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Quivira National Wildlife Preserve and Cheyenne Bottoms

October 18, 2017

Long-billed Dowagers at Park Smith Pond. Quivira National Wildlife Preserve. Kansas

(Note: Shortly after posting this blog entry on-line, news came from the Audubon of Kansas that 49 whooping cranes had been sited at Quivira National Wildlife Preserve in late October, 2017)

A lot of birds.

As the Arkansas River enters central Kansas it bends first northward and then bends back south in the shape of an upside down “u”. At its most northerly point in this bend lies Great Bend, Kansas, a major crossroad and business center in the region with a population of 16,000.

Two inland wetlands, teaming with fish, birds and wild life, are nearby where hunters and bird watchers intermingle and wonder what in the world there opposites are doing there. People who visit the wetlands can broadly be divided into hunters and birders. I was an in-experienced member of the later, greatly assisted by two Kansas friends, Margy Stewart and Ron Young who are well versed not only in birds but in the plants and insects of the region. Over the course of the three days, we met and talked to a number of locals, who were hunters. They were friendly enough, but at least the ones we spoke with couldn’t understand why anybody would come to the area just to watch birds…when you could kill them and, as one hunter remarked, “really study them up close.” I just gave up on explaining, responding “yes, it’s hard to understand.”

They were friendly enough, but at least the ones we spoke with couldn’t understand why anybody would come to the area just to watch birds…when you could kill them and, as one hunter remarked, “really study them up close.” I just gave up on explaining, responding “yes, it’s hard to understand.”

A few miles north of the city, Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area is the largest wetland in the interior of the United States and as such a great avian crossroads. Run by the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, it is a critical resting area in what is known as the central flyway for birds migrating north in the spring to Canada and the Arctic region and then to Texas, Mexico and points south.  Covering an area of about 8,000 acres, about 45 percent of all shorebirds in North America utilize the area. Cheyenne Bottoms is critical habitat for many endangered species, including the whooping crane. While the place is teaming with wildlife any time of year, the best times to visit are in the spring and fall. As many as 600,000 shorebirds from 39 species pass through Cheyenne Bottoms during spring migration and up to 200,000 in fall. At least 340 species of birds of all kinds have been observed there.

That’s a lot of birds.

Pelicans surrounded by cormorants. Little Salt Marsh. Quivira National Wildlife Refuge. Kansas. October 14, 2017

Quivira National Wildlife Refuge

Visitors can enter Cheyenne Bottoms through several entrances just a few miles north of Great Bend. There is also a visitor’s center, the Kansas Wetlands Education Center, located on State Highway 156. It is worth a visit. On the other hand Quivira National Wildlife Reserve, near Stafford, KS, is a federally run facility. It is further away from Great Bend – 25 miles to the south and a touch east – and a little more difficult to find, but well worth the extra effort. Because of its somewhat greater geographical obscurity and shorter, more controlled hunting season than Cheyenne Bottoms, there are fewer tourists (that was certainly the case to my visit there). It too is teaming with wildlife.

On January 29, 2008, Quivira NWR and Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area were jointly named as one of the 8 Wonders of Kansas, and this they are. Yet, the topography of the two are quite different. As it name suggests, Cheyenne Bottoms is a large, lake-like depression surrounded by an outer circle of wetland swamps. Geologists are still not in agreement as to what natural forces created the depression nor how, why and when Cheyenne Bottoms filled with water. At 22, 135 acres, overall, Quivira is almost three times the size of Cheyenne Bottoms although the actual wetland area is about the same (7,000 acres). The wetlands have high salt levels, much more so than Cheyenne Bottoms. Quivira also has 13,000 acres of sand dunes covered with prairie grasses. It is book-ended, so to speak, by two sizable marshes, the Big Salt Marsh to the north of the Refuge and the Little Salt Marsh on the southern end.

Approximately the same number of bird species have been spotted at Quivira. Some 344 species of birds have been seen there, most of which are seasonal. The 2010 Christmas bird count totaled 43,548 birds of 95 species, more than half of which were snow geese which tend to winter there. In the Spring, shorebirds, pelicans, and gulls stop over en route to their nesting grounds further north. Plovers, avocets, stilts, ibis, and endangered least terns nest on the refuge during the spring and summer. Whooping cranes stop over on their way north to nesting areas as well.

It is estimated that some 800,000 geese and ducks pass through Quivira in the fall en route south to the Gulf Coast and Mexico. Endangered whooping cranes occasionally visit then as well en route to wintering grounds in Texas. This fall, 109 whopping cranes have been sited at Quivira up until now (October 14, 2017). Quivira also has mule and white-tail deer, raccoon, coyote, badger, skunk, two species of lizard, opossum, bobcat, red and swift foxes, six species of turtle, beaver, muskrat, porcupine, prairie dog, and wild turkey.

