Western Working Lands Snapshot | Wet Habitat in the West

October 2, 2020

Wet, or mesic, habitats like in the photo above are critical for wildlife and livestock throughout the arid West, yet only represent two percent of the landscape.


This month’s Western Working Lands For Wildlife “Snapshot” introduces us to wet habitats — like riparian areas, wet meadows, and springs — which comprise just two percent of the western landscape but are vital for wildlife and livestock.

Led by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, Working Lands For Wildlife uses voluntary incentives to benefit America’s agricultural producers and at-risk wildlife.


By Brianna Randall

Definition

Wet “mesic” habitats are the places where water meets land, and the soil maintains a well-balanced supply of moisture throughout the growing season. This includes riparian areas along streams and rivers, wet meadows, springs and seeps, irrigated fields and high-elevation habitats.

Sagebrush landscape including a green riparian ribbon in Montana. Credit: iStock

Sagebrush landscape including a green riparian ribbon in Montana. Credit: iStock

Location

In the arid western U.S., wet habitat covers less than two percent of the entire landscape. Because early settlers homesteaded along rivers and streams, a disproportionate amount of these precious water resources are located on private lands. In the especially dry Great Basin, for instance, 87% of wet meadows are on private land.

Hydrology

Most of the precipitation in the West falls as snow. When the snow melts and runs down the mountains each spring, the water floods into wet habitats, recharging rivers and groundwater.

Healthy mesic habitats act like sponges, helping to capture, store, and slowly release water year-round. As the spring snow melt dissipates and rain stops, the water on the landscape slowly evaporates, leaving green “islands” in the sagebrush desert.

Characteristics

Natural mesic habitats like riparian areas, springs, and wet meadows, are defined by water-loving vegetation that grow well in wetter soils, including sedges, rushes, flowering plants, willows, or cottonwoods. Some of these wet places have moving water (called ‘lotic’ systems) while others have standing or subterranean water (called ‘lentic’ systems). Mesic habitats can also include high-elevation uplands along mountain tops that simply stay wetter and greener longer into the summer. Agriculture maintains wet places through irrigation in fields used to grow alfalfa and grass hay.

Hellyer Ranch near South Pass City, WY uses off-stream water development and riparian pastures to distribute livestock and protect habitat.

Hellyer Ranch near South Pass City, WY uses off-stream water development and riparian pastures to distribute livestock and protect habitat.

Ecological Services

On the range, water is life. Mesic habitats provide essential services for the people and animals. These wet places offer food, water, and cooler shelter when summer heat dries surrounding lands. They also help resist wildfires and droughts, acting as a much-needed refuge when water is scarce.

Beaver ponds provide a refuge for fish and wildlife in a burned landscape near Hailey, Idaho. Photo: Joe Wheaton

Beaver ponds produce great wet habitat which then provides a refuge for fish and wildlife in a burned landscape near Hailey, Idaho. Photo: Joe Wheaton

Wildlife

Wet habitats support 80% of wildlife in sagebrush country. Mesic habitats serve as grocery stores for many birds and mammals. In these ribbons of green vegetation, they feast on protein-rich forbs (wildflowers and shrubs) as well as a variety of insects.

Private lands like this ranch in Wyoming house the vast majority of mesic resources, which sage grouse chicks rely on for food in the late summer and early fall. Photo: Brianna Randall

Private lands like this ranch in Wyoming house the vast majority of mesic resources, which sage grouse chicks rely on for food in the late summer and early fall. Photo: Brianna Randall

Sage Grouse

Sage grouse hens and their growing chicks flock to wet, green places during the late summer in search of food. Studies have shown that chicks who are able to eat forbs and insects longer into the fall have a higher survival rate than chicks that transition earlier to their winter diet of sagebrush leaves.

Conservation

Recognizing the importance of wet, green spots in sagebrush country, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Working Lands for Wildlife offers technical know-how and financial cost-share for landowners interested in protecting or improving precious water resources.

A variety of practices keep water on the land longer and vegetation green during the dry season. The following practices help buffer the impacts of drought for ranchers, boost forage production for livestock, and improve habitat for wildlife:

  • Grazing Management
  • Spring Protection and Enhancement
  • Low-Tech Restoration
  • Conifer Removal
  • Mechanical Restoration
  • Conservation Easements

SGI/WLFW workshops like this help train conservation professionals and landowners on low-tech riparian restoration practices. Photo: Jeremy Maestas, SGI

Find Wet Habitat Near You

The SGI Interactive Web App, a free online tool, provides a map of wet habitat in the western U.S. It uses satellite imagery to measure the “greenness” of mesic vegetation, and also shows how the productivity of those wet places has changed over time.

SGI’s Interactive Map shows where wet, mesic, habitats are across the entire West.

Learn how to use the Mesic Resources mapping tool on the SGI Web App.


 

The Sage Grouse Initiative is a partnership-based, science-driven effort that uses voluntary incentives to proactively conserve America’s western rangelands, wildlife, and rural way of life. This initiative is part of Working Lands For Wildlife, which is led by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.