Jason Black, wildlife area manager for the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism, spoke to an audience at Bethel College's Life Enrichment Series in North Newton on Wednesday about the history and future of the McPherson Valley Wetlands.
In the late 1800s, a 30,000-acre wetlands area that stretched from northeast of McPherson to south of Valley Center included 10,000 acres in McPherson County alone, giving market hunters a place to earn a living.
"Wagonloads of ducks were shot and shipped to Kansas City and St. Louis from the Conway train station," Black said.
In 1911, John Schrag began construction of the Blaze Fork "creek" to drain the land for increased agricultural production.
"This effort reduced the acreage of the wetlands in McPherson County by 90 percent," Black said.
By the 1980s, around 1,000 acres of wetland were left.
KWDPT got together with Ducks Unlimited and local land owners to find a way to preserve the wetlands. On March 10, 1989, the first purchases of acreage to create the McPherson Valley Wetlands were made.
"We didn't take land from people, we only bought from willing sellers," Black said.
Through the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, a federal grants program that gives matching funds to wetland projects, McPherson Valley Wetlands has been able to grow to include 4,615 acres in three units (the Big Basin Marshes, Chain of Lakes and Little Sinkhole Marshes) spread out over 120 square miles with 80 water control structures. Of those, 1,860 acres are wetlands, 1,712 acres are uplands or hold dikes and infrastructures and 1,043 acres are used for agriculture.
"On a landscape scale, wetlands are very important. They kind of serve as a giant sponge," Black said. "They filter the water and trap the sediment, so we need them."
Wetlands areas also serve as a natural habitat for animals such as deer and birds like turkey, ducks and geese.
"Kansas wetlands are of extreme importance to hemispheric migrants," Black said. "...The primary goal for the management of McPherson (Valley Wetlands) is to provide a diverse marsh habitat for wildlife, waterfowl and shore birds during the migration period. We do this by trying to provide food, water and refuge for populations of migratory birds."
A secondary goal for the wetlands area is to increase the production of waterfowl, shore birds, grasses and forbs. These goals are accomplished by careful management of the landscape.
Water control structures are used to either hold or divert water on an area of land. After heavy rains, the wetlands can absorb some of the extra water, helping to reduce flooding from water running through the Blaze Fork creek into the Little Arkansas River.
Black said McPherson Valley Wetlands recently added above-ground valves to control the water movement.
One of the area's future projects includes the development of the Shirk marsh, which will be made from a quarter section on the corner of Ninth and Navajo streets. Wetlands will cover 107 acres, while the remaining acreage will be allowed to go back to native grasses.
"The permitting process is complete — and it's also painful," Black said with a smile. "You have to go through the Division of Water Resources to get permission to retain water on the landscape, you have to get the Corps of Engineers involved to get permits to do any digging in a wetland area, the Kansas Historical Society has to be on board to sign off on any historical significance, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment on stormwater discharge, and it goes on and on."
McPherson Valley Wetlands will also start documenting shore bird numbers to be able to report populations to NAWCA.
A new parking lot and cairn are also going to going to be constructed in honor of the area's mission to preserve wetlands.
"McPherson Valley Wetlands has been chosen as a flagship property for a Ducks Unlimited campaign called 'Rescue Our Wetlands' where they're really showcasing wildlife areas like McPherson that are trying to bring wetlands back onto the landscape, even if it's a fragmented version of what it once was," Black said.
Visitors to the McPherson Valley Wetlands — who come from all over the country — are primarily consumptive, Black noted.
"It's very popular for waterfowl hunting. It's the number one use of the area," Black said. "Pheasant hunting comes in a very close second."
Non-consumptive users, including bird watchers and photographers, also find the area rich in wildlife.
"During peak periods of migration, in years where we have abundant water, it's not uncommon to hold 30,000 to 40,000 ducks and 50,000 to 70,000 geese," Black said.
McPherson Valley Wetlands is located at 967 Mohawk Rd. in McPherson. For more information, call
620-241-7669 or visit https://ksoutdoors.com/KDWPT-Info/Locations/Wildlife-Areas/South-Central/McPherson-Valley-Wetlands.