Kentucky

Mississippi River Bayous


From 1780 to 1980, wetlands in Kentucky declined from 1.6 million acres to approximately 300,000 acres—a decrease of more than 80%. This has resulted in a loss of bird and bat habitat and an increase in sediments and nutrients reaching local waterways.

Most of these losses occurred through conversion of bottomland hardwood forests into agricultural fields in the western part of the state. Since Kentucky boasts the smallest percentage of public conservation lands compared to neighboring states—with less than 2% in permanent protection—safeguarding dwindling forest and wetland habitat has required collaborating with farmers and other landowners to control erosion, buffer streams and engage in other sustainable practices that reduce pollution reaching local waters.

Through our Mississippi River Bayous Project, The Nature Conservancy is working in partnership with these landowners to protect and restore bottomland forest and wetland habitat that will establish a healthy, functional floodplain in Obion Creek, Bayou du Chien and Mayfield Creek. These watersheds drain more than 600,000 acres of predominately agricultural land, making them key to improving the quality of waters draining into the Mississippi River and eventually the Gulf of Mexico.

Size: The project area encompasses three watersheds encompassing approximately 600,000 acres—Obion Creek, Bayou du Chien and Mayfield Creek. Within this area, the Conservancy works with landowners on targeted efforts to build contiguous blocks of protected forest and wetland habitat.

Location: Obion Creek and Bayou du Chien originate in Graves County and flow westerly through Hickman and Fulton counties. They join in Fulton County and flow for approximately two miles before draining into the Mississippi River. Mayfield Creek also originates in Graves County and flows westerly through Ballard and Carlisle counties before entering the Mississippi River just south of the confluence with the Ohio River.

What’s At Stake: Wetland and bottomland hardwood forest habitats harboring:

  • approximately 90 state listed plant and animal species
  • federally-listed species including Indiana bat, Gray bat, Interior Least Tern and several freshwater mussels
  • the federally endangered and endemic Relict Darter, which cannot be found anywhere else in the world except in the headwaters of Bayou de Chien

Threats: Loss of bottomland hardwood forest, leading to a loss of habitat and resulting erosion that sends excessive sediment and nutrients from agricultural fields into local waterways. These conditions, taking place throughout the Mississippi River drainage, have contributed to hypoxia (also called the “dead zone”) in the Gulf of Mexico. 

Milestones: In 2009, the Conservancy forged a partnership with the Ingram Barge Company that made it possible to pursue federal funding for large scale wetland restoration and protection through the USDA Wetlands Reserve Enhancement Program (WREP)—a voluntary program where eligible private lands are enrolled into permanent conservation easements and restored to wetland habitat. That funding resulted in the enrollment of than 5,000 acres in the Mississippi River Bayous project area. In 2015, additional WREP funding and support from numerous partners has made it possible to continue this work, especially expanding upon existing easements and other conservation lands to establish large blocks of connected, restored and protected habitat.

Partners: USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Kentucky Department of Fish & Wildlife Resources, Kentucky Division of Conservation, Graves County Conservation District, Kentucky Nature Preserves Commission, Ingram Barge Company and other generous private companies and individuals.

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