DU's Peaks to Prairies Initiative

Conserving wetlands in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains for outdoorsmen and women

By Mike George

The Rocky Mountains of Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana span some of America's most beautiful landscapes. The high-mountain peaks in this scenic region are also the sources of some of the continent's largest rivers, including the Missouri, Colorado, Arkansas, Platte, and Yellowstone. Their cold, clear waters are noted for outstanding fishing, as sportsmen and women come from all over the world to catch trophy trout and enjoy majestic scenery and iconic wildlife such as bears, moose, and elk. These mountain headwaters are also important for something else: waterfowl. Western rivers and their associated tributaries and high-elevation wetlands provide vital breeding, migration, and wintering habitat for a great abundance and diversity of ducks, geese, and swans.

Conserving these precious waterfowl habitats is the objective of Ducks Unlimited's Peaks to Prairies Initiative. Through this initiative, Ducks Unlimited is working to restore important wetlands and adjacent uplands as well as to protect exceptional landscapes from future development. For example, DU is working with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD) and other partners to restore 60 acres of seasonal wetlands on Ocean Lake near Riverton. Ocean Lake is owned and managed by the WGFD as part of a larger 11,500-acre wildlife management area. DU will replace water-control structures and repair levees to allow managers to flood wetlands in the fall and spring for migrating waterfowl and other wetland birds. A total of 135 acres of wetlands and grasslands will be conserved through this project. Funding was provided by the North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA), National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Water for Wildlife, Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust, and DU Major Sponsors.

"Wyoming has a lot of large permanent and semipermanent wetlands where ducks can rest, but the state has lost many of its seasonal wetlands, which are more valuable to waterfowl," says Martin Grenier, DU's manager of conservation programs in Wyoming and Colorado. "The new high-quality foraging habitat created through this project will attract more ducks to the area, improving hunting opportunities around Ocean Lake."

Conservation easements are another important tool being used by DU to meet its conservation objectives in the Peaks to Prairies Initiative area.& Through these legal agreements, landowners can receive funds to protect wetlands and other important wildlife habitat on their property from drainage and development. These funds can be a valuable source of income for farmers and ranchers, allowing them to continue their way of life while also leaving a conservation legacy for future generations. In Colorado's scenic North Park, DU and its partners recently worked with private landowners to permanently protect 8,000 acres with conservation easements. Additional wetland habitat in this area will be enhanced through the installation of water-control structures, which provide managers with the ability to move water where it's needed to improve habitat for waterfowl and other wildlife.

The valleys of Colorado's North Park support some of the highest densities of breeding ducks in North America. "North Park doesn't have the numbers of nesting ducks that the Prairie Pothole Region does, but when you look at it in terms of ducks per acre, its productivity is very high. That's why this project is important to Colorado and fits well into DU's Peaks to Prairies Initiative," Grenier says. "In addition, the project will enhance public hunting opportunities in North Park."

The project started with a $1 million NAWCA grant, which was matched with more than $4 million in partner contributions, including support from DU Major Sponsors, which will be leveraged at a rate of five to one. Other funding was provided by the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies and Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

"Being able to keep the landscape the way it is today with the help of partners and private landowners will go a long way toward maintaining important habitats in North Park," Grenier says. "Building on this success, we are planning two projects this spring that will enhance water delivery to irrigated pastures and restore riparian-associated wetlands at Lake Creek and on Richard State Wildlife Area."

But waterfowl are not the only beneficiaries of DU's work in the Peaks to Prairies Initiative area. Mule deer, elk, moose, and many other wildlife species use wetland habitat conserved by DU and its partners. For example, sage grouse depend on wetlands in the large sagebrush- covered valleys of the Rockies. Through the efforts of state and federal agencies and nonprofit conservation groups like DU, the sage grouse recently avoided being listed under the Endangered Species Act because so much of the bird's habitat was already being conserved. DU's wetland conservation work in the West is playing a small but crucial role in the recovery of the sage grouse by providing water in the places where the birds need it most.

Other conservation work being conducted by DU in the Peaks to Prairies Initiative area includes the installation of fencing to create livestock watering corridors on wetlands and riverine habitats that have been highly degraded by improper management; building small water-control diversions and levees to direct water into desirable wetlands; and deepening wetlands to control invasive plants such as cattails and reeds. Working with a variety of partners, including ranchers, farmers, government agencies, cities, corporations, and local volunteers, DU has been able to protect and enhance almost 11,000 acres of waterfowl habitat and provide technical assistance to private landowners on another 2,000 acres in this initiative area. In addition, DU and its partners have collaborated to allow public access on many properties, providing opportunities for hunting, fishing, and other forms of outdoor recreation.

By contributing to DU's Peaks to Prairies Initiative, you will be supporting important wetlands conservation efforts in the Rockies as well as on the breeding grounds of the U.S. and Canadian Prairie Pothole Region, where many of the birds that pass through the initiative area are produced. For more information on how you can support this and other initiatives, visit the DU website at ducks.org/DUinitiatives.

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