Tribal Bird Habitat Blossoms in Wyoming Wind River Basin Focus Area

Sierra Pingree released a Trumpeter Swan at Alakli Lake on Wind River Reservation as part of a collaborative swan reintroduction project with the tribe and USFWS.

Granite peaks, a fertile valley, and prehistoric rock art characterize the Wind River Basin of central Wyoming. The Wind River originates from high alpine glacial runoff and snowmelt before flowing through the basin to provide crucial habitat for native fish and birds. Here, proactive and dedicated Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho Tribes work with partner organizations to create, restore and enhance habitat.  

The Wind River valley floor holds 43,618 acres of palustrine emergent wetlands, either associated with riparian river floodplains, flood irrigation or wind-blown depressions. The tribes work on fishery habitat restorations in lower elevations to improve fish passage and minimize fish entrainment. They also regularly collaborate with their partners to maintain wetlands of important migration and nesting value for a variety of birds, such as Willow Flycatchers, Trumpeter Swans, American Avocets, and Wilson’s Phalaropes, as well as a late spring staging areas for Ring-necked Ducks and Lesser Scaup. The Wyoming Wetland Conservation Strategy identifies the wetland habitat in the Wind River Basin as some of the state’s highest in rare species presence, integrity and vulnerability.

“This is probably one of the best waterfowl and waterbird production regions in the state,” said Mark Hogan, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program (USFWS Partners Program) Wyoming State Coordinator. “From March to May, we get a high density of birds utilizing the valley’s wetlands before the high mountain lakes melt out. The more habitat they have in the valley, the better shape we can send the birds onward as they migrate elsewhere.” 

A Time-Tested Partnership

The 2.2 million-acre Wind River Reservation contains some of the most pristine mountainous areas in the lower 48 states as well as over 250 lakes and reservoirs and over 1,100 miles of rivers and streams.

In recognition of the biological values here, the USFWS Partners Program and the Wyoming Bird Conservation Partnership have identified the Wind River Basin as a focus area. The heart of this basin is the Wind River Indian Reservation. The USFWS Lander Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office staff has actively engaged the tribes on fish and wildlife matters since the 1940s. The habitat improvement focus was elevated when in 1998 a Memorandum of Understanding was signed between the USFWS and Wind River tribes to jointly work on a variety of projects.

“We have a very effective partnership with the Fish and Wildlife Service,” said Mitchel Cottenoir, Tribal Water Engineer for the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho Tribes. “We collaborate frequently with them, in addition to groups like Trout Unlimited and the Popo Agie Conservation District, to develop fish passages and other water efficiency structures to maintain and manage water.”

Meadow Creek Restoration, A Speedy Success

The effectiveness of these good relationships was highlighted in the spring of 2015 when Hogan was driving to a sage grouse lek count and he noticed that Meadow Creek was no longer flowing down its streambed. He followed the dry stream and found that the creek had jumped its borders and was cutting through a peat fen, a rare habitat in Wyoming that supports a unique and delicate ecosystem for specialized flora and fauna. The diverted creek caused the water table to drop, which was drying up the fen (see image below). The water then flowed into an irrigation canal. 

This was a unique situation that needed immediate attention. Due to their established relationship and trust, the USFWS Partners Program and the tribes were able to move on this conservation issue quickly. In short order, they had the necessary agreements, permits and permissions secured and the equipment on site to move the stream back into its historic channel. Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout and Mountain Whitefish are found in this creek and are tribal designated priority species.

“Our main goals are to manage and balance the water resources on the reservation,” Cottenoir said. “By having a good working relationship with the USFWS Partners Program, we can do what’s best for the tribes and wildlife.”

The IWJV’s conservation planning over the last eight years has illuminated the vast importance of wetland resources. More than 80% of wildlife species common to the Intermountain West region depend on wetlands to meet some portion of their life cycle needs. Despite their limited abundance, wetland systems in this arid region are keystone habitats because they help drive ecosystem form and function. Achieving conservation in priority wetland focal areas, identified by the IWJV and our state partners, is a central part of the IWJV’s habitat delivery strategy. The Wind River Basin is a shining example of a place that has incredible wildlife habitat along with dynamic partnerships working to conserve those precious natural resources.

2016 Summer Newsletter Articles:

Saline Lakes: Migratory Bird and Human Connections

Creativity Sparks Unique Watchable Wildlife Experience in Arizona 

Passion and Can-Do Attitude: The Spirit Behind State Conservation Partnerships

Tribal Bird Habitat Blossoms in Wyoming Wind River Basin Focus Area

Nominate a Conservation Champion, 2016 IWJV Awards Call 

Follow IWJV on Twitter