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Restoration on the Big Muddy

Q & A with Tyler Janke

Today, much of the Missouri River bears little resemblance to the wide, shallow waterway that once snaked across a vast floodplain. Through the federal Wetlands Reserve Enhancement Program, landowners in Nebraska are restoring thousands of acres of wetlands. Conservancy staff are working with some of these landowners to test wet prairie and meadow seed mixes, composed of over 100 native species, in an effort to bring back some of the diversity nearly lost from the system.

Learn more about the work of Tyler Janke, Wetlands Restoration Specialist with the Missouri River Program, who is coordinating this effort.

Please tell our readers how you spend a typical week at work.

One of the best things about my position is that I rarely have a typical week. Most of  what I do is determined by the time of year and the weather. Lately, I have been spending the majority of my time developing restoration plans for our high diversity pilot project north of Tekamah, Nebraska. Since this project is taking place on private land, I’ve also devoted a significant amount of time to building good working relationships with the landowners involved.

In addition to high diversity seeding, I have usually been spending two days a week assisting the Natural Resource Conservation Service’s biologist in monitoring Missouri River Wetland Reserve Enhancement Project easements. I’ve mostly been put to work investigating the vegetative response of wetlands to restoration activities. Monitoring has proven to be a valuable way of getting acquainted with Nebraska, as well as learning to navigate more than a hundred sites along the river. I look forward to using what I’ve learned to guide future projects.

You seem really excited about some of the things you are seeing on the restoration sites. Have there been surprises? 

I have been really excited by how well our wetlands responded to the flood this spring. Many people were concerned that the silt deposited by the flood would inhibit plant growth; however, it was amazing to see how resilient riverine species are to disturbance. On a visit to Kansas Bend near Peru less than a week after the water receded, we noticed that many species were sprouting new shoots through cracks in the drying silt.

I’ve also been quite surprised by how many different ecosystems reside in the floodplain. On a map, the floodplain looks like a homogeneous expanse of flat land, but maps don’t do the variety justice. One of my favorite ecosystems is toe slope marshes—wetlands located at the foot of the bluffs. In a few sites, I found several bladderworts, which are small aquatic plants that trap and digest tiny insects for nourishment.

You are working on a tough river. What do you think will be your biggest challenge going forward?

I think the biggest challenge will be designing functional ecosystems for a dynamic landscape managed as a static system. Natural disturbances including flooding, erosion and sediment deposition were paramount in shaping the Missouri River and sustaining the life it supported. Because many of these processes have been severely altered, restoring Missouri River ecosystems is not as simple as looking to the past to guide our efforts. In order for restorations to be sustainable, we need to understand how the disturbances have changed in a given area, and then interpret what ecosystems and communities are capable of existing in these altered conditions. This is a complex process because some systems seem quite sensitive to change, while others exhibit remarkable resiliency.

What can our members do to help advance the work of the Missouri River program?

I encourage anyone who lives near the Missouri to get out and enjoy the river and learn about its unique history. The Missouri River offers numerous recreational opportunities to people of all interests and has a rich heritage everyone can appreciate. I think people will be surprised by what the river has to offer, and even more surprised by its potential.

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