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Row crops planted in a field.
Information icon Seeding strips of native prairie into cropland to reduce soil loss and improve water quality at Neal Smith NWR. Photo by USFWS.

Next Steps for a Healthy Gulf of Mexico Watershed

Upper Mississippi River Watershed

Landscape at a Glance

A map showing the Upper Mississippi River Watershed focal area.
Map of the Upper Mississippi River Watershed focal area by Roy Hewitt, USFWS.

This focal area is within the watershed of the Upper Mississippi River System, which includes the Mississippi River and its tributaries above Cairo, Illinois. The focal area encompasses a geography of watersheds that contribute the bulk of nutrients to the main stem of the Mississippi River above the confluence of the Ohio River that are associated with the hypoxic conditions in the Gulf. Based on nutrient yield modeling, the two states contributing the highest nitrogen loads to the river, and eventually the Gulf, are Iowa and Illinois. As part of the USDA’s Mississippi River Basin Initiative (MRBI), priority watersheds for agricultural nutrient reduction have been identified in these states as well as 10 other states in the Upper Mississippi River Watershed. Reduction in nutrient loading in the Upper Mississippi watershed is expected to have a positive effect on Gulf marine resources by reducing the size of the hypoxic zone.

A dry grassland with sparse trees and a barn in the distance.
Illinois prairie. Photo by Tina Shaw, USFWS.

The focal area lies in what was once the Eastern tallgrass prairie, and is characterized by deep prairie soils, flat to rolling terrain and a temperate climate. These attributes make the focal area, as well as the entire watershed, ideal for agriculture. In fact, Iowa and Illinois rank at the top in the nation for corn and soybean production. The costs of this agricultural dominance are high, primary among them being the reduction of native prairies and their associated wetlands to small fractions of their original extent. For instance Iowa, Illinois and Indiana each only have approximately one-tenth of one percent of their original grasslands. Iowa and Illinois have each lost 90 percent of their original wetlands, and Indiana 85 percent. Since row crop agriculture is the predominant land use, much landcover is seasonal. This includes approximately 2.4 million acres of large river floodplain with a mix of urban, private, state and federal lands. Private lands on the floodplain are generally farmed, while state and federal lands consist of a mix of floodplain forest wetland and open water. Conservation lands on the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers include two Ramsar Wetlands of International Importance. The focal area spans the Mississippi Flyway, a migration corridor for half of all bird species and up to 40 percent of North American waterfowl. It is also within the flyway for the eastern population of the Monarch butterfly, whose decline highlights the significance of habitat loss in the focal area.

The Service believes conservation priorities include perennial native landcover and hydrology restoration on public and private lands to benefit migratory birds and water quality; strategic land interest acquisition to support these conservation priorities; pollinator habitat restoration and enhancement to benefit native bees, monarch butterflies and other pollinators; and continued engagement in the Upper Mississippi River Restoration Program. We applaud the fact that the agricultural community in the watershed has stepped up efforts to address water quality and nutrient issues, and industry groups are assisting landowners with basic stream water quality monitoring to inform decisions regarding timing and amount of chemical applications, resulting in lower cost to producers and less nutrients lost to stream systems.

Target Species

Biological objectives for the Upper Mississippi River Watershed Focal Area are available in documents such as state wildlife action plans; the Service’s Surrogate Species Version 1.0: Eastern Tallgrass Prairie and Big Rivers Population Objectives Status Report; other federal plans for the Upper Mississippi River Restoration Program; Fish Habitat Partnership Strategic Plans; Integrated Management Plan for the Illinois River Watershed; the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Upper Mississippi River Systems Ecosystem Restoration Objectives 2009; and the Upper Mississippi River and Great Lakes Region Joint Venture’s Conservation Strategies for Landbirds, Waterbirds, and Waterfowl.

A small brown bird with black feathers on its back perched on green vegetation.
Henslow’s sparrow. Photo by Jim Hudgins, USFWS.

