By Kayla Heinze, Communications Specialist
In the far reaches of Idaho’s northern panhandle lie two important wetlands sites. One, the effort of over 20 years of conservation efforts, is Vital Ground’s Bismark Meadows project. At 1,100 acres, it will permanently protect crucial spring feeding grounds for grizzlies and year-round habitat for all kinds of wildlife in an area experiencing extreme development pressures. The other notable wetland in this region was the catalyst for a recent Supreme Court decision — one that will have a lasting impact on wetlands nationwide.
In late May, the Supreme Court ruled that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (E.P.A.) does not have the authority to regulate certain wetlands under the Clean Water Act — specifically, any lacking a “continuous surface connection” to other bodies of water. The case against the E.P.A. was brought by an Idaho couple looking to build on a “soggy” lot just miles away from Bismark Meadows. According to some environmental lawyers, it will open up the possibility for “pollution without penalty” for these kinds of wetlands.
It will take time to fully grasp the on-the-ground impacts of this decision, but as the Montana Wetland Council wrote in response, “it’s more important than ever to publicly recognize, highlight, and understand the importance of wetlands.” Spreading awareness about the unique and powerful role these ecosystems play in contexts both local and global can help us appreciate all we have to gain, or lose, when it comes to wetland conservation.
Why wetlands matter
At Vital Ground our focus centers on the mighty grizzly, a creature as important culturally as it is ecologically. In the spring, wetlands are especially critical for grizzlies, as they provide early-season greens for foraging bears before other food sources are readily available. Throughout their active months, bears utilize these waterways for food, shelter, and movement corridors. Bears’ dependence on wetlands means that the loss of these habitats has contributed to their population declines.
Wetlands are productive and rich ecosystems, “comparable to rain forests and coral reefs,” according to the E.P.A. Beyond bears, their varying hydrology allows them to accommodate a vast diversity of both aquatic and terrestrial species, including some that exclusively make their homes in wetland habitats. Montana’s Species of Concern lists mention many threatened plants and animals that are reliant on wetlands. Rare, native wildflowers like Pale-yellow jewelweed, Mealy primrose, and Kalm’s lobelia all frequently set their roots in wetland soils. Animals ranging from the Northern bog lemming, American bittern, and Smooth green snake also call these watery habitats home and are negatively impacted by their disturbance or disappearance.
Observing their astonishing ability to support biodiversity, it becomes clear just how much wetlands matter. But they have much more to offer, too. Their ecosystem contributions have always been valuable but are increasingly so as our human species grapples with the compounding impacts of climate change. Like our grizzly relatives, we need these habitats, too.
Wetlands in a warming world
Wetland conservation presents a bit of a paradox. The very phenomena that threaten their existence are often the same occurrences they can help prevent. In this way, these habitats are an ally in their own restoration and in our broader work to build back flourishing and healthy ecosystems.
For example, wetlands capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Lush with life, and in some cases ancient stores of plant matter, they are remarkably effective carbon sinks. The ecosystem services don’t stop there. Wetlands regulate water flow and quality. Excellent at filtering out pollutants and mitigating both drought and flood conditions, they are incredibly useful features on the landscape.
But hydrologic extremes, excess pollution, severe weather, spreading invasive species and unrestrained development also pose significant problems for wetlands. Even as wetlands draw down greenhouse gasses, the warming temperatures caused by those emissions are creating a storm of impacts that threaten wetlands both locally and globally. As these pressures accelerate, protecting and restoring wetlands becomes even more vital to our collective well-being.
According to the Montana Wetland Council, 60 percent of the state’s at-risk native species use wetlands during at least one of their life stages. Over a year since Vital Ground completed our work to secure Bismark Meadows for wildlife, I can only imagine how many creatures have made use of the habitat by now.
In fact, many Vital Ground conservation areas include wetlands. From riparian corridors and marshy valley bottoms to rare, forested wetlands and more, your support of grizzly conservation is aiding the protection of these important habitats for countless species, including ours. In this era of extreme weather and unpredictable change (both ecologically and politically), it is reassuring to know at least some wetlands will remain wild and undeveloped for future generations of wildlife and people.