By Jennifer Boudart

Wetland on the shore of the Great Lakes. Photo by Chris Sebastian, DU.jpg

Chris Sebastian, DU

Wetlands along the shores of the Great Lakes provide important habitat for a variety of wildlife species and help improve the quality of drinking water for people who live in the region.


Unfortunately, the Great Lakes face a number of threats, including development, declining water quality, climate change, and invasive species. The region’s wetlands and the numerous fish and wildlife species that depend on them are especially vulnerable. More than 60 percent of the wetlands across the Great Lakes basin have already been degraded or lost, and the region continues to lose 1 percent of its wetlands each year. To help stem these losses, Ducks Unlimited is working with numerous partners to conserve wetlands and associated habitats through its Great Lakes Initiative, which focuses on the states of Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin. To date, this program has successfully enhanced, protected, or restored more than 60,000 acres of waterfowl breeding and migration habitats.

DU targets a variety of landscapes for conservation, including large coastal wetlands bordering Great Lakes waters, smaller interior wetlands on agricultural lands, and associated uplands in priority watersheds. At the project level, DU restores the natural hydrology of drained wetlands, refurbishes aging water-control infrastructure in managed habitats, promotes agricultural practices that improve soil health and water quality, facilitates the acquisition of threatened habitats, and expands public lands.

Funding for these efforts comes from various federal and state sources as well as from corporate partners, foundations, major donors, and DU license plate sales in these states. The North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA) and the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI), which has appropriated more than $4 billion for conservation efforts in the region, are key sources of federal funding. To date, DU has completed 90 GLRI projects (70 of them in Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin) with $45 million in GLRI funding.

DU’s conservation work also receives financial support from state programs dedicated to improving water quality in the Great Lakes. This issue is especially important in the western Lake Erie basin. In this area, drinking water supplies used by nearly 12 million people are threatened by annual algal blooms, which are fueled by excessive levels of phosphorus. Algae produce toxins that threaten human and animal health, and algal blooms can result in the closure of popular fishing, boating, and swimming areas, adversely affecting the economy.

Wetlands offer a natural solution to water-quality issues in the Great Lakes by filtering phosphorus, sediments, and other pollutants from runoff. Ohio and Michigan are now investing in wetland restoration specifically for this purpose. For example, H2Ohio is a statewide water-quality program that focuses in part on reducing algal blooms in Lake Erie, providing $46.6 million annually for wetland-related work. DU has received roughly $10 million from H2Ohio for multiple coastal and inland wetland projects to date. An additional $4 million from the program is currently pending.

Lesser scaup flying. Photo by

Millions of waterfowl, including lesser scaup, depend on Great Lakes wetlands for breeding and migration habitat.

DU’s policy team scored a win in Michigan last year by helping to secure the state budget’s first-ever line-item appropriation for wetland restoration—$2 million annually—and an additional $10 million through a supplementary appropriations bill to address water-quality issues in Lake Erie and Saginaw Bay. As a fiduciary agent for the program, DU is authorized to subgrant $4 million of those funds on behalf of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to various community organizations, tribes, and local units of government. DU is currently reviewing proposals from these potential partners with the goal of funding five to 10 wetland projects.

In Wisconsin, DU is working with state and federal partners to restore and enhance large coastal wetlands on the west shore of Green Bay as well as small interior wetlands that provide important recreation and water-quality benefits. Much of this work has been funded by GLRI and NAWCA as well as by grants from the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program, the state’s primary funding tool for preserving habitat, protecting water quality and fisheries, and expanding public lands. The state also recently signed into law the Pre-Disaster Flood Resilience Grant Program to help flood-prone communities assess flood risks and reduce the impacts of flooding by restoring wetlands and improving green infrastructure. This program offers another opportunity for DU to partner with counties and municipalities on projects that benefit people as well as wildlife.

As wetlands are increasingly recognized for their role in protecting and improving water quality, DU is working to quantify the ability of wetlands to remove phosphorus and other pollutants from water supplies. A pilot program in Michigan will restore 400 acres of marginal farmland to wetlands and monitor how much phosphorus is removed from runoff before the water is released into a neighboring creek. In the River Raisin and Maumee River watersheds, DU is measuring how natural processes improve water quality on five previously completed DU projects. Results of this work will be used to develop a regional map pinpointing wetlands for restoration and enhancement in the US and Canadian portions of the Great Lakes watershed. DU Canada, which recently completed a study of wetlands it has restored in Ontario specifically for phosphorus removal, is partnering in this effort along with H2Ohio, Michigan DNR, the University of Waterloo, and several postdoctoral and graduate students.

However, the largest DU research effort currently under way in the Great Lakes is a multistate study investigating possible causes of the region’s dwindling mallard populations, which have declined by approximately 50 percent since the early 2000s. Over the course of three field seasons, nearly 600 mallard hens across five states were fitted with solar-powered GPS transmitters to track their movements and to gather information about key behaviors such as nesting, incubation, and hatching success.

Researchers also collected blood samples from the birds for genetic analysis. The DNA work revealed that 56 percent of the mallards included in the study were hybrids that had resulted from interbreeding between wild mallards and domestic game-farm mallards. Preliminary analysis of these birds’ movements suggest that hybrid mallards move less, are more likely to inhabit urban areas, and are less likely to migrate than wild mallards. However, it’s currently unclear what role, if any, game-farm mallard genes may play in the decline of Great Lakes mallard populations.

Data from this study will help researchers pinpoint which habitats are most important to breeding, staging, and wintering mallards in the Great Lakes watershed. DU and its partners plan to combine information from this research with data from the phosphorus-removal study to plan and deliver wetland restoration projects that maximize both water quality and waterfowl benefits. By demonstrating these kinds of multipurpose benefits, DU hopes to accelerate and expand wetlands conservation across the Great Lakes region.