Little Yellow River restoration at the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge
On June 14 River Alliance staff went on a field trip to visit the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge. We met with current wildlife biologist Brad Strobel and the recently retired staff biologist, Mark Pfost. They gave us a tour of the area and we saw the exciting work they are doing to restore the Little Yellow River.
From the ecological importance of the wetlands to the history of its 110,000 acres, the space tells a complex story of what Strobel calls the elegant and inelegant ways humans have tried to manage land and water.
Much of the changes to the Little Yellow River revolve around past attempts to make the land available for farming. Long ago the river meandered and wetlands absorbed rain and flooding. But to clear the land for farming, prior generations tried to straighten, widen, and deepen the Little Yellow River, and dug a system of ditches to remove water from the land as quickly as possible. Read more about the history of the land on the NWR website.
The early attempts to engineer solutions to the “problems” with water only made downstream flooding worse, as well as the land’s challenges for farming like frost, fire and unfertile soil. As Strobel explains it, the frequent flooding and washouts were a part of the system screaming “I’m not right.”
As refuge staff work to manage the land for the diverse plant and animal life (bird nerds will be thrilled to view whooping cranes among other threatened species such as Karner blue butterflies, Blanding’s turtles and gray wolves), restoring the Little Yellow River one segment at a time will help both the thriving ecosystem as well as downstream townships become more resilient to flooding impacts on roads.
The solution to river restoration may be as simple as filling in the drainage ditches. However, the river isn’t where it used to be and the water will find its way across the land somehow. Refuge staff are carefully assessing segments of the river, collecting data from monitoring wells, and documenting how their restoration efforts are letting the wetlands and streams work to manage flooding naturally.
Soon the refuge will be a destination for paddlers and ecotourists looking to view wildlife from a kayak. As more area township leaders see the value of the river restoration efforts and local students visit to get hands-on science lessons, the Little Yellow River will serve a new function for the community as it finds its new meandering path across the land.
One exciting discovery they made while digging through piles of soil along the ditches: seeds. Century-old seeds unearthed from original ditch construction sprouted wild rice and tamarack. We’re looking forward to seeing what’s next for these efforts to let the Little Yellow River flow and the native plants that thrive near it grow once again.
Learn more about the wildlife refuge and how you can visit on the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge website.