In their prime, Kansas’ two legendary wetlands are about as good as any in the world.
Each has thousands of acres of shallow water intermixed with lush marsh plants, making them the favored resting places for millions of migrating birds every fall.
But the Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area and Quivira National Wildlife Refuge are currently about as far from prime as possible.
Cheyenne Bottoms is all but dry, with cracks crisscrossing broad expanses of exposed dirt, looking like miles of spiderwebs.
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Only about a combined acre’s worth of stagnant puddles remain.
At Quivira, white salt storms form as the wind scours open expanses of bone-dry alkali marsh beds.
The area’s legendary Big Salt Marsh is about 80 percent dry. The Little Salt Marsh retains about 30 percent of its water, but it’s not very deep.
“We had a fish kill out there, and we could see the wading birds that were feeding (on the carcasses) weren’t wading very deep,” said David Farmer, a Quivira wildlife refuge specialist. “If we don’t get some rain, it will probably dry up within the next month.”
Rattlesnake Creek, which feeds much of Quivira, is no longer flowing.
Central Kansas wetland conditions are probably the worst they’ve been in about 20 years.
As of now it doesn’t bode well for the many hunters and wildlife watchers from across the country who annually travel to the famed marshes.
Cheyenne Bottoms, which is owned by the state, is near Great Bend. Quivira is near Stafford, about 90 miles northwest of Wichita.
Birds will find another stop
If dry conditions persist this fall at the two wetlands, it could be a big problem for wildlife watchers and waterfowl hunters.
But it wouldn’t be too big of a deal for migrating waterfowl and other birds.
“Shorebirds, ducks and geese, they’re long-range fliers,” said Max Thompson, an ornithologist and birding author from Winfield. “If they don’t find what they need here, they’ll just keep going until they do find it.”
Thompson said ducks and geese might scatter more to Kansas’ lakes and major reservoirs during migrations if the marshes are dry.
He said waterfowl migration paths can easily slide great distances.
Thompson’s not worried about smaller birds, either.
“Shorebirds are amazing. They can fly nonstop from Alaska to New Zealand,” he said. “They just keep going until they find a place that’s favorable.”
Upsides to dry cycles
The staff at both wetlands are currently making the best of the Sahara-like situation.
“It’s kind of depressing driving around and looking at this,” said Karl Grover, Cheyenne Bottoms manager. “But these dry cycles let us get out and get a lot of work done we couldn’t otherwise.”
Farmer said crews have been hustling at Quivira, too. “This has allowed us to access areas we haven’t been able to access in a long time,” he said. “(The drought) has been a substantial help for a lot of our management efforts.”
Wet and dry cycles have been part of Kansas wetlands for thousands of years. Old-timers have told Grover that Cheyenne Bottoms used to go dry about two out of every five or six years.
Historically drought has kept perennial plants, like cattails, from totally overtaking the marshes, Grover said.
Such plants offer little to wildlife but take up space, water and nutrients that could be better used by annual plants such as smartweed, which produces great wildlife forage.
Giving nature a hand
Biologists have been helping such die-offs along.
At Cheyenne Bottoms, Grover estimates they’ve removed about 1,200 acres of cattails this year. First the dried plants are burned, then the roots disked a few times to break them up and expose them to the sun.
At Quivira, Farmer said the long-standing war against salt cedar, a non-native, willow-like tree that shades out wetland plants and draws huge amounts of water from the soil, has been an all-out offensive this year.
It has helped that salt cedar is far more susceptible to herbicides because it’s stressed by this summer’s drought.
Both refuges are attacking phragmites this summer, another invasive plant that outcompetes native species.
Even the ongoing fish kills have merits.
Farmer said invasive common carp are the primary fish currently left, and they too will eventually perish from a lack of oxygen in the shallow waters.
“They’re a species that roots around a lot, disturbing the bottom,” Farmer said. “Having them out of the water will make it easier for beneficial plants to get started when we enter the next wet cycle.”
Dry soils also have allowed some serious dirt work.
Water control structures have been repaired at both marshes. Farmer said Quivira has leveled the bottoms of some marshes, which makes it easier to manage water levels while making the walking safer for wading hunters.
Near Cheyenne Bottoms headquarters a special aquatic backhoe has been deepening an inlet channel so water can flow in faster when rain comes again.
And it most certainly could come and all would be well.
Business as usual
Cheyenne Bottoms was mostly dry through the summer of 2006, then intense late-summer rains brought it to nearly ideal conditions.
Last summer Quivira’s Big Salt Marsh was dry, but it eventually filled with enough water to hold thousands of ducks, geese and cranes by mid-November.
Fall rains helped. Also in the fall, trees no longer draw water from the ground and farmers stop irrigating nearby fields. That allowed springs to start flowing and the water table to rise near the Big Salt Marsh.
At both marshes, they’re preparing as if they know water will be coming.
At Quivira the roads, parking lots and marsh basins will be prepared for the millions of migrating fowl and their human followers that are hopefully coming.
Hoping for rain, Grover’s staff planted hundreds of acres of millet, a favored duck and goose food, on dry marsh bottoms. He doubts it will survive, even with immediate rains.
But he has found a way to ease some of his costs and the financial sufferings of local cattlemen.
This summer kochia has grown tall and thick on some dried marsh bottoms.
It is a native plant often shoulder-high, with a tough, thumb-thick stem and prickly, gnarly branches.
Grover said the kochia jungle is so thick, many kinds of waterfowl couldn’t maneuver around in it should it flood. It’s nearly impenetrable for hunters, too.
Rather than just mowing the dense weeds, Grover is allowing local farmers and ranchers to cut and bale the kochia.
“They’re going to have to use it to feed their cattle this winter because there’s not much food around with this drought,” Glover said. “We’re glad they’re using it. Those guys are hurting this summer, too.”