Bird count way down at game-bird refuge

Lack of vegetation degrades area


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HARDMANS LAKE, Man. -- Half a century ago, Manitoba drew imaginary lines around a pond of water on the west side of Netley-Libau Marsh and called it a game-bird refuge.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 23/07/2015 (2575 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.


HARDMANS LAKE, Man. — Half a century ago, Manitoba drew imaginary lines around a pond of water on the west side of Netley-Libau Marsh and called it a game-bird refuge.

The plan was to carve out a place for ducks to nest and rest without any pressure from hunters, who would in turn benefit when waterfowl from Hardmans Lake flew into other sections of the sprawling, 260-square-kilometre marsh south of Lake Winnipeg.

Today, larger fish-eating birds such as bald eagles, blue herons, white pelicans, western grebes and double-crested cormorants are commonly seen feeding in and around Netley-Libau Marsh.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Pelicans at the Netley-Libau Marsh just off Lake Winnipeg on Wednesday. Due to continuously high water levels, the marsh ecosystem is suffering in many ways.

Game birds such as ducks, however, are nowhere to be found.

“They protected this area so the birds had a refuge. Ironically, there are no birds here,” said Charlie McPherson, sitting in a flat-bottomed wooden skiff in a narrow channel of the marsh, west of Hardmans Lake.

“The marsh is dead. You can see there are no birds. You can hear a marsh wren singing, but where are the mallards? Where are the blue-winged teals? Where are the wood ducks? Where are the green-winged teals? They’re just gone.”

Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press Charlie McPherson explains recent changes in the ecosystem at the Netley-Libau Marsh.

McPherson, 65, is a lifelong Whytewold-area resident and avid birder who spent five years counting avian critters for the Manitoba Breeding Bird Atlas and now volunteers for the international Important Bird Area program.

The birds he loves aren’t suddenly dying off in Netley-Libau Marsh, one of the largest coastal wetlands in Canada and the largest in Manitoba. Their numbers, however, have dwindled drastically over the decades as their habitat has disappeared.

Since the creation of the Netley Marsh Game Bird Refuge in 1966, a significant chunk of the marsh’s vegetation has been replaced by open water.

In 1960, there were 50 distinct ponds in the marsh, surrounded by cattails, bulrushes and other marsh plants. There were only 17 bodies of water by 1980 — and the vegetation has continued to disappear.

According to ecologists and researchers Gordon Goldsborough, Dale Wrubleski and Richard Grosshans, the proportion of Netley-Libau Marsh covered by plants declined by a fifth between 1979 and 2001, to 51 per cent from 65 per cent.

“Netley Marsh resembles a shallow, turbid lake more than a healthy coastal wetland,” they wrote in a 2004 report. “Any benefits to the lake which the marsh could provide, as wildlife and fisheries habitat, and in removing and storing nutrients that would otherwise enrich the lake, have probably been degraded or lost.”

The reasons behind the vegetation’s disappearance is complicated. More frequent floods along the Red River basin — possibly but not conclusively a result of climate change — have led to higher inflows into Lake Winnipeg, which shares water with Netley-Libau Marsh.

Flooding on Lake Winnipeg, however, is mitigated by Manitoba Hydro regulation, which began in 1976. A deep-water Hydro channel at the north end of the lake actually allows more water to drain out than would have been possible before regulation began.

While this has reduced the severity of Lake Winnipeg flooding, Hydro also prevents the lake from dropping as low as it did before regulation. Some scientists believe this has been disastrous for the marsh, as low-water years are beneficial. “The marsh needs to dry out and expose the mud, because the seeds need to germinate,” McPherson said. “The sun needs to bake the mud. Once that’s done, the marsh will rejuvenate.”

Other academics note the flooding of Netley-Libau Marsh is inevitable. As northern Manitoba rebounds from the weight of glaciers — a process known as isostatic rebound — Lake Winnipeg is slowly tilting south and moving into the marsh.

While the rate of rebound is only a few centimetres per century, the effects are easily seen. Grand Beach and Willow Point, for example, mark the former edges of a previous lake-bottom marsh.

McPherson, however, isn’t convinced isostatic rebound is responsible for flooding of the marsh. Saving Netley-Libau Marsh, he said, will require more than limiting Manitoba Hydro’s maximum operating range to the current 715 feet above sea level.

McPherson believes restoring the marsh will require the construction of dikes and dams that would allow water levels in individual wetland cells to be drawn down, exposing mud and making room for new vegetation.

This would cost tens of millions, but the benefits would extend beyond more bird habitat. The marsh, after all, filters nutrients from a lake where the main problem isn’t flooding, but too much phosphorus from cities, towns, farms, cottages and factories.


FRIDAY: Figuring out how Netley-Libau filters


Updated on Thursday, July 23, 2015 7:17 AM CDT: Replaces photo

Updated on Thursday, July 23, 2015 7:29 AM CDT: Adds video

Updated on Thursday, July 23, 2015 10:00 AM CDT: Corrects spelling of name in photo caption.

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