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For immediate release

Martha Nudel
Vanessa Kauffman

Wild Angles
News from the National Wildlife Refuge System

Wetlands Ease a Crisis

The record flooding that threatened residents in the northern Great Plains this spring and caused millions of dollars in damage could have been more disastrous had it not been for the many acres preserved as wetlands and waterfowl production areas by the National Wildlife Refuge System.

"It would have unquestionably been worse," said Rex Johnson, project leader for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Habitat and Population Evaluation Team, which provides support to refuge lands east of the Red River, including those in flood-stricken Minnesota. "The 20,000 acres of protected floodplain wetlands kept the unprecedented 41-foot river crest from reaching even higher," said Johnson.

On the Dakota side of the river, where the National Wildlife Refuge System manages nearly 100 times more land – 1.8 million acres of ancient lakebed preserved as wetlands – his counterpart Ron Reynolds was yet more emphatic. "You're looking at four million acre-feet of water being held back on the land," most of which would otherwise have fed the swollen Red or Missouri Rivers, said Reynolds. (An acre-foot is the amount of water needed to cover an acre of land one-foot deep, or about 325,851 gallons.) "That easily accounts for four or five feet of additional river crest that didnít happen because we have those wetlands protected."

The flooded area, known as the Prairie Pothole region because of the shallow depressions left by retreating glaciers, is home to 49 national wildlife refuges and 185,000 acres of waterfowl production areas. "This is the most important duck producing area in North America," said Reynolds. But the draining and plowing of millions of acres for farmland has reduced the land's water-holding capacity and greatly increased runoff into the river and streams "so that we now have 100-year or 500-year flood events every decade," added Johnson.

ďThe problem is that drainage is still occurring. We haven't learned our lessons," continued Reynolds. "When wetlands are drained, the water they would have captured instead ends up in backyards in Fargo or Grand Forks."

The National Wildlife Refuge System, managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is the world's premier system of public lands and waters set aside to conserve America's fish, wildlife and plants.

The largest federal entity in North Dakota, the Fish and Wildlife Service played a key role in emergency response, dispatching 12 airboats and 17 boat operators to aid in search and rescue operations. Service staff also monitored water levels, diked and sandbagged vulnerable areas and provided emergency transportation.

Contact: Rex Johnson at 218-736-0606 or Ron Reynolds at 701-355-8535

Last Update: November 23, 2009

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