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Wetlands: bugs and muck, or essential landscape components?

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By Brad Bauer
Explore Big Sky Contributor

Gallatin County is home to broad valley bottoms and high mountain peaks, and yields farming, ranching, housing and recreation, as well as sagebrush, willows, and conifer forests. Interwoven with human habitation and wild places are wetlands.

Wetlands can be found in your backyard or deep in the wilderness and are valuable for storing water and recharging our aquifers. They filter our runoff by trapping sediments and nutrients. Wetlands reduce streambank erosion during flooding and provide habitat for recreation and wildlife. They also bring hiking, bird watching, photography, and hunting dollars to our economy.

Wetland scientists often talk about the condition of a wetland, which can be thought of as its health. There are two primary methods to assess wetland health in Montana. One looks at functions that the wetland is providing. Wetland functions include things we often value like floodwater storage and wildlife habitat. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, if most wetland functions are intact, it’s considered healthy.

The second method evaluates individual plant species that make their home at the assessed wetlands. Knowing the types and quantities of plants provides an understanding of whether the wetland is home to plant species that are predominately intolerant or ones that are tolerant to disturbances to the wetland. A wetland that is home to plants that are mostly tolerant to disturbance indicates that wetland has somehow been degraded, according to the EPA.

While we receive numerous benefits from wetlands, we sometimes overlook their health. This summer, through support from the Environmental Protection Agency, Montana State University Extension – Gallatin County will begin a long-term effort to follow the health of our wetlands. Like an extended relationship with your doctor, myself and my colleagues at MSU Extension – Gallatin County are hoping that, by visiting the same areas year after year, we can help detect both healthy wetlands and those that might be “sick.” We also want to learn what makes them sick and use that information to put them on a road to recovery. Volunteer teams will lead these checkups and will learn how to monitor wetland health, as well as educate our community.

As Gallatin County continues to grow, wetlands will be an increasingly important component of the cycle that provides clean water for the increasing population here. County water touches a large portion of our country – the rain and snow that falls here eventually flows into the Missouri River as it begins its long journey to the Atlantic Ocean. Poised at the nation’s headwaters, we have a unique opportunity to develop, use, restore and preserve water. This effort will provide a critical puzzle piece in the understanding of our water and our water needs.

Brad Bauer is an MSU Extension – Gallatin County Natural Resource Extension Agent who focuses on natural resources management, education, and outreach. Call him at (406) 388-3812 to learn more about the project.

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