May is American Wetlands Month: Learn about the Importance of these Vital Ecosystems

This information comes to us from National Environmental Education Foundation (NEEF). Their vision is to make the environment ever-present in the daily lives of Americans by delivering practical, accessible information they can use through the sources they know and trust.

They share excellent stories weekly about nature, science, and how citizens can be more involved with their local and national ecosystems. The articles this week focus on wetlands, which face unique stressors. Content is shared with permission. These two short articles are from Nick Bradford and Jake Krauss for NEEF; images are from NEEF.

May is American Wetlands Month, a chance to recognize and celebrate the ways in which wetlands, and their inhabitants, enrich both the environment and human communities.

Imagine visiting your local wetland, exploring this intersection of land and water, and stumbling across a big black bear. Such an encounter would be considered exceptional in modern times, but this scenario was a reality not too long ago in wetlands across the southeastern United States.

These water-saturated habitats support a variety of animals, including black bears. Black bears rely on wetland habitats to find shelter and safely raise their cubs. They can roam hundreds of miles across their large territories through large tracts of wetland habitat, which used to cover the southeastern United States.

However, the disappearance (link is external)of coastal wetland habitats contributed to the black bear’s decline, with as few as 100 individuals remaining in Louisiana in 1950, according to one study. The loss of these crucial environments can be devastating to black bear populations, which depend on wetland habitats to survive.

Now the fate of the black bear is beginning to change, largely thanks to wetland restoration initiatives. Many communities are joining the cause to bring back their wetlands (link is external). The number of wetlands being restored is increasing, aiding in the recovery of native wildlife. This has led to a steady revival of the Louisiana black bear population, which now consists of at least 500 black bears. However, there is still a long way to go to restore US wetlands as a whole.

Wetlands are critical, not only for black bears and other wildlife, but also for people. They protect coastal communities from storm surges, help keep water supplies clean, and provide a number of other health and economic benefits. There are many ways in which you can help protect your local wetlands and all of the wildlife.

Wetlands are diverse ecosystems with unique soil types, vegetation, and water qualities that vary by geographic location. Types of wetlands include floodplains, mangroves, saltmarshes, peatlands, forests, and freshwater marshes. Wetlands provide many beneficial services—filtering pollutants, storing carbon, providing recreation sites for boating and fishing, providing wildlife habitat, and preventing flooding—but these services are threatened by both human activities, such as agriculture and urban development, and natural processes, such as erosion and flooding.

A changing climate magnifies these stressors through increasing rates of sea level rise, extreme precipitation, and drought. For example, the Prairie Pothole Region in the north-central part of the US is an inland wetland that provides essential breeding habitat for more than 50% of North American waterfowl species. This region has experienced temporary droughts in the past and a drier future may lead to a dramatic drop in waterfowl breeding grounds which provide highly valued hunting and wildlife viewing opportunities.

Sea level rise predominantly adds stress to coastal wetlands due to increased salinity from saltwater intrusion, decreased barriers to storm surges, and increased erosion. For example, development along coastal Louisiana has resulted in the loss of 1,900 square miles of wetlands in recent decades. When coupled with projected rates of erosion due to sea level rise, the existing wetlands will no longer be able to function as natural buffers to flooding during strong storm events.

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