"The life of every river sings its own song, but in most the song is long marred by the discords of misuse."
In Wyoming, water is life. It trickles down from high-mountain glaciers, bubbles up through underground springs, and collects in wetland marshes.
Wyoming is the birthplace of three of North America’s major river systems: the Colorado, the Columbia and the Missouri. These waterways flow on to nourish millions of people, wildlife and habitat along their journey to the ocean.
Freshwater ecosystems—including rivers, lakes and wetlands—provide virtually all of the easily accessible drinking water on the planet.
In addition, more than 80% of Wyoming’s native animals depend at some time during the year on freshwater areas for food, water, shelter and migration routes.
Freshwater Across the U.S.
The United States has the world’s greatest variety of many freshwater organisms. It supports more than half the world’s crayfish species, and a greater variety of mussels, snails, stoneflies, mayflies, and caddis flies than any other country. The United States is also home to 10 percent of the world’s freshwater fish, ranking seventh in worldwide species diversity.
Water as Life
Freshwater ecosystems are essential to human life. They support us with water, food and building materials.They provide a wealth of natural services that support human civilization, including cleansing the waters that flow through them, delivering nutrients to floodplains, wetlands, and estuaries, and moderating floods and droughts.
A Quiet Crisis
A quiet crisis is taking place beneath the surface of the world’s freshwater habitats. Aquatic ecosystems are being severely altered or destroyed at a greater rate than at any other time in human history. Habitat loss, pollution, exotic species introductions,and altered natural flow regimes from dams, channelization, and various land uses have had catastrophic impacts on freshwater habitats.
This scale of degradation leaves us with only a few remaining opportunities to protect high-quality aquatic systems and their corresponding biodiversity.
Wyoming’s Freshwater Systems
Wyoming has three major types of aquatic systems: river and streams, lakes, and wetlands. While Wyoming is known for containing the headwaters for three of North America’s major river systems, wetland habitats dominate in terms of surface acreage.
While most of us are familiar with permanent rivers, lakes and ponds, wetlands are a critical resource in the state. Though temporary, wetlands store valuable water resources—even when other areas dry up in drought conditions. In the West, water is worth its weight in gold, and wetlands provide valuable storage capacity. This role will only become more important as global climate change warms the planet, and as we need more and more water to serve a growing population.
What the Conservancy is Doing
The Conservancy-wide Freshwater Initiative is a global undertaking to conserve freshwater biodiversity. The Freshwater Initiative involves three strategies:
- Identifying the most important places to protect freshwater biodiversity.
- Developing breakthrough strategies for reducing hydrologic alteration and water quality degradation at freshwater sites.
Scientists at The Nature Conservancy’s Wyoming chapter have conducted an indepth analysis of the state’s wetlands. Examining the diversity of Wyoming’s aquatic habitats has provided a broad understanding of their size, permanence, location, condition and protected status. The study looked at wetlands’ proximity to roads, pipelines, residential development, and mines, as well as vulnerability to pollution, dams and water use.
What did the scientists find? Wetlands in Wyoming’s grasslands and desert basins have very little protection. The Wyoming chapter will continue the wetlands analysis by looking at the number of “species of concern” in Wyoming wetlands and at human induced disturbances.
The bottom line: We must evaluate and protect Wyoming’s remaining freshwater biodiversity before conservation opportunities vanish.
Winchester Ranch: Wetlands Project
The Conservancy’s Winchester Ranch is home to a complex set of wetlands created as the Wind River flattens out. Conservancy staff work here with the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the Natural Resources Conservation Service to restore the wetlands and enhance habitat for numerous shore birds, passerine birds and waterfowl, including trumpeter swans.