Conservation: Heartland Heritage and Habitat Initiative

Conserving wetlands and water resources for ducks and people on the Southern Great Plains

By Mike George

The dynamic and highly productive seasonal wetlands, braided rivers, and backwater sloughs of the Southern Great Plains support millions of waterfowl that migrate across the nation's heartland each fall and spring. However, the Southern Great Plains is an arid place, receiving less than 16 inches of precipitation per year on average. Sadly, the region's limited water resources are now under great pressure from a variety of uses, threatening many of the habitats that sustain waterfowl during their epic transcontinental migrations. In response to this conservation challenge, Ducks Unlimited founded its Heartland Heritage and Habitat Initiative to help ensure sustainable water supplies and healthy wetlands in this region for waterfowl, other wildlife, and people.

DU's highest conservation priorities on the Southern Great Plains include the Platte River system of Colorado, Wyoming, and Nebraska; the Rainwater Basin in south-central Nebraska; and the playa lakes region of western and central Kansas. The relatively small acreages of remaining wetlands in these areas rank among North America's most important waterfowl migration habitats. For example, the Rainwater Basin alone supports an estimated 8.6 million ducks and geese during spring migration, including 90 percent of the midcontinent population of white-fronted geese, half the midcontinent mallard population, and almost a third of the continent's northern pintails.

Spring is a particularly important time for migrating waterfowl, as the birds must consume large quantities of protein- and carbohydrate-rich foods to prepare for the rigors of the upcoming breeding season. Research indicates that female waterfowl arriving on the breeding grounds in poor physical condition are less productive than birds that receive adequate nutrition during their northward migration. Although waste grain is an important source of energy for migrating waterfowl, the birds also must consume invertebrates and seeds produced by moist-soil vegetation in natural wetland habitats to acquire important nutrients for egg development. These same natural wetlands also serve as important stopover habitats where waterfowl can rest and build fat reserves for the final push north.

Conserving high-quality wetlands on dry landscapes is a major focus of DU's conservation work on the Southern Great Plains. Working with farmers and ranchers, state and federal wildlife agencies, municipal governments, industry, and local volunteers, DU has been able to protect and enhance almost 12,000 acres of wetlands and provide technical assistance to private landowners on another 7,000 acres in this initiative area. DU's work has included the installation of water-control structures on Jamestown Wildlife Area in north-central Kansas as well as the restoration of numerous wetlands in the Rainwater Basin. In addition, several large DU projects on the North and South Platte Rivers in Colorado, Nebraska, and Wyoming have restored wetlands and protected large areas of riverine habitat from development.

DU's highest conservation priorities on the Southern Great Plains include the Platte River system of Colorado, Wyoming, and Nebraska; the Rainwater Basin in south-central Nebraska; and the playa lakes region of western and central Kansas.

In Colorado, DU has devised an innovative "river augmentation approach" to improve the management of irrigation water for a variety of interests, including waterfowl conservation. This approach involves diverting water owned by municipal, industrial, or agricultural partners to wetland complexes that DU has restored or created. The water in these "recharge wetlands" gradually filters into the underlying aquifer, where the groundwater flows back to the river and is once again available for other uses. This provides important habitat for waterfowl and other wildlife during the wintering and spring migration periods, and landowners receive valuable water credits based on the quantity of water that is returned to the river through this process.

DU's other conservation work in this initiative area includes tree clearing and invasive plant control on wetlands and riverine habitats that have been highly degraded by drainage and improper management. Proper grazing rotations, fencing, periodic flooding, and reseeding can control invasive species such as reed canary grass, common reed, and eastern red cedar, which consume water and displace desirable wetland plants like smartweed and wild millet. As an added benefit, many properties under DU management are open to the public for hunting and other forms of outdoor recreation. Funds from the Heartland Heritage and Habitat Initiative are also used to purchase conservation easements from private landowners and to support public policy work of high importance to DU's mission.

Waterfowl are a continentally shared resource, and Ducks Unlimited has worked across North America since 1937 to ensure a bright future for waterfowl and waterfowl hunters. By contributing to this initiative, you will be supporting important waterfowl habitat conservation in America's heartland, as well as on the breeding grounds of the Prairie Pothole Region and Western Boreal Forest of the United States and Canada, where the vast majority of birds are produced before beginning their journey to the wintering grounds. For more information on how you can support this and other initiatives, visit the DU website at

Mike George is DU's director of conservation programs in Nebraska, Kansas, and Colorado.

Donor Profile
Douglas Frey
Austin, Texas

Growing up in Grand Island, Nebraska, Doug Frey developed a love for waterfowl while witnessing millions of ducks and geese stopping to rest and refuel in the Rainwater Basin each spring and from hunting the Platte River with his father in the fall.

As a typical 18-year-old in a farm community, Doug wanted to see the world. "So I moved to Texas and got into the oil business. There, I did see the world," he says, "but I have never forgotten watching the birds along the Platte River."

Through their foundation, Doug and his wife, Allison, are major supporters of DU's Heartland Heritage and Habitat Initiative. They are also DU Diamond Legacy Sponsors and President's Council members, and Doug is a member of DU's Wetlands America Trust board. "Allison has always been supportive of my commitment to preserving wetlands in Nebraska," he says. "She understands how blessed I feel about my success in life and my calling to preserve and protect this vital wetland habitat."

Doug has watched the public's understanding grow about the continental significance of this area to migrating waterfowl. "When I was a child, a few locals would drive out and watch the cranes. Now people from all over the world come for the experience," he says. "I have seen many of the greatest sights the world has to offer, and the Nebraska spring migration would be among the top. Just because it's local and inexpensive to get to, people discount the experience. They think going to Africa or South America and seeing something makes it grander. It may be more exotic, but I would argue that few natural wonders in the world are as grand as the spring migration in Nebraska."

Enhancing Habitat on Public Land

Encompassing 1,540 wetland acres, the Neosho Wildlife Area in southeast Kansas has traditionally been a top destination for migrating waterfowl and a popular public hunting area. However, major components of this state wildlife area's water-delivery system are now failing, degrading habitat quality for waterfowl and other wildlife.

"A lot of the levees are starting to break down and managers are not able to manipulate water levels to maintain optimal waterfowl habitat conditions in the spring and fall," says Matt Hough, DU's regional biologist in Kansas and Nebraska. "A lot of the areas are too shallow or too deep."

That is why DU is working with the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism to redesign the water-delivery system through the construction of new levees and the installation of water-control structures. The project will begin this summer with funding from area donors, a grant from the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, and a state grant from the Pittman-Robertson fund.

"This work will greatly improve the state's ability to manage wetland habitat to provide high-quality food resources for migrating waterfowl, and better public hunting opportunities in the fall," Hough says.