Restoring and enhancing native landcover in the focal area, as well as the entire upper Midwest, will improve sustainability of fish, wildlife and pollinator species of concern. The following surrogate species were selected for the Eastern Tallgrass Prairie and Big Rivers LCC geography. Population estimates presented here are for the Iowa and Illinois portions of the LCC geography (obtained from the Partners-in-Flight Population Estimates Database, version 2.0). Translated into habitat objectives, the Upper Mississippi River and Great Lakes Region Joint Venture estimates that protection and/or maintenance of 1,235,363 acres of grassland habitat and restoration and/or enhancement of an additional 1,235,363 acres are required to achieve the following population targets for grassland birds in the target geography: the Henslow’s sparrow (≥57,000 breeding adults); the grasshopper sparrow (1,800,000); the bobolink (400,000); the marsh wren (3,600); the green-winged teal (annually provide a network of seasonally to semi-permanently flooded emergent habitats adequate to support 12 percent of the continental population for spring and fall migration periods); the mallard (annually provide a network of seasonally to semi-permanently flooded emergent habitats adequate to support 22 percent of the continental population for spring and fall migration periods).

Landscape-scale Collaboration to Address Hypoxia

Since 2010, the average size of the Gulf’s summer “dead zone” has been 5,500 square miles — about the size of Connecticut. Over the past three years, multiple Landscape Conservation Cooperatives within the Gulf watershed have been pursuing the development of decision-support tools and research to fight the hypoxia problem by guiding conservation in areas that are sending high nutrient loads (e.g., excess nitrogen from fertilizer) to the Gulf. The partners in this multi-LCC project hope to optimize their respective initiative or program investments over time by targeting specific geographies that have the most potential for water quality and habitat improvement with the cooperation of willing landowners. Midwest Fish Habitat Partnerships are also active, completing fish habitat assessment models and decision-support tools to strategically place fish habitat projects on private lands that will not only improve fish habitat for native fish, but also improve water quality in priority watersheds across the Upper Mississippi River Basin.

Restoration efforts that contribute to nutrient reduction goals of the Hypoxia Task Force and the states’ nutrient reduction strategies will directly improve water quality and further population objectives for aquatic species such the greater redhorse (increase the distribution and connectivity among locations where the species in known to occur) and the paddlefish (self-sustaining population that provides for continued recreational and commercial harvest and maintains an annual 30-40 percent spawning potential of the un-fished population).

We place an overall emphasis on High Priority Actions throughout the Upper Mississippi River watershed that will result in positive changes in hydrology, soil health, desirable landcover (habitat), general ecosystem functions and the number of different species represented in the landscape. Many of the proposed actions in this focal area benefit our trust resource species like interjurisdictional fish species, however implementation of these actions will be advantageous to other species, specifically those that are dependent on water quality in the Gulf where hypoxia is currently a limiting factor in habitat suitability. Marine species like red snapper, grouper species, shrimp, blue crabs and many other commercially and recreationally important species will benefit as our proposed actions contribute to reducing the size and duration of the hypoxic zone.

Since the release of the Service’s Vision, priorities for this focal area have shifted both for the Service and for many of our conservation partners. We must turn our immediate attention to the downward trends in pollinators. This pressing conservation concern is most visibly represented by the precipitous decline in the monarch butterfly and rusty patched bumble bee populations, which will require an all-hands effort to stem the decline, and turn the population trend line for all pollinators to the positive. The White House’s National Pollinator Strategy has as an objective 225 million monarchs in the eastern migratory population by the year 2020.

High Priority Actions Based on the Service’s Vision

Work in targeted watersheds with farmers and other private landowners to restore native grasses and prairie hydrology to reverse declines in grassland birds such as Henslow’s sparrow, and reduce the amount of nutrients transported to the main stem of the Mississippi River.

