Cheyenne Bottoms in Kansas is the largest inland wetland in the United States and is approximately 110 miles northwest of Wichita.
In 2022, however, the wetlands are almost completely dry, due to a drought that has hit the region, having contained almost no water since June.
“We are 100% dry. There is no water on the property,” said Jason Wagner, Cheyenne Bottoms wildlife area manager. The Wichita Eagle. “This year is kind of a perfect storm.”
The Kansas drought and dead cattle
The US Drought Monitor shows that, as of Nov. 15, more than a third of the entire state of Kansas is in “Exceptional Drought,” the highest level measured by the monitor. The rest of the state ranges from “Abnormally Dry” to “Extreme Drought,” with zero percent of the Kansas area experiencing no such conditions.
These conditions are thought to have been caused by a combination of unusually low rainfall and high temperatures: A report from Kansas State University showed that the third quarter of 2022 is the driest since records began in 1895 in southeast California. Kansas, and the second driest on record in south-central Kansas.
These extremely dry and hot climatic conditions have led to mass deaths of animals, including livestock. In July 2022, more than 2,000 cattle were reported to have died from heatstroke over the course of just a few days.
Cheyenne Bottoms: A vital pit stop for birds
The drying up of Cheyenne Bottoms, which is a stopping point for between 750,000 and 1 million birds each year on their annual southward migrations, will also likely have far-reaching impacts on wildlife.
Tom Langen, a professor of wetland ecology at Clarkson University in New York, said so Newsweek: “Kansas wetlands are especially important to migratory shorebirds, waterfowl, cranes, and other waterfowl. Shorebirds and waterfowl breed on arctic tundra, swamps in the Great Boreal Forest Belt, or of holes in the prairie.
“They stop in Kansas because the wetlands are large, shallow, teeming with tiny worms and other invertebrates that provide the food shorebirds need and the seeds some waterfowl eat,” Langen added.
“The birds then make their way south to the Gulf Coast, Central and South America, and some as far as Chile and Argentina. On their return journey in the spring, they also use the Kansas wetlands.”
In 2022, on the other hand, the usual influx to the wetlands is missing.
“Our bird numbers are nothing [this year]”said Wagner. “Most of them don’t even stop because there’s nothing to stop for.”
Depending on the species, this lack of roosting is likely to have a serious impact on many birds.
“Many long-distance migratory birds depend on roost sites to rest and ‘refuel’ by eating enough to regain fat that will provide energy for the next leg of the journey. Birds, because they fly, can only store a certain amount of fat, not enough to make the entire journey. This is especially true for small birds. So safe, food-rich roosting sites are key,” said Langen.
Lisa Webb, assistant unit chief and cooperative associate professor at the United States Geological Survey Missouri Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, said Newsweek: “Fewer available/flooded wetlands could mean birds fly farther or have to rely on suboptimal habitat. Flying is an expensive and energy-intensive activity, and therefore flying greater distances between stops can reduce reserves energy of birds and make them vulnerable to predation or other sources of mortality.
“Even if birds are able to complete their migration, the energy deficit created by having to fly greater distances without stopping could leave them with less energy reserves to survive the winter,” Webb added.
Without their roosting sites, birds may not reach the next available source of food and water, and if they do, these sites are likely to be overcrowded.
Langen said: “In the remaining wetlands of the roosting site, the birds will flock. Feeding competition is fierce and there is usually less cover, so the risk of predation by raptors, coyotes and other predators increases.
“Crowding can lead to outbreaks of avian botulism and other diseases. So, again, survival is reduced. Those who survive the migratory journey may have lower nesting success in the upcoming breeding season due to physiological stress of sites inadequate parking”.
If this drought continues over several years, the populations of some of the affected migratory species could decline.
Langen said: “A prolonged drought is likely to cause population declines in some long-distance migrants, but it really depends on whether there are alternative sites to move to.
“In the event of prolonged large-scale regional droughts, such as those experienced across the Plains and throughout the American West, there is likely to be population decline due to inadequate availability of high-quality stopover habitat and the crowding of those who remain”. he added.
“However, other stressors may be synergistic. In particular, rapid climate warming in the Arctic and boreal forests is changing the ecology of those regions, which is likely to affect coastal and waterbird populations in ways we cannot yet to predict. The combined effects of climate change at breeding grounds and depletion of wetlands at stopover sites are worrying for conservationists.”
However, Webb said all may not be lost for these migratory birds, as their ability to fly gives them a greater degree of flexibility in their location, compared to terrestrial animals.
“In the short term, drought is unlikely to lead to bird species extinction. While drought may impact some individuals, wetland birds are flexible and opportunistic foragers during migrations, and enough numbers will likely survive to maintain population,” he added. added.
“In the longer term, it is unclear what impact droughts have on migratory wetland birds. In the long-term absence of wetlands availability, birds could shift their migratory patterns and their distributions to parts of the country with more reliable food and water resources,” Webb said.
When will the drought end in Kansas?
Forecasters aren’t sure how long this drought will last, even though past droughts in Kansas have lasted for several years.
The Dust Bowl, a period of drought-triggered dust storms in the Great Plains states, including Kansas, in the 1930s, is thought to have lasted as long as eight years. Cheyenne Bottoms last dried out in 2013, but was filled by late summer rains before the fall migration season.
However, National Weather Service meteorologist Jeff Hutton of Dodge City told High Plains Public Radio in August that dry spells like these are to be expected, with farmers and other stakeholders just having to wait for the weather’s natural cycle.
“They know they’re going to have to put up with these bad years,” Hutton said, “before they get back on the good gravy train.”
Many climate scientists say extreme weather events like the Kansas drought will get progressively worse over time, due to the effects of climate change.
Auroop Ganguly, director of the Sustainability and Data Sciences Laboratory at Northeastern University in Boston, previously said Newsweek“As far as hydrometeorological risks are concerned, heatwaves are becoming – and are expected to become – even hotter, coldwaves persisting even as they become less frequent, heavy precipitation becoming heavier, and so on.
“The impacts can be far-reaching across multiple sectors, such as coastal ecosystems and processes, aspects of the water-energy-food nexus, infrastructure and urban lifelines,” Ganguly said.
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