chenier Plain's phenomenal waterfowl hunting. Well-managed private clubs and corporate leases, combined with a number of state wildlife management areas and national wildlife refuges, provide a variety of waterfowl hunting opportunities and experiences. Migratory waterfowl have used the Chenier Plain for millennia, relying on the coastal marsh and adjacent prairie wetlands for food resources during winter. Today the birds rely heavily on rice fields, which have largely replaced prairie wetlands on the landscape. The North American Waterfowl Management Plan calls for the Chenier Plain to support up to 6 million waterfowl during winter, making the region one of North America's most important wintering areas and one of DU's highest conservation priorities. It provides year-round habitat for the majority of the continental mottled duck population, as well as migration and wintering habitat for large numbers of gadwalls, American green-winged teal, blue-winged teal, northern pintails, white-fronted geese, and many other waterfowl species. Unfortunately, due to saltwater intrusion, sea-level rise, erosion, the construction of navigation canals, and a host of other factors, the coastal marshes of Texas and Louisiana are being lost at alarming rates. 

How alarming? Across Louisiana, more than 1.3 million acres of coastal marsh have been converted to open water since 1932. At the current rate of loss, more than 400,000 acres of Louisiana's wetlands will disappear in the next 50 years. Moreover, recent studies by the Gulf Coast Joint Venture show that the region may have already lost nearly 40 percent of its capacity to support wintering waterfowl. Perhaps even more concerning is the loss of habitat for resident waterfowl like mottled ducks. Unlike migratory waterfowl that spend the summer on the northern prairies and in the Boreal Forest, mottled ducks spend their entire lives along the Gulf Coast. Like a canary in a coal mine, mottled ducks serve as a keystone species for evaluating the health of Chenier Plain marshes. If you have mottled ducks, you likely have a healthy coastal ecosystem. Unfortunately, surveys indicate that the Gulf Coast mottled duck population is declining. In response, DU and its partners are working to implement conservation strategies designed specifically to benefit mottled ducks. These efforts include providing additional spring and summer water for broods and molting birds and establishing and maintaining healthy grasslands for nesting hens. 

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The freshwater and coastal wetlands of the Chenier Plain support a great abundance and variety of waterfowl and other birds, such as mottled ducks, white ibises, and blue-winged teal.

Photo © GARYKRAMER.NET

 

Conserving Coastal Wetlands

As in other regions, conserving wetlands and associated habitats is essential to maintaining the Chenier Plain's value to waterfowl, other wildlife, and people. Retired Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) Biologist Charles Stutzenbaker described it this way: "The ducks we like to hunt, the fish and crabs we like to catch, and the other sights and sounds of the marsh that we all enjoy are just the interest that we earn on our investment. The habitat is the principal. If we want to continue to enjoy the interest, then we better protect the principal." 

Loss of "principal" has been substantial and continues on the Chenier Plain, but DU and its partners are dedicated to reversing this trend. DU's Gulf Coast Initiative is focused on rebuilding coastal wetlands and other important waterfowl habitats across this region. For example, DU has worked with state and federal agencies to install new water-control structures and replace others on many publicly owned marshes across the Chenier Plain. On the 71,000-acre Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge in Cameron and Vermilion Parishes, which is managed by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF), DU recently removed a 55-year-old water-control structure and replaced it with a new one on the refuge's 5,000-acre Unit 4. By improving the hydrology and management of salinity, the new structure will provide enhanced habitat for waterfowl, other waterbirds, and the region's important fisheries. In total, DU has helped restore more than 16,000 acres of wetlands on Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge, which is among the crown jewels of the Chenier Plain's public lands. 

Across the border in Texas, DU has been part of an ongoing effort to restore and enhance Salt Bayou Marsh, a coastal wetland complex stretching 30 miles from Sabine Pass to High Island. Restoration of this vast area is a multifaceted effort, and DU is one of many partners that have led the charge to restore this extensive coastal marsh. Under the leadership of Judge Jeff Branick, Jefferson County has been a major force in highlighting the importance of Salt Bayou Marsh and championing funding for wetland restoration and enhancement work. Several projects, including the installation of tidal "baffles" in the Keith Lake Fish Pass, construction of beach-ridge berms along McFaddin Beach, and reinforcement of several miles of shoreline with breakwaters, have already been completed. Ongoing projects include the beneficial placement of sand, which is dredged offshore in the Gulf of Mexico, to restore the beachfront along McFaddin NWR. Thanks to the coordinated efforts of many partners, a $10 million Deepwater Horizon RESTORE Act grant and a $15.8 million Natural Resource Damages Act grant were both recently approved. These grants will help fund efforts to deposit large quantities of sand on the county's beaches and dunes, which will help protect local marshes for generations. In 2019, the construction of two large siphons, which will deliver freshwater from the north to saline and brackish marshes south of the intracoastal waterway, will enhance an additional 40,000 acres of marsh. This large-scale effort is supported by a diverse partnership, including Jefferson County, DU, TPWD, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Texas General Land Office, Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation, Sempra Energy, Golden Pass LNG, ExxonMobil, Coastal Conservation Association, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), North American Wetlands Conservation Council, and National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

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Photo © WILL CENAC, DU

 

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Water-control structures installed by DU and its partners have restored and enhanced thousands of acres of coastal marsh on Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge, which is a popular public hunting area managed by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.

Photo © BURTON ANGELLE

 

Enhancing Habitat on Private Lands

Private landowners play a crucial role in habitat management on the Chenier Plain. In 1991, DU, TPWD, USFWS, and USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) launched the Texas Prairie Wetlands Project (TPWP). The program was founded to help meet the conservation goals of the Gulf Coast Joint Venture, which is dedicated to providing sufficient habitat to support healthy populations of wintering waterfowl and send them back to the breeding grounds in good condition. A prime example of collaboration between government agencies, nongovernmental organizations, and private landowners, the TPWP may be the longest-running partnership of its kind in the country. 

Through this effort, DU works with private landowners to provide shallow-water wetland habitat throughout a 28-county focus area, including Orange, Jefferson, and Chambers Counties in the Texas Chenier Plain. Participating landowners receive financial, biological, and engineering assistance for wetland restoration work on their property. In return, landowners sign agreements that require them to manage and maintain wetlands for a minimum of 10 years. More than 80,000 acres of managed wetland habitat is currently enrolled in the TPWP along the Texas Gulf Coast, providing crucial habitat for large numbers of migrating and wintering waterfowl as well as resident mottled ducks and fulvous and black-bellied whistling ducks, which rely heavily on these wetlands for nesting and brood-rearing habitat. 

A similar program was founded in Louisiana in 1999. Partners in the Louisiana Waterfowl Project South (LWPS) include DU, LDWF, NRCS, and USFWS. The program provides cost-share assistance for wetland enhancement projects on private lands in Acadia, Allen, Beauregard, Cameron, Calcasieu, Evangeline, Iberia, Jefferson Davis, Lafayette, Pointe Coupee, St. Landry, St. Martin, St. Mary, and Vermilion Parishes. Managing agricultural fields and other wetland areas as waterfowl habitat improves the birds' overwinter survival rates and enables them to depart the region in good physical condition for the spring migration. The LWPS currently provides more than 72,600 acres of habitat for waterfowl and other wetland wildlife. 

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Photo © BURTON ANGELLE

 

A Win-Win for Wetlands and Industry

Navigation channels, which contribute to marsh loss, also provide opportunities for wetland restoration. These channels require periodic dredging to maintain depth for navigation. Unfortunately, deeper channels and increased tidal energy exacerbate marsh loss. The dredging industry and conservation groups now work together to use the dredge material beneficially by pumping the sediment into eroded areas to restore marsh elevations, support healthy plant communities, and help sustain coastal marshes.

Following Hurricane Ike, in 2008, DU worked with the Port of Orange and TPWD to implement a project near Bridge City that not only restored a coastal marsh but also improved navigation along the adjacent shipping channel. More recently, DU partnered with state agencies, private landowners, and industry to restore more than 1,500 acres of Salt Bayou Marsh using dredge material. The project pumped more than 3 million cubic yards of sediment into the marsh, an amount roughly equivalent to 200,000 dump-truck loads. This beneficial use of dredge material offers an outstanding opportunity to restore coastal marshes on a large scale throughout the Chenier Plain. Dredging is essential to maintaining navigation and will serve as a reliable source of sediment for marsh restoration efforts for years to come. 

Beneficial use of dredge material is a true win-win, combining the needs of industry with those of the coastal ecosystem. DU is working collaboratively with its partners on a master plan for the Texas coast that will link marshes in need of dredge material with ongoing canal maintenance efforts. Ravaged in recent years by multiple hurricanes, the coastal marshes of the Chenier Plain provide an insurance policy against storm surges and coastal flooding. If we implement solutions to maintain healthy marshes, these natural barriers will help protect us when the next hurricane strikes. 

The Chenier Plain is truly a special place. The region is culturally significant for its rich hunting and fishing heritage. It has immense economic value for the fishing, shipping, and energy industries it supports. And it's ecologically priceless for millions of migratory waterfowl and other wildlife. The conservation issues facing the Chenier Plain are challenging, and addressing them will require innovation. Through DU's Gulf Coast Initiative and strong partnerships with state and federal agencies, private landowners, corporations, foundations, and others, we are tackling those issues head-on with solutions that will benefit waterfowl, other wildlife, and people, now and in the future. 


Dr. Todd Merendino is DU's manager of conservation programs in Texas, New Mexico, and Oklahoma.