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Returning to Cheyenne Bottoms in the Age of Climate Change

October 13, 2022

The parched ground, cracked mud, at Cheyenne Bottoms, normally a extensive wetlands area and home a rich variety of bird and other wild life, a place where 250,000 birds stop by during migration season most years, but not fall 2022. With a drought defined as “serious to severe” sucking up moisture this year, the famous wetlands is parched land and the migrating birds have stopped on their long journeys south somewhere else… but where?

Odd, not one of the reports I read about the drought in Southwest and South Central Kansas use either the terms “climate change” nor “global warming” as aggravating factors in one of the worst droughts in the region’s history. Neither the Great Bend Post  article of early August 2022, nor the September 6, 2022 tv news piece out of Wichita deemed it necessary to put the drought within a larger regional or more global context. Nor did High Plains NPR (HPPR), the state’s public radio station in a longer more detailed article, itself a part of a fine series of pieces “Parched” make even the faintest allusion to the global processes wreaking havoc on the earth’s surface, in Kansas and far beyond.

Instead these media sources follow the carefully constructed line to avoid the implications of the drought. “It happens every ten years,” “it is part of a normal cycle,” “there have been worse droughts in Kansas in the past,” “Not as severe as the dust bowl years,” and the like, all examples of not seeing the forest through the trees, missing the broader implications, etc. There is a measure of truth in all of these points but… There is not even a suggestion that this drought is in any way related to climate change and global warming. None. Just oil and gas complay party line reporting., even from NPR.

On October 4, 2022, a week before my arrival in Great Bend, Kansas to view the wetlands and the migrating birds, the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks issued the following report which sums up the situation succinctly:

1A-dry, 1B-dry, 1C-dry, 2-dry, 3A-dry, 3B-dry, 4A-dry,  4B-dry, 5-dry.  There is no water on the area, including ZERO in the storage pools.  No way to replenish water levels due to dry weather.  No water available for diversion from the Wet Walnut Creek or Arkansas River as both are completely dry.  With hot dry weather, the minimal amount of rain in the last year has soaked up and there was no runoff.  It is going to take a very significant rain event/events in order for even a minimal amount of water on the area.  Cheyenne Bottoms has no ground water pumps to fill pools.

Numbers like “1-A” refer to wetland areas within Cheyenne Bottoms.

With no water to land in migrating birds likely bypassed Cheyenne Bottoms (and the nearby Quivera National Wildlife Preserve forty miles to the south). Forced to skip the area, they probably tried to find “the next place, wherever that is” this according to HPPR writer Mike Courson.

Diorama. Cheyenne Bottoms Visitors Center. Actually essentially what I saw previous years


A few miles north of the Great Bend, Kansas, 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, Cheyenne Bottoms is one of the active wetlands feeding grounds in North America, nothing less. Located smack in the center of what is referred to as “the central flyway “, it is the main route and critical resting area for birds migrating north in the spring towards Canada and Alaska, migrating south in the fall to Central and South America. Some species passing through the Bottoms in the Spring have been known to fly as far north as eastern Siberia and western Alaska; those flying south in the fall fly as far as Central and South America.

Given the wetlands ability to provide abundant food and a place to rest, Cheyenne Bottoms is a key link in migrations in both directions. At its peak during the annual Spring migrations as many as 250,000 ducks and geese pass through its boundaries. 

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.

Some 42 miles to the south, at the nearby Quivera National Wildlife Refuge, also bone dry this years, considerably larger in area than Cheyenne Bottoms, the wetlands virtually roar as geese darken the skies and blanket the waters. There at the peak migration period, the refuge can host more than 750,000 geese, divided equally among Canada, snow and white-fronted geese. Between the two refuges something approaching a million birds, ducks and geese make the areas just north and south of Great Bend their temporary home.

A diorama at the Cheyenne Bottoms Visitors Center notes:

Canada Geese, White-tailed Geese, Northern Pintails, American Widgets, Blue and Green-winged Teals, Red Heads, and Ruddy Ducks graze by the thousands on marsh vegetation during the Spring migration.  Common shorebirds include a variety of sandpipers, plovers, phalaropes, avocets, godwits, and dowitchers. Summer visitors often encounter huge flocks of red-winged and yellow-headed blackbirds. Herons are also common during the summer; great blue herons, snowy egrets, black-crowned night herons, and American bitterns search the shallows for fish and frogs. A highlight of fall migration is the impressive flocks of undulating, circling, white pelicans. At times, large “islands” of the birds are seen across the marsh.”

Migration is a way of life for most birds; Something approaching 80% of all bird species that breed in North America migrate some distance during their annual cycle. Of all the migrating birds in North America, an estimated 45% pass through Cheyenne Bottoms either in the Spring or Fall.. A fair number of these have been banded by one Ed Martinez, the lone ranger of bird banding. Between 1966-1978 Martinez banded 60,000 shore birds representing 320 species. Shore birds as a group tend to migrate farther than other birds. Long-billed dowitchers that pass through have been identified as far away as northern Siberia while the white-rumped sandpiper holds the record for the longest southern journey; it was found in southern Argentina.


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, what appears at first to be a dry, unwelcoming land for human habitation becomes something approaching a paradise.

All that was in the past, prior to the bitter years of Depression drought and dust storms and the more recent pattern of intense droughts.

This punishing drought aside, Cheyenne Bottoms has been plagued with problems. Its main sources of water are two nearby creeks, to a lesser extent the nearby Arkansas River and rainfall. For decades there have clashes between upstream farmers using (and sometimes stealing) Cheyenne Bottoms designated waters and the state authorities administering the place. Although some legal arrangement of water rationing was worked out, some of these problems remain. A goodly portion of the Bottoms original surface has been reclaimed for use as farmland over the years as well. These issues continue to plague both Cheyenne Bottoms and Quivera National Wildlife Preserve, aggravated by those, spurred on both by both Trump supporters and libertarian elements to oppose the government regulation needed to manage these environmental jewels.

Among those that spearheaded the effort to safeguard Cheyenne Bottoms was one Jan Garton. about whom I have previously written. Although hardly known outside of Kansas environmental circles, she is something of a legend within the state, the Joan of Arc of the Kansas environmental movement, and for good reason. Her ashes lie scattered about in a small private cemetery in the central Kansas Flint Hills among the graves of a few people who died more than a century ago. It is a quiet place with cattle grazing off in the distance, and from the high grounds where it sits, a fine view of the surrounding hills.

Cheyenne Bottoms, October 15, 2017, almost exactly five years ago


I so looked forward to visiting Cheyenne Bottoms. This last year – COVID aside – has been a busy year with both personal (medical) and political challenges. I hadn’t been to the Bottoms since 2019, the year before COVID hit and wanted to return. I did a “YouTube” search on  Cheyenne Bottoms, vaguely aware that the region had been drought stricken, but nothing particularly dramatic popped up. As a result, I assumed some drought damage but nothing close to the reality I found there.

Staying in Great Bend, I usually enter Cheyenne Bottoms from the less traveled west entrance, moving along the road bisecting ditches and wetlands on both sides. Often it takes me several hours just to get beyond those western ditches so filled are they with birdlife and other kinds of wildlife. An eerie premonition, passing Walnut Creek, one of the key tributaries feeding water into the Bottoms, I noticed it was dry. Entering the wetlands boundary, the two ditches on both sides of the road