KSNT 27 News

Kansas wetlands hit by biggest drought in a decade, here’s why it’s a good thing

BARTON COUNTY (KSNT) – A massive wetlands area in Central Kansas is experiencing its largest drought in ten years but local wildlife experts say this can be considered beneficial for both the animals that rely on the wetlands and state wildlife management.

KSNT 27 News spoke with members of the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks (KDWP) about how a drought is impacting the Cheyenne Bottoms wetlands and what it means for local and migratory wildlife.

What is Cheyenne Bottoms?

The Cheyenne Bottoms wetlands cover a sweeping area northeast of Great Bend. The wetlands encompass nearly 20,000 acres which are part of a 41,000-acre natural land sink that provides habitat for local wildlife and is an important resting place for numerous migrating bird species. The wetlands make up the largest marsh in the inland U.S., according to the National Park Service (NPR).

Migration periods in the spring and fall bring thousands of birds to the area every year, making it a popular birdwatching spot that attracts tourists from across the country, according to the KDWP. Recreational activities such as hunting, fishing and trapping can be found at the wetlands but are limited.

The spring sees waterfowl and sandhill cranes arriving in February while birds like herons and egrets start to arrive in March and April. The fall migration period can start as early as July, lasting through to October, and sees many birds flying south with some staying at the wetlands until they freeze over.

“Last year we had over 600,000 shore birds last spring which is much higher than normal,” said Jason Wagner, Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife area manager with the KDWP. “At times there will be hundreds of thousands or millions of waterfowl per year.”

The KDWP has been managing the area since the state purchased it in the 1940’s, according to Wagner. This has allowed KDWP staff to manage water resources and the impact of floods.

Drought impact

Tom Bidrowski, migratory game bird program manager with the KDWP, took some aerial photos of the wetlands earlier this month. The photos, which can be seen below, show that the wetlands have dried up significantly due to a recent drought.

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Bidrowski also submitted aerial photos of the wetlands from previous years for comparison:

This comes at the same time as a drop in lake water levels is recorded across the state due to drought conditions. KDWP Game Wardens issued a warning to Kansans about increased risks of hitting underwater debris earlier this month.

Wagner said the last time a drought this serious occurred was in 2012 and in 2013. Photos taken by satellites with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) recorded the progression of this drought period, with NASA stating that Kansas had endured its driest and second-hottest summer on record at the time. This latest drought started to take hold in July of last year following a decrease in rainfall.

“Birds stop here and refuel,” Wagner said. “They’ll have to shift their pattern this year to fill their needs.”

The wetlands are a primary destination for more than 300 species of migrating birds, according to Wagner. Such is the importance of the area that it has been designated as a Wetland of International Importance by the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands.

Why is the drought a good thing?

While the local drought has resulted in the drying up of the wetlands, it is being used as an opportunity to complete renovation work at the site by the KDWP, according to Wagner.

“The good about it is we’re able to get into the pools and do work that we haven’t been able to do in ten years,” Wagner said. “Typically, we don’t get to do that on a yearly basis.”

Wagner also said the drought is something that occurs regularly every ten years. It’s arrival gives the vegetation in the area a chance to reestablish itself and return stronger than it was once the drought subsides.

Bidrowski agreed with Wagner, saying the drought will give the land time to “reset” and go through natural processes that are necessary for Cheyenne Bottoms. This includes the consolidation of soils and the removal of excess silt via the wind.

“The drying of the wetlands are a natural process,” Bidrowski said. “It’s important for the overall maintenance of the wetlands.”

He said that migrating birds are adaptable and will find other places to stop on their journeys.

“On the general population it won’t have a big impact on them when they go up north,” Bidrowski said. “If they can’t find resources somewhere else, it may impact them.”

In short, the wetlands are expected to bounce back. Bidrowski said one good rainfall event could bring the wetlands back to their previous state.

If you want to visit the wetlands or learn more about them, go to the KDWP’s website by clicking here.

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