Wetland Values

            Wetlands were long thought to be a nuisance because they were not suitable for development or most kinds of agriculture.  We now realize that wetlands are not just valuable, they are invaluable.  The following is a list of ways in which wetlands benefit people and the environment.  Many wetlands in the Clark Fork basin are connected to the river or its floodplain.  Because of this, wetlands far upstream of us may have direct impacts on the quantity and quality of water that we see in the river near our homes.

Flood damage control:  Wetlands adjacent to rivers (riparian wetlands) can easily survive inundation by floodwaters and often actually benefit from regular flooding.  Water that is allowed to flow over wetlands is slowed and partially absorbed, thereby reducing flood damage downstream.  Wetlands are said to act as sponges because wetland soils can readily absorb water, and depressions associated with wetlands can fill up.  This has the effect of trapping and slowly releasing water that would otherwise rush into the channel and contribute to flooding downstream. 

Bank Stabilization: Riparian vegetation is amazingly good at holding banks together.  The deep binding root masses of such plants gives the stream-banks the ability to withstand erosion, which prevents sediment from entering the stream.  Native riparian vegetation is generally much more effective at holding banks together than exotic species (See USFWS's site on exotic species). Shrubs and sedges typically provide the most stream stability.

                Water supply and groundwater recharge:  Wetlands act as sources of water even in very arid regions.   A properly functioning wetland can provide water for humans, livestock, and wildlife.  Water flows out of wetlands and into the water table below neighboring habitats as these habitats dry out.  This process is known as groundwater recharge, and helps habitats around wetlands survive drought.  This slow release of stored water also helps rivers maintain flows in the summer.

Water purification:  Not only do wetlands act as a sponge, they also act as a filter.  Certain types of wetlands are efficient at removing toxins, and excess nutrients from surface and ground water.  Riparian wetlands can also filter the sediment out of floodwaters.  As flood waters flow over land, the water velocity is lowered and sediment settles out onto the floodplain.  Wetlands also control sediment by decreasing the volume and velocity of flows during high water events which decreases channel erosion.

            Recreation and aesthetic values:  Many wetlands in or around urban areas have not been developed due to the difficulty of draining and clearing wetlands.  These areas offer a great opportunity to preserve open space near developed areas.  Wetlands and the wildlife they attract are increasingly viewed as appealing by land owners and communities.  Although they are often difficult to explore, wetlands offer unique and rich recreational opportunities, including hunting, fishing, birding, canoeing, and hiking.  Wetlands are also wonderful subjects and locations for education and research.  It is critical that we understand how wetlands function because they are ecologically important and imperiled.

                            Fish and wildlife habitat:  Many different types of wetlands provide critical habitat for fish.  Saltwater and brackish marshes are breeding grounds and habitat for many saltwater fishes and crustaceans.  River floodplain wetlands provide essential cover for trout and salmon, especially during high flows. Wetlands help provide the quality and quantity of water needed by cold water fisheries. Information about the cold water fisheries in Montana can be found at the Montana River Information System site.

Wetlands provide food, cover and water  for a wide variety of wildlife.  Many species of waterfowl utilize wetlands like prairie potholes for resting during migration, and breeding. Other birds are drawn to the nesting cover provided by dense shrub thickets.  Thirty nine percent of the bird species in western Montana breed only in wetland and riparian areas.  These same thickets are a good food source for deer and moose.  Other animals like salamanders and some insects require the water conditions found in wetlands to live and reproduce. 
View the Bird Checklists of the United States and the Butterflies of the United States.

Biodiversity:  Wetlands are some of the most and least diverse ecosystems on the planet.  Cattail marshes are dominated by only one plant species.  Other wetlands have a rich diversity, far exceeding adjacent communities.  Regardless of the diversity within a wetland, wetlands include plant and animal communities that increase the diversity of the landscape.  Many plant and animal species have evolved in specific kinds of wetlands and can live nowhere else.  To ensure the survival of these species, the wetlands they live in must be protected.  View more wetland values. EPA resource on wetland values.