Day Six: Nest Checks and Rising Lakes

Duck, Duck, Goose: Counting Birds and Checking Nests in the PPR

After a week of talking about prairie pothole conservation, the journalists finally got an in-the-field look at how resource managers see if their efforts are panning out – by flushing birds off of nests and checking for viable eggs. the group headed out to the Nikolaisen Waterfowl Production Area (WPA) to discuss the current condition of waterfowl populations across the PPR, learn why methyl mercury contamination in managed wetlands occurs and why it’s a concern. We also visited some restoration sites and saw first hand what it takes to get severely degraded habitat back into suitable shape to support both water quality and wildlife production. 

Underwater: The Astonishing Rise of Devils Lake and the Potential Impacts Downstream

A feature left behind by the glaciers 10,000 years ago, Devils Lake is a terminal lake, located in the lowest point of a closed drainage basin. Its geologic placement makes for some remarkable hydrology – scientists say that it is “not unusual” for the lake to fluctuate 20 to 40 feet over the course of a few hundred years. Most of these fluctuations, however, occurred before humans entered the picture. In the last twenty years, Devils Lake has risen thirty feet, eating away farmland and habitat, overtaking highways and chasing communities to higher ground. (Both the Woodland Resort and the USFWS’s Devils Lake Wetland Management District headquarters were moved uphill)

In fact, Devils Lake has grown from a small, shallow pool to the third-largest natural lake west of Minnesota. Such a marked increase has people looking for what’s to blame and, indeed, over the last few decades, thousands of acres of wetlands have been converted into agriculture – with farmers often adding tiled drainage systems to their fields to get excess water off the land faster. While the loss of wetlands certainly hasn’t helped the cause, researchers say that it’s not what’s behind the rapidly rising waters. The latest science on the rise of Devils Lake indicates that the majority of the change can be explained by a sustained period of above average precipitation. While area residents grapple with this “new normal,” downstream communities worry that the lake will reach an elevation where its waters spill over into the Sheyenne River and, eventually, the Red River, creating flood and water quality issues downstream. Fellows got a view of the levees keeping the city of Devils Lake dry, and visited the east end outlet, a pumping station that sloughs water out of the lake and into the Sheyenne River.