Ducks Unlimited

Ducks Unlimited (DU) has been working alongside the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (NYDEC), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), and other partners for over 25 years to repair the Montezuma Wetlands Complex (MWC), impacting more than 18,700 acres in the last quarter-century. The latest conservation effort, completed in late June 2023, was a restoration of two wetlands on either side of the Seneca River, a 61-mile flowage that empties into Lake Ontario.

The restoration of the Seneca River site is part of a multi-year landscape level project to protect, restore, and enhance up to 50,000 acres —double the size of New York City—of wetlands and adjacent uplands in the MWC. The area is New York’s foremost Waterfowl Focus Area in the Atlantic Coast Joint Venture Waterfowl Implementation Plan. MWC is one of New York’s most important wetland complexes for migratory birds with more than 800,000 ducks and geese moving through the complex annually.

“With funding from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and other partners, DU helped restore the Seneca River floodplain’s natural function by providing 65 acres of enhanced wetland habitat,” said Mathew Wagner, DU Regional Biologist. “The Montezuma Wetlands Complex is divided between state lands, a National Wildlife Refuge, and private property, so oftentimes our conservation efforts are focused on small wetlands like these. Even though it may not seem like a giant project, every improvement we do here helps the MWC recover.”

Two hundred years ago, Montezuma was a 150,000-acre drainage basin, of which 50,000 acres was pristine, contiguous wetlands, making it one of the largest wetland habitats in the Northeast U.S. But historical farming practices and development have fragmented the landscape.

By the 19th century, much of the MWC, located in the Finger Lakes Region of New York, was drained for the development of the Erie Canal and other canal systems. This, along with ditching for agricultural purposes, negatively impacted the natural hydrology of the entire complex, causing excessive sedimentation, soil erosion, and nutrient loading from runoff.

To remediate some of these problematic issues, sites like the one at Seneca River are designed to provide open water habitat for migrating birds by digging a series of channels and potholes as well as making shallow scrapes with an excavator. The scrapes capture water during high water events and bolster habitat conditions. Excess material from the digging was used to backfill five man-made ditches that encouraged off-site drainage. Channels and potholes were connected through a dense cattail stand to improve water flow and encourage native plant species such as rushes, sedges, and grasses.

“NYDEC is thrilled to work through another successful restoration with our partners at Ducks Unlimited,” said Commissioner Basil Seggos. “Through design stage, permitting, and construction, their team ensured a final product that will have lasting benefits to wildlife and visitors for generations to come. This restoration is another step in achieving our shared goal of reestablishing and enhancing habitats in the Montezuma Wetlands Complex.”

The work also means better water quality for the Seneca River and the MWC. Wetlands filter nutrients, like phosphorous and nitrogen before they reach larger watersheds, which results in more habitat for fish and wildlife, plus cleaner drinking water for nearby communities that rely on the Seneca River as a water source.

“Montezuma is critical to the environmental health of the Finger Lakes Region, and the water that flows into Lake Ontario,” Wagner said. “It’s also an important breeding area for a diversity of wetland dependent species, including several threatened and endangered species. And it serves as a resting point for a variety of birds during fall and spring migrations.”