Next Steps

A group of conservationists gather around a corrogated tube in the middle of a field.
Wetland construction to reduce nitrogen in the Mackinaw River watershed in Illinois. Photo by USFWS.
  • Work with regional watershed planning groups to apply the decision-support tool developed through the multi-LCC Mississippi River Basin Gulf Hypoxia Initiative and examine the alignment of habitat restoration, water quality initiatives and agricultural productivity to inform targeted delivery of complementary programs. Evaluate the analysis tool and further refine it as necessary to meet the needs of the conservation delivery community.
  • Build collaborative relationships between landowners, agriculture and conservation organizations; promote information exchanges and provide educational programs that help landowners understand the tradeoffs in ecosystem services provided under alternative land and water management plans and through habitat restoration projects for wildlife and aquatic resources (e.g., Illinois Council on Best Management Practices’ Keep it for the Crop program, the Illinois Nutrient Research Council, and the Fishers & Farmers pilot project to build a Watershed Leaders Network in watersheds across the Upper Mississippi River Basin).
  • Promote managed grazing to increase perennial cover; improve soil health and hydrology of the focal area landscape; decrease runoff, sediment and nutrient loss; decrease farm equipment, seed and chemical costs to farmers; and stimulate rural economies.
  • Develop incentives for landowners to maintain participation in existing USDA programs such as the Conservation Reserve program, the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program and the Wetland Reserve Program during market fluctuations.
  • Seek funding for and work closely with USDA field/district office staff to identify high priority areas to provide incentives for and guide implementation and potential cost-sharing for specific conservation practices such as cover crops, crop rotations, nutrient management and other best management practices.
  • Develop additional long-term conservation stewardship goals for landowners in targeted watersheds that can be leveraged as incentives with partners such as the local Soil and Water Conservation District, a State agency, or nongovernmental organization (NGO).
  • Encourage expansion of NRCS’ Migratory Bird Habitat Initiative by adding a focus area connecting the Mississippi Alluvial Valley and Prairie Pothole Region focus areas to work with private landowners in the Midwest to provide food and critical wetland habitat for migratory bird populations in support of existing Upper Mississippi River & Great Lakes Joint Venture objectives.
  • Provide technical assistance to private landowners such as monitoring of enrollment cycles to encourage continued participation in conservation practices as land ownership changes or enrollment periods expire.
  • Work with the agricultural community to identify and manage key parcels across the conservation area to improve and maintain landscape connectivity that meets life cycle requirements for the greater prairie chicken and other wildlife.
  • Create wetlands at the end of tile lines and use other Drainage Water Management techniques to reduce nitrate-nitrogen loads into adjacent streams (e.g., The Nature Conservancy project in the Mackinaw River Watershed, near Franklin, Illinois).
  • Work with federal, state and county governments, universities, NGOs and farmers to restore oxbows in priority watersheds in Iowa and Minnesota. Restored oxbows provide a number of benefits, including: a return to a more natural hydrology by connecting streams with their floodplains; a way to improve water quality by holding sediment and providing “filters” that reduce nitrogen and phosphorus; and the creation of habitat critical to many fish and wildlife species, including the federally listed Topeka shiner.
  • Using the Science-based Trials of Rowcrops Integrated with Prairie Strips (STRIPS) program at Neal Smith NWR as a model, conduct similar projects on private lands throughout the focal area to provide an easily-integrated and low-cost management option to improve both aquatic and terrestrial habitat, soil health, hydrology, and water quality.

Collaborate with agencies, organizations and individual landowners to restore or enhance monarch butterfly habitat in the Upper Mississippi Watershed.

Next Steps

A monarch butterfly on a purple flower with bright orange cone.
Monarch butterfly on purple coneflower. Photo by Jim Hudgins, USFWS.
  • In collaboration with Monarch Joint Venture partners and others, identify priority tracts for pollinator conservation to acquire, and restore native prairie in perpetuity through easement or acquisition.
  • Enhance pollinator habitat on Service-owned lands, through partnerships on state-owned lands, and on private lands through the Partners for Fish and Wildlife, Coastal, and Farm Conservation Programs.
  • Explore new opportunities to promote habitat conservation in urban and rural areas near the Interstate 35 corridor through partnerships with U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration and state departments of transportation.
  • Engage partners to increase the availability and distribution of regionally appropriate native milkweed and nectar plant seed.
  • Engage state departments of transportation, county road departments, township road associations and levee districts to encourage modifying mowing and spraying practices to benefit pollinators and other wildlife.
  • Enlist National Fishery Friends Partnership and Regional Conservation Education Coordinators to assist in encouraging local Fishery Friends Groups to support monarch habitat conservation and education activities.
  • Support public outreach to promote monarch and pollinator conservation, including a public awareness campaign regarding the National Pollinator Strategy and the regional role in that strategy.

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