The world's wetlands and the urgent need for action
Wetlands worldwide are threatened. Even here in Washington, it is estimated that the state has lost over 30% of its wetlands since it was first colonized.
- Worldwide, wetlands are disappearing three times faster than forests and are Earth’s most threatened ecosystem. In just 50 years — since 1970 — 35% of the world’s wetlands have been lost.
- Human activities that lead to loss of wetlands include drainage and infilling for agriculture and construction, pollution, overfishing and overexploitation of resources, invasive species, and climate change.
- In the last five decades, 81% of inland wetland species and 36% of coastal and marine species have declined.
- Today, one in three freshwater species and 25% of all wetland species face extinction from wetland decline — including water birds, freshwater-dependent mammals, marine turtles and coral-reef-building species.
- Many threatened plants, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals live in wetlands. More than one-third of the threatened and endangered species in the United States live only in wetlands — and nearly half use wetlands at some point in their lives
Washington wetlands that we love
For World Wetlands Day, we are highlighting some of the efforts to help manage, value, restore, and love Washington wetlands.
This delta at the mouth of the Nisqually River in south Puget Sound is a work in progress. It includes McAllister Creek — known as She-nah-num by the Nisqually Indian Tribe (dxwsqwaliʔ abš), and as Medicine Creek by early white settlers. For more than a century, the delta was diked to allow farming on the fertile soils. While the dikes prevented saltwater from flooding in during the daily tides, they also took away hundreds of acres of marine and estuarine wetlands with habitat for juvenile salmon, shorebirds, waterfowl, and raptors.
Beginning in 1996, the Nisqually Tribe worked with landowners, local governments, and state and federal agencies to restore the Nisqually Delta. The dikes were removed in phases, allowing former farmland to form mudflats and estuarine habitat shaped naturally by the Nisqually River, McAllister Creek, and Puget Sound tides. The restoration is designed to improve salmon habitat and returns to the Nisqually River, since salmon are an important food resource and a sacred Tribal heritage for millennia.
Visit the Nisqually Delta Restoration webpage to learn more about this project.
A large swath of Eastern Washington, located southwest of Spokane, contains a scoured-out landscape carved by massive Ice Age floods. These scablands hold countless wetlands. Some are large and easy to spot, while others only exist after the snow melts or during the rainy season. They show up here or there or in an interconnected series. Many are concentrated within and around the Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge. These wetlands host a wide variety of plants and habitats, including some threatened and endangered species that are unique to the area.
The Refuge's Partners Program has been working with private landowners around the refuge to "restore, enhance, and maintain valuable fish and wildlife habitat while leaving the land in private ownership." These efforts help identify and protect habitat in channeled scablands and preserve these areas before they are lost to climate change, development, or agriculture. It is also critically important to better identify and study the intermittent wetlands known as vernal pools that are frequently found in the area. While not commonly recognized as wetlands, they serve an important niche, trapping snowmelt and rainwater and creating habitat for unique flora and fauna.
During the Missoula Floods of the last Ice Age, a large section of the original course of the Yakima River was cut off and rerouted by sediment and debris. The former river bed did not dry up, however. Instead, a stream now known as Amon Creek winds through the old river course creating a vibrant series of wetlands in an otherwise arid landscape. Located in Central Washington, this wetland meanders through a suburban neighborhood on the south end of Richland and contains a unique mixture of wetland, riparian, and shrub-steppe habitats. It is popular with birds as well as birdwatchers. More than 150 different bird species have been spotted in the preserve, which is part of the larger Tapteal Greenway that follows the Yakima River before its confluence with the Columbia River.
To preserve and protect this wetland from the pressures of development, the Amon Basin Community Project was formed in 2001 to identify and purchase land around the creek. So far, 75 acres of land have been set aside within the new Amon Creek Natural Preserve, which also has a two-mile trail winding through the wetlands.
On a quiet August morning in 2011, Joe Rocchio from the Washington Department of Natural Resources Natural Heritage Program was out surveying wetlands on the Olympic Peninsula. While slogging through the typical swampy wetlands common on the coast, he noticed something different. In his words, "The shrub density…changed dramatically. Instead of occupying nearly all available space, they became scattered. In between the dwarf shrubs was this continuous, fluffy, pillowy carpet of peat moss radiating beautiful shades of deep red, rusty orange, and lime green." And even more curious, this was not a sunken, soggy wetland, but rather a formation in which he was walking uphill to reach the center.
This special type of wetland, a "raised plateau" bog, was not known to exist in the western United States until this discovery. Dated to be at least 16,000 years old, the ancient and rare wetland relies on rain, mist, and fog for its existence. While earning a title of a "wetland of distinction" from the Society of Wetland Scientists, the bog is threatened by shifting precipitation patterns and hot summers caused by climate change. It is now listed as a natural area preserve.
Read Joe Rocchio's blog to learn more about the discovery of Crowberry Bog.