ADDISON, Vt. – Each August, biologists with the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department begin to intentionally lower water levels along several impoundments at Dead Creek Wildlife Management Area in Addison. The goal of these annual water drawdowns is to promote healthy wetlands on the nearly 3,000-acre property.
According to Amy Alfieri, a Vermont Fish & Wildlife biologist who manages Dead Creek Wildlife Management Area, systematically flooding the wetlands and exposing the soil allows plants that migrating waterfowl eat to grow. Many of these plants are annuals, such as smartweed, beggarticks, and millet. By mimicking the water level fluctuations of a natural wetland, cattails, bulrushes, and sedges flourish, providing food and nesting habitat for waterfowl. The drawdowns also create mudflats which attract migrating shorebirds in August and September that feed on invertebrates burrowed in the mud. Shallow flooding in September and October increases availability of seeds and invertebrates for wading shorebirds.
"The wetlands promoted by the annual drawdowns provide places for a variety of birds to thrive from spring through fall," said Alfieri. "By the time the ducks and geese are done nesting among the reeds in the summer, shorebirds are passing through to feed in the mud flats and shallow waters. This is followed shortly by the arrival of thousands of migrating waterfowl, including snow geese. All the while, hawks and eagles can be seen soaring over the marshes and fields in pursuit of these birds."
Dead Creek remains one of the most popular destinations in Vermont for duck hunters, in large part because various species of waterfowl are attracted to its nesting and feeding sources. Bird watchers have documented more than 250 species of birds at the wildlife management area, and late August through September is one of the best times to spot shorebirds at Dead Creek. Statewide, wildlife-watchers and hunters each contribute roughly $290 million to Vermont's economy each year, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
In addition to providing wildlife habitat, these wetlands also improve water quality and help buffer against flooding.
"By managing water levels and promoting wetland plants, we're creating giant sponges of vegetation that soak up excess water during rainstorms," said Alfieri. "The wetland plants also filter nutrients and pollutants out of the water, improving water quality on Lake Champlain for fishing, swimming, and drinking."
As costs from flood damage and Lake Champlain cleanup mount, conservationists are increasingly turning to conserving wetlands and other natural infrastructure as one of many cost-effective solutions to address these issues.