What are wetlands?
Wetlands are areas inundated or saturated by surface or groundwater for most or part of the year. Wetlands include marshes, wet meadows, prairie potholes, ponds, high mountain lakes, spring seeps and fens. They are often found between dry land and water along the edges of streams, rivers, and lakes.
Wetlands are a vital link between our land and water resources.
Why are wetlands important?
- Wetlands maintain and improve water quality, including groundwater quality. Wetland plants filter nutrients, and other pollutants from runoff, preventing nutrients and pollutants from entering nearby lakes and streams.
- Wetlands provide storage area for flood waters, helping to reduce flooding. Wetlands also help recharge wells and aquifers. Protection of wetlands is particularly important in areas where people depend on wells and springs for drinking water.
- Wetlands along the banks of streams and rivers can slow water movement and help prevent bank erosion.
- Wetlands provide recreation for bird watchers and hunters, and provide open space and scenic landscapes.
- Private property values can benefit from protection of wetlands, ponds and streams, since these areas can increase the value and marketability of adjacent lands.
- Wetlands provide habitat for fish and wildlife, including bald eagles, bull trout, muskrat, beaver, and mink. Many fish spawn in wetlands connected to streams and rivers, where they find food and cover.
- Wetlands provide food, water, and shelter for birds, especially during migration and breeding. Migratory and neo-tropical birds that rely on wetlands include geese, herons, egrets, ducks, cranes, yellow-headed blackbirds, and marsh hawks.
- Wetlands produce great amounts of food for many animal species. Their shallow water and nutrients are ideal for the growth of organisms which form the base of the food web and feed many species of fish, amphibians, shellfish, and insects.
- Reptiles and amphibians, including western and pacific chorus frogs, northern leopard frogs, spotted frogs, long-toed salamanders and northern alligator lizards, need wetlands for reproduction.
During the last Ice Ace, glaciers scoured the mountains of what is today northwest Montana. When the glaciers melted 12,000 years ago, they left behind this broad valley of fertile soil, buried gravel and rocks, and numerous wetlands.
The glaciated valleys in the Flathead Watershed are part of the Pacific Flyway, a migratory corridor for waterfowl and numerous other wetland birds.
Are wetlands at risk?
Historically, wetlands were often seen as wastelands, wet areas that bred pests and diseases. That trend of thought is changing as we now realize that wetlands provide important services.
Montana has lost about 25% of its wetland acreage since the 1870s.
Wetlands are often drained or filled for agricultural, residential or commercial purposes. Conservation, restoration and monitoring of wetlands in the Flathead Watershed are important non-regulatory approaches to wetland protection.
Wetlands in the Flathead Watershed
The Flathead River Watershed supports “…one of the greatest and most diverse concentrations of wetlands in the Rocky Mountains, including peatlands, oxbow ponds, springs and seeps, complexes of pothole ponds, vernal pools and beaver ponds” (Greenlee, 1998. Ecologically Significant Wetlands in the Flathead, Stillwater and Swan River Valleys. Report to the Montana Department of Environmental Quality. Montana Natural Heritage Program).
In the Flathead Valley north of Flathead Lake there are several oxbow wetlands (also called sloughs) along the main stem of the Flathead River. Oxbow wetlands are crescent-shaped lakes lying alongside a winding river. The oxbow is created over time as erosion and deposits of soils change the river’s course.
There are few remaining sloughs in this area, and the river’s ability to form new sloughs has been reduced by dams and development. It is important that we protect these beautiful, unique, and irreplaceable wetlands.
To read about specific wetlands and sloughs along the Flathead River see our Critical Lands Status Report.
The Montana Natural Heritage Program identified ecologically significant wetlands in the Flathead, Stillwater, Swan and North Fork river valleys. For a copy of these reports call the MNHP at (406) 444-3009 or visit the Montana Department of Environmental Quality’s Wetlands Conservation site.
In the Flathead Valley south of Flathead Lake (also known locally as the Mission Valley) the prairie pothole wetlands are among the most important breeding habitats in western Montana for waterfowl and ring-necked pheasant. The area also provides hunting opportunities.
Mallard, Redhead, Goldeneye, Merganser and Wigeon are common waterfowl species feeding or nesting in the prairie pothole wetlands. Without the shelter provided by these wetlands, many birds would not be able to migrate.
The beauty of this area is a magnet for population growth. Residential development, tillage and drainage are the major threats to these critical wetlands and surrounding grasslands.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), Pheasants Forever and other agencies and private conservation organizations are working with landowners to protect and restore wetlands and nearby uplands around the Ninepipe National Wildlife Refuge and the Ninepipe Wildlife Management Area.
The Flathead Lakers are collaborating on a project to support these efforts. To read more about our protection and restoration efforts see Saving Critical Lands.
How can you make a difference?
A large proportion of the wetlands in the Flathead Watershed are in the valleys. Most of the lands are privately owned. Thus, individual landowners play an important role in protecting these natural treasures. There are many opportunities for citizens, corporations, government agencies and other groups to prevent further loss of wetland habitat and improve the quality of remaining wetlands.
Living and working near a wetland:
- Maintain or restore native vegetation around wetlands. This vegetated buffer helps filter sediments and pollutants from runoff before it enters a stream, river, lake or groundwater.
- Build on upland areas, away from wetlands.
- Avoid draining or filling wetlands.
- Maintain your septic system with annual checks, and pump your tank as needed.
- Keep pets and livestock out of sensitive wetland habitat.
- Consider placing a conservation easement on all or portion of your land to protect its wetland and wildlife habitat values for future generations.
- Stay on trails and avoid low spots and watercourses when cycling, horseback riding, hiking or riding ATVs.
- Prevent the spread of noxious weeds and invasive aquatic plants and animals by washing vehicles and boats.
- Do not plant exotic plants, such as purple loosestrife.
Leaving a Legacy for future generations:
- Encourage your neighbors, developers, and state and local governments to protect wetlands. Support policies and voluntary stewardship practices to help protect these critical areas.
- Join the Flathead Lakers to support our efforts to protect wetlands, critical lands and water quality.
Help for protecting wetlands
As a landowner or resident, you are not on your own in protecting wetlands. You can get technical and financial assistance from a number of agencies and organizations. They can help you assess the health of a stream or wetland on your property and show you how to protect it for future generations.
You can also review A Landowners’ Guide to Montana Wetlands. This publication provides information on where a landowner can find help to protect or restore a wetland. You can get a hard copy by calling the Montana Watercourse at (406) 994-6671.
Landowners can receive assistance with wetland or riparian projects including erosion control, protecting water quality, forest management, fish and wildlife habitat improvement or protection, irrigation systems improvement, revegetation, and resource protection in crop, ranch and forest lands. Your local conservation district or land trust can advise you on the various land management options available to you, including agreements by which a landowner can set management priorities for all or part of a property to conserve the special characteristics of the land.
For information on wetland plants see A Field Guide to Montana’s Wetland Vascular Plants by Lesica and Husby, published in 2001 by the Montana Wetlands Trust in Helena, Montana. It is available electronically at the (NRIS) Wetland Clearinghouse web site (see link above) under Publications.
For information on assessing the health of a wetland, riparian area or shoreline, contact the Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes Natural Resources Department, your local Conservation District or Natural Resources and Conservation Service office, or a restoration consultant.
For more information on wetlands, visit the Environmental Protection Agency’s website page on wetlands.
The Montana Natural Heritage Program provides information on Montana’s species and habitats, emphasizing those of conservation concern.