Avocets partaking in a dusk feeding frenzy. Quivira National Wildlife Refuge. October 14, 2017

Some history

Given the cornucopia of food sources that exist within the area that includes both Cheyenne Bottoms and Quivira, it should not be surprising that the region would be a magnet for Native peoples who lived there or came at different times of the year to hunt and gather. Add to that the multitude of bison – millions of them – that roamed what Hornaday referred to as “the southern range” – which included much of Kansas, including the Cheyenne Bottoms and Quivira regions. What appears at first to be a dry, unwelcoming land for human habitation becomes something approaching a paradise.

I’ve looked for archeological studies of human habitation at Cheyenne Bottoms and Quivira National Wildlife Refuge to no avail although I’m pretty certain that such studies exist for both areas. In the mainstream literature there are snippets of suggestive information, the most famous of which, not surprising, is Spaniard Vasquez de Coronado’s 1541 visit to the Quivira region looking for the Spanish obsession, gold. “Quivira” was a general term for the “cities of gold” Coronado was looking for, and his native guides told him it was here, there, no, over there.  When Coronado found what he called “Quivira” and which his guides told him was Quivira, it was probably a settlement of Wichitas, and it was indeed (probably) near Great Bend.  No gold!  …(except the reflections of sunset in the water). Thus, as a reward for his efforts, Coronado executed his main guide. What? Where’s the gold? Only wetlands, rivers, and streams? Only wildlife in abundance, and a tall, healthy, peaceful people? But no gold? That’s a capital offense! He found none, but did find Native peoples living in the area that he called “Quivirans” which one author suggests were “probably Wichita and Pawnee.” Mandan were also probably present as well. 

When Coronado found what he called “Quivira” and which his guides told him was Quivira, it was probably a settlement of Wichitas, and it was indeed (probably) near Great Bend.  No gold!  …(except the reflections of sunset in the water). Thus, as a reward for his efforts, Coronado executed his main guide. What? Where’s the gold? Only wetlands, rivers, and streams? Only wildlife in abundance, and a tall, healthy, peaceful people?  But no gold? That’s a capital offense! He found none, but did find Native peoples living in the area that he called “Quivirans” which one author suggests were “probably Wichita and Pawnee.” Mandan were also probably present as well. 

In 1680, the Pueblo peoples of New Mexico revolted against Spanish rule, killing 400 Spaniards and driving 2000 of them from the Sante Fe – Taos region. When, twelve years later, in 1692, the Spanish returned to seize the region, a number of Native peoples fled, among them some Apache who relocated in the Quivira area. These communities and those adjoining were destroyed as the bison were slaughtered and the areas adjoining the Santa Fe Trail were systematically ethnically cleansed of Native peoples from the Kanza peoples in the area of Council Grove to the Sand Creek Massacre in southeastern Colorado.

Big Salt Lake at dusk. Quivira National Wildlife Refuge. October 14, 2017

The effort – nay the campaign – to save the Kansas wetlands. 

The landscape surrounding both Cheyenne Bottoms and Quivira is “High Plains dry.” Although the Arkansas River runs through Great Bend, given the amount diverted both in Colorado and western Kansas for irrigation agriculture, by the time the river reaches these two great Kansas wetlands there isn’t much left to the flow. To add to its irrigation possibilities, those western Kansas mono-culture wheat or corn farms also continue to such up, at an increasingly alarming rate, the waters from the Ogallala Aquifer below the surface.  One of Kansas’s hardest one environmental victories was the 1980s-1990s campaign to save Cheyenne Bottoms from completely drying up. Spearheaded by the late Jan Garton and the Audubon Society of Kansas, Kansans were able to save the day. The problem was simple: too much water from the sources of Cheyenne Bottoms was being diverted for agricultural purposes. A plan was worked out for farmers to use the water sources more strategically and sparingly that passed through the Kansas legislature. In the first two years after its implementation, farming profits in the region did drop, but after that, profits rebounded and have been stable ever since.

Now it appears likely that a similar campaign is about to be launched to protect what is left of Quivira. The problem is more or less similar. The reparian sources of Quivira – impacted by irrigation agriculture combined with increasingly severe droughts – is shrinking the wetlands there. While central Kansas was fortunate to have enjoyed ample rainfall this spring and summer, still, a visit to the ares left no doubt that the watered areas of the wetlands are shrinking. But while Cheyenne Bottoms is managed by Kansas, Quivira is a national wildlife refuge administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Service is aware of the problem but has yet to address it, in this time of Trump era budget cuts. One proposal is to compensate for the irrigation diversion by using more of the water from fast-shrinking Ogallah Aquifer. There are two problems with such an approach. First, the water at Quivira has an unusually high salt content, probably one of its appeals to the bird life there. The aquifer water is unsalted and an infusion of aquifer water could change the natural food balance. The second issue is the crisis of the aquifer itself, the volume of which is shrinking even more quickly than previously predicted. By tapping into the aquifer though, federal authorities can avoid conflict with local agricultural interests – many of them quite large scale – that would have to change the ways they manage their water supply. Still, why can’t the arrangement that Jan Garton and the Audubon Society of Kansas developed – which works relatively well – be implemented for Quivira?

American Coot. Cheyenne Bottoms. October 15, 2017

 

One Comment leave one →
  1. October 18, 2017 12:50 pm

    Really lovely, Rob–photos and words!

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