Wetlands:  A vital link

McWenneger Slough wetlands

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?

Wetland facts:

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 Natural Resources Information Services (NRIS) Wetland Clearinghouse web 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:


Leaving a Legacy for future generations:

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.

For a list of programs available for wetland protection or restoration visit [our Programs and Regulations] section of this website or contact your local Conservation District.

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.

Additional information

Montana wetland information can be found at the Natural Resources Information Services (NRIS) Wetlands Clearinghouse.

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 (http://www.cskt.org/tr/nrd.htm), 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.

You can learn about Montana's Wetland Conservation Strategy. This plan was developed by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality.

The National Wetlands Inventory (NWI) maps for some regions of Montana are available on the website of the National Resource Information Center. These maps are a project of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Montana Natural Heritage Program provides information on Montana's species and habitats, emphasizing those of conservation concern.

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