From the Bismarck Tribune (Bruce Finley):
“We’d like to get it back to what it was,” said Greg Kernohan, manager of the projects for Ducks Unlimited, a national hunting and conservation group. Otherwise, he said, “we’ll lose our wildlife heritage.”
The loss of duck habitat in the South Platte River basin, at least partly the result of man-made alteration of the river to make it flow like a channel, is likely a major reason for a decline in duck populations by as much as 50 percent in some parts of eastern Colorado.
The newly created duck habitat is designed to mimic natural conditions. Colorado has gained 16,000 acres of reworked wetlands at about 100 areas along the South Platte, with plans for another 11,000 acres by 2014, funded in part by $1.5 million from the Colorado Water Conservation Board. Hundreds of duck hunters also held banquets and auctions statewide and ponied up $150,000 for the effort.
Water is pumped and piped from the South Platte to ponds carved out of adjacent prairie. This water then is routed through sloughs and filtered back into the river’s main stem. Diversion of water into wetlands is done during low-demand periods and builds water credits for participating landowners, giving some the ability to draw water for farming…
The longterm future for waterfowl looks bleak, said Dave Sharp, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist. “Our needs for water are only going to grow,” Sharp said. Dams and diversions for cities and farming “take away those natural pulses, like in the spring. The flooding that used to occur no longer occurs.” Woody vegetation is taking over sand bars essential for ducks. Colorado Division of Wildlife tables show duck populations across the central flyway parts of Colorado decreasing from an average of 104,207 between 2003 and 2008 to 85,695 last year. But in northeastern Colorado, where the South Platte meanders about 300 miles to Nebraska, a duck population that decreased to 36,689 from a 2003-08 average of 79,114 now may be swinging back up. State wildlife officials counted 129,447 ducks in January, according to Jim Gammonley, avian research leader for the Colorado Division of Wildlife. Duck numbers fluctuate widely year to year, depending largely on climate conditions here and elsewhere, Gammonley said. Overall, “the hydrology and habitat conditions associated with the South Platte River have changed dramatically and negatively — from a duck’s perspective,” he said. “There’s likely less waste corn and other grains left in agricultural fields, and corn is being picked later every year, so there may be less food available to attract and hold wintering mallards.”