Western Working Lands Snapshot | Wet Habitats in the Great Plains

Playa Photo

Playas are important wet habitats for birds and wildlife. Photo Andy Lawrence.


This month’s Western Working Lands “Snapshot” introduces us to wet habitats — like riparian areas, wet meadows, playas, and potholes — which are vital for wildlife and livestock.

Led by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, Working Lands For Wildlife uses voluntary incentives to benefit America’s agricultural producers and at-risk wildlife.


By Brianna Randall

Definition

Wet “mesic” habitats are the places where water meets land, and the soil maintains a well-balanced supply of moisture throughout the growing season. This includes riparian areas along streams and rivers, wet meadows, springs and seeps, wetlands, and irrigated fields.

In the Great Plains, playas and prairie potholes are special types of wetlands. These are shallow depressional wetlands that exist as self-contained watersheds (no streams flow in or out of them, although in especially wet years, they may be connected by streams if close enough). They are generally ephemeral, meaning they only hold water during certain parts of the year, typically in the spring when rains or snowmelt causes them to fill. Some are recharged by below-ground aquifers.

Location

The “Prairie Pothole Region” of the northern Great Plains is a large expanse of shallow depressional wetlands that fill with snowmelt and rain each spring. Prairie potholes extend from Canada through northern Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and into western Minnesota and northern Iowa. The playas of the central and southern Great Plains are found in Nebraska’s Sandhills Region, and in Kansas, Colorado, Texas, New Mexico and Oklahoma.

The prairie pothole region extends from Canada into the northern Plains states. Map from Wikimedia, originally, USGS.

Hydrology

Spring rains and snowmelt are the primary ways that prairie potholes and playas recharge. Creeks and rivers throughout the Great Plains are fed by snowmelt in the Rocky Mountains and also by spring rainstorms.

Healthy mesic habitats act like sponges, helping to capture, store, and slowly release water year-round. As the spring snow melt dissipates and rain stops, the water on the landscape slowly evaporates, leaving green “islands” in the landscape.

Characteristics

Natural mesic habitats like riparian areas, springs, and wet meadows, are defined by water-loving vegetation that grow well in wetter soils, including sedges, rushes, flowering plants, and even woody species. Some of these wet places (streams and rivers) have moving water (called ‘lotic’ systems) while others (potholes and playas) have standing water (called ‘lentic’ systems). Agriculture maintains wet places through irrigation in fields used to grow alfalfa and grass hay.

Playa Photo

Playas provide water for vegetation that helps sustain wildlife and livestock. Notice the dark green ring of riparian vegetation around the playa. Photo: Andy Lawrence.

Ecological Services

Mesic habitats provide essential services for people and animals. These wet places offer food, water, and cooler shelter when summer heat dries surrounding lands. They also help resist wildfires and droughts, acting as a much-needed refuge when water is scarce. Playas and potholes also help recharge aquifers and filter fertilizers, sediment and other pollutants from groundwater.

Prairie potholes (shown in this photo) and playas provide a host of ecosystem services like ground water recharge, wildlife habitat, and more. Photo: USGS

Wildlife

Mesic habitats serve as grocery stores for many birds and mammals. In these ribbons of green vegetation, they feast on protein-rich forbs (wildflowers and shrubs) as well as a variety of insects. The potholes and playas of the Great Plains are particularly important for migratory birds that utilize the Central Flyway. These wet landscapes are considered the most biodiverse areas in the entire Plains landscape.

Turtle Photo

Reptiles, like this yellow mud turtle, amphibians, birds, and mammals all make use of playas and other wet habitats in the Plains. Photo: Andy Lawrence.

Conservation

Recognizing the importance of wet, green spots, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Working Lands for Wildlife offers technical know-how and financial cost-share for landowners interested in protecting or improving precious water resources.

A variety of practices keep water on the land longer and vegetation green in playas, potholes and riparian areas. The following practices help buffer the impacts of drought for ranchers, boost forage production for livestock, and improve habitat for wildlife:

  • Grazing Management
  • Riparian Protection and Enhancement
  • Low-Tech Restoration
  • Invasive Tree Removal
  • Mechanical Restoration
  • Conservation Easements
  • Patch Burning

Watch a video about playas produced by the Playa Lakes Joint Venture and visit their site to learn more about these important prairie wetlands.

Click on the image above to watch a video about playas from the Playa Lakes Joint Venture.


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