DU’s research and policy efforts augment direct habitat programs in the Great Lakes. These programs focus on areas where DU can have the biggest impact on waterfowl populations: the watersheds of Lake Erie, the St. Lawrence River, Saginaw Bay, southwest Michigan, and eastern Wisconsin. The majority of DU’s habitat programs focus on breeding and spring staging waterfowl, while some work targets wintering ducks.
The most common breeding waterfowl in the Great Lakes region include mallards, blue-winged teal, wood ducks, ring-necked ducks, and Canada geese. DU programs focus primarily on mallards and blue-winged teal, because these populations have experienced declines in the Great Lakes states. The major limiting factor for breeding mallards in the Great Lakes is duckling survival, so DU’s programs focus on providing brood-rearing habitat through wetland restoration and protection.
In spring, the Great Lakes region is a significant staging area for many waterfowl, including mallards, teal, gadwalls, pintails, canvasbacks, scaup, tundra swans, and Canada geese. Providing inland and coastal marsh systems that ensure food and cover for staging waterfowl is critical, especially during the spring when food resources are limited. Habitat programs are currently delivered under the assumption that small wetland restoration will address the nutritional needs of spring migrants, but DU is testing this assumption because there is uncertainty about food resource availability and habitat use during this period.
The third aspect of DU’s Great Lakes habitat program involves water quality in the lakes, because waterfowl rely heavily on coastal marshes and open-water habitat for wintering and fall migration. Soil erosion, sedimentation, nutrient loading, and contamination from intensive agriculture practices, construction, and development are the main sources of degraded water quality in this area. Watershed conservation activities such as wetland and vegetation buffer zone restoration improve the quality and quantity of habitat available to waterfowl. This is important for wintering and staging waterfowl that use coastal bays and marshes where food resources are significantly affected by poor water quality. Habitat programs that address water quality target wetland restoration in coastal zones and tributaries that feed the lakes.