A day of learning: Refuge hosts annual Wetland Day event

The definition of a wetland is pretty simple, but the impact it has on the environment is far greater than many realize.

On Saturday, Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge staff and volunteers set aside time to educate the public about what park ranger Donna Stanley said is one of our most vital resources.

It’s a broad term to include any land area or surface that has water either permanently or temporarily.

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“It can be a lake, a river, stream or it could be wet soggy ground like a bog, a fen, marsh or swamps,” Stanley said. “Water can be there permanently or seasonally.”

At the refuge, there are small wetlands in the spring, but they are generally gone by midsummer.

Stanley said refuge wetlands are beneficial to wildlife such as frogs, salamanders, toads, beavers, river otters, waterfowl and more.

All are supported by wetlands, which serve as indicators of environmental quality, she said.

“They’re like the canaries in the coal mines,” she said. “If you go to an area where you suddenly lose frogs, then there’s something in the water that’s not good.”

That’s where wetlands come in to help improve the environment around us to soak up floodwater and purify our groundwater, Stanley said.

The groundwater is purified when runoff waters go through wetlands and are naturally filtered by the soil.

But more and more wetlands are disappearing across the state.

“Wetlands are one of the most endangered natural resources,” Stanley said.

She said studies show 86 percent of wetlands have been drained throughout the years, which is why the refuge is committed to educating the public about their value.

“Some of the gigantic wetlands in the northwestern part of the state are gone,” she said.

Stanley said a lot of the wildlife agencies are attempting to restore wetlands and replenish existing ones.

She said the wetlands have been drained for various reasons, including development.

Carla Raimondo of Indianapolis brought her grandchildren, Carla and Vonnie Harrod, to explore the refuge Saturday.

She did not know about Wetland Day but planned the trip just to explore the area. It was Raimondo’s third trip to the refuge since she discovered it a couple of years ago.

“It’s getting warmer and spring is coming, but we all have an interest in nature,” she said.

Her granddaughter said she wants to be a zoologist one day, so the more exposure to nature, the better, she said.

Raimondo also wanted to be able to compare what the refuge looks like throughout all of the seasons.

“I thought it would be a good time to see it now and then see it in the other seasons,” she said. “I wanted to see what nature had to offer right now.”

The three made their way through volunteer Ralph Cooley’s display. It featured some insects and other critters he found in wetlands earlier in the day.

Cooley, a member of the Muscatatuck Wildlife Society, also had educational material for people to read to help them become more familiar with the value of wetlands.

He also manages six wetlands at his home in Jennings County.

Cooley is a recognized face at the refuge, volunteering his time at events to help educate the public and children.

He said sharing his passion for wildlife and the environment is helping the next generation preserve what others have supported for so long, he said.

“I love when we get the opportunity to educate young people,” Cooley said. “I always look at them and imagine in 20 or 30 years, they will be standing where I am and doing the same thing as me.”

On Wednesday, he will lead a presentation on wetlands during the master naturalist course offered at the refuge.

Raimondo purchased a book about wetlands from the gift shop so she and her grandchildren could learn when they got back home.

Some of the worksheets refuge staff and volunteers distributed included information about wetlands and space for children to learn about wetlands.

“It’s a way of life with me and my adult children, and for me, it’s a natural extension to hand it off to the next generation,” Raimondo said.

Her family has spent time throughout the years visiting state and national parks to learn more about the environment.

On Saturday, there was plenty to learn, as Stanley estimates between a third and half of the refuge is made up of wetlands.

She said much of the area was wetlands when it was developed as the refuge in 1966.

“This area is a wet pocket of ground surrounded by higher areas of ground,” she said. “It’s nature’s little wet spot in south central Indiana.”

Much of the wetlands feed into Moss Lake, the original wetland at the refuge. It’s located near the back of the site.

“It’s year-round water, and in spots, it’s waist deep,” she said. “That is where many of the sandhill cranes are located.”

Refuge staff and attendees hiked the area Saturday morning.

Refuge staff manage the wetlands year-round for migratory birds.

Some wetlands are natural and cannot be managed, but lakes like Richart Lake are managed by the refuge.

“We put that water through pipes, which go under the road and goes into what we call moist soil units,” Stanley said.

Those waters are held in diked lowland areas, which can be filled at various points throughout the year to support migratory birds.

“Those help ducks and geese, and we try to have water in them in the fall, winter and spring,” Stanley said. “They will drain in the summertime so the good foods can grow up.”

When to move it is a science, Stanley said.

“They’re not just valuable for animals but for people, as well,” she said. “We’re drinking the water from wetlands.”

Beavers also are impacting the wetlands more than they used to, Stanley said.

The animals made their way to Indiana on their own in the early 1980s.

They’re an asset in some respects, Stanley said, but can be considered a liability in other ways.

“They love to stop flowing water, which is good,” she said. “The bad side is, they sometimes don’t build them where you want them to. At times, beavers have built dams that have flooded U.S. 31, plugged up water control structures where we’re trying to drain water, which they frequently do, and some bad issues for neighboring people.”

That’s a problem throughout Indiana.

“They’re wonderful wetland engineers,” Stanley said.