Cottonwood Lake Study Area
The Cottonwood Lake Study Area is located in Stutsman County, North Dakota, about 35 miles northwest of the Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center (NPWRC) headquarters near Jamestown. Wetlands in the vicinity of the Cottonwood Lake Study Area occupy depressions in a landscape that was formed by glacial processes during the Pleistocene epoch. These wetlands, known as prairie pothole wetlands in the United States and sloughs in Canada, are important breeding areas for migratory waterfowl and other wetland-dependent wildlife.
|Stutsman County, North Dakota waterways|
George Swanson, who was the first to conduct biological research at the Cottonwood Lake Study Area, began his career at NPWRC in 1966. Swanson's early efforts concentrated on waterfowl food habits using experimental wetlands at the NPWRC and characterization of natural conditions at two federally owned Waterfowl Production Areas (WPA), which are administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Due to the proximity of these WPA's to Cottonwood Lake, the two sites are collectively known as the Cottonwood Lake Study Area. A 227-acre parcel chosen for study by Swanson includes eight seasonally flooded and nine semipermanently flooded wetlands and it is located on the Eddy WPA. The other site included in the Cottonwood Lake Study Area contains a large saline wetland that is about 2 miles west on the Schuler WPA.
As studies of the chemical characteristics, invertebrate communities and plant communities of the wetlands progressed, Swanson realized that natural changes in water level strongly influenced the characteristics and biological communities of the wetlands and, therefore, the use of those wetlands by waterfowl. In 1977, Swanson met Tom Winter, a research hydrologist from the U.S. Geological Survey in Lakewood, Colorado, who had been looking for sites in the upper midwest at which to conduct research on hydrological processes. Their initial conversations led to a "grass roots" interagency research program to define hydrological characteristics and processes responsible for water level changes and changes in the biological communities of the wetlands.
The cooperative effort of Swanson and Winter was a logical extension of an earlier cooperative study between NPWRC and USGS scientists. In the late 1950s, the possibility that irrigation from the Garrison Diversion would change the hydrological characteristics of the landscape and possibly affect waterfowl habitat led to detailed studies of prairie wetlands by hydrologists from the U.S. Geological Survey. These studies, by William Eisenlohr, Jr., Charles Sloan, and Jelmer Shjeflo, initially focused on evapotranspiration from prairie pothole wetlands in different parts of North Dakota, including wetlands within two miles of the Cottonwood Lake, but were later expanded to examine wetland relations with ground water. Beginning in 1962, Fish and Wildlife biologists Robert Stewart Sr. and Harold Kantrud, who later became members of the NPWRC staff, surveyed vegetation of the wetlands studied by the hydrologists. Stewart and Kantrud's work led to definition of the range of salinity and water permanence tolerated by different plant species.
In his effort to understand the different factors affecting use of wetlands by waterfowl, from 1966 to 1976 Swanson undertook a study of the chemical characteristics of wetlands in Stutsman and Kidder counties, North Dakota. Aided by NPWRC chemist Vyto Adomaitis and the chemical laboratory at NPWRC, Swanson examined 178 wetlands. Swanson and Adomaitis found a wide range of salinity and chemical types in the wetlands. Eisenlohr and others found that wetlands receiving ground water discharge were more saline than those that did not receive ground water discharge. Thus, salinity differences among wetlands in the large area examined by Swanson and Adomaitis were likely due to variations in the influence of ground water. Armed with this knowledge, Swanson sought to involve someone with an interest in hydrochemisty at his study site, and in 1979, Jim LaBaugh, another USGS research scientist from Lakewood, Colorado, joined the team to assist Swanson with the interpretation of the relation of wetland chemical characteristics to hydrological characteristics and wetland biota at the site. When the NPWRC chemical laboratory closed in 1983, LaBaugh assumed responsibilty for the water chemistry work.
In 1978, Winter and colleagues from the USGS office in Bismarck, North Dakota, began to install a network of wells and piezometers to monitor ground-water movement at the study site. To understand how the entire hydrologic cycle affected the wetlands, Winter also installed instruments to measure rainfall and evaporation, and enlisted Alex Sturrock, a USGS evaporation specialist, to help with analysis and interpretation of evaporation data. Throughout the subsequent study, additional wells and refinements in meterological equipment have been made at the site, including use of automatic data recorders, making it possible to monitor both weather and ground-water elevation changes year-round. Don Rosenberry, also a research scientist from the USGS in Lakewood, Colorado, joined the team in 1985, assisting with instrumentation and focusing on nearshore changes in flow between ground water and wetlands.
The ongoing research at the site provided a strong biological and hydrogeochemical framework that has stimulated much graduate research at the site. Karen Poiani, under the direction of Carter Johnson from Virginia Polytechnic and State University, conducted her masters and doctoral studies on hydrophytic seed banks and the response of vegetation in semipermanent wetlands to climate change. Richard Nelson conducted his doctoral research at the site on chironomid midges, an important food resource for birds, while attending North Dakota State University under the direction of Malcom Butler,. Masters student Kevin Swanson studied the mineral content of glacial till at the site, under the direction of Carl Bowser from the University of Wisconsin. Greg Summers, a masters student of Mario Biondini of North Dakota State University, examined the role of wetlands in nitrogen cycles of the prairie. James Arndt, while a student of James Richardson of North Dakota State University, conducted doctoral research on wetland soils, biogeochemical transformations, and relation to hydrologic gradients at the site. A student of Arnold van der Valk, Paul Wetzel from Iowa State University, collected some samples from the Cottonwood Lake area for his research on mycorrhizal fungi.
Aside from George Swanson, Tom Winter, Jim LaBaugh, and Don Rosenberry, much additional research has been conducted by other researchers interested in working at the site and attracted by its interdisciplinary research opportunities. Jimmy Richardson and Mario Biondini of North Dakota State University have examined wetland soils and biogeochemical transformation in those soils. Bruce Hanson, a wildife biologist from NPWRC, developed a key for Coleoptera at the site. Rick Forester, an ostracode specialist from the USGS in Denver, has examined ostracodes from the site. Hal Kantrud, also from NPWRC, has examined vegetation at the site. Gas samples from the site collected by David Mushet, NPWRC, and analyzed at the Trout Lake Laboratory of the University of Wisconsin, were used in an intersite comparison of CO2 and methane saturation in inland waters of the National Science Foundation's Long Term Ecological Research sites and related sites.
Upon Swanson's retirement in 1992, the Fish and Wildllife Service erected a bronze plaque at the entrance to the Waterfowl Production Area he studied for so long, dedicating the area to him in honor of his contributions to wetland management. Much of the research at the Cottonwood Lake Study Area has laid the foundation for science-based management of prairie wetlands. Through Swanson's dedication to the study of waterfowl and prairie wetlands, the increasingly comprehensive Cottowood Lake Study Area data set and ongoing process research has served as a magnet, attracting researchers from a number of universities and other government agencies. This interest has resulted in cooperative studies on wetland soils, sedimentation, gas exchange, primary production, seedbanks, climate change, pesticide effects on waterfowl, mineral content of glacial till, and a variety of other topics at the site.
Chip Euliss, the NPWRC research biologist who inherited Swanson's role as Team Leader, has continued the tradition of cooperative research at the Cottonwood Lake area study site. In 1993, when USGS funding for water chemistry work was discontinued , Euliss recruited Rick Nelson from the Bismarck (North Dakota) office of the Bureau of Reclamation. Nelson had been interested in the Cottonwood site and was using it as a control site for comparison with restored wetlands. With the USGS not financially able to continue its role in chemistry studies, and the need to use Cottonwood Lake Study Area wetlands as reference wetlands, Nelson stepped in to continue chemical analysis at the site. Since 1993 he has been conducting water chemistry research at the site and, as done by his predecessors, shares data with all collaborators. The vagaries of funding in the 1980s had limited the biological research done at the site by Swanson. Euliss has now been able to expand the biological research at the site to include detailed monitoring of invertebrates, amphibians, and birds to complement the long-term examination of vegetation. These studies are providing new insights about population changes related to hydrochemical dynamics of the wetlands.
publications, graduate theses, and presentations at scientific conferences resulting from these studies provide the bulk of information currently available to guide wetland management in the prairie pothole region of the U.S. and Canada. According to Euliss, one of the greatest contributions of the Cottonwood Lake effort is that it "provides invaluable baseline data on the hydrological, chemical, and biological attributes upon which to base comparisons with ongoing research, including studies on wetland restoration and wetland monitoring." In addition, the understanding of the interrelation of hydrological, chemical, and biological processes revealed by research at the site provides the scientific foundation that allows wetland managers to understand the outcome of different management options.
The long-term study has been conducted during natural climate extremes, from drought to deluge, so the role natural variation in climate and water levels in making prairie wetlands so productive is beginning to be revealed. Many questions remain, such as what are the effects of natural variability in the landscape brought about by fire and grazing on prairie wetlands, what are the effects of different land use practices on these wetlands, and how do these effects vary within the framework of natural hydrologic variability of these wetlands. Having the Cottonwood Lake Study Area wetlands as reference for natural hydrologic variability will provide important context for studies of wetlands affected by natural and human-induced changes in the landscape.
All of this was accomplished without any 'official' ties between NPWRC, USGS, and Bureau of Reclamation at the regional or national level. Scientists funded to conduct basic research chose to work together because they could see the benefits of interdisciplinary research on these complex systems and the opportunity to work at a common study site initiated by George Swanson. Success has been an attribute of science-driven questions about basic processes in the complex systems known as prairie pothole wetlands. As Walter C. Mendenhall, Director of USGS from 1930 to 1943 once said, "There can be no applied science unless there is science to apply." The new options available to wetland managers on the prairie are a result of collaboration and cooperation among scientists from different agencies and universities that is continuing to provide the science to apply to prairie pothole wetlands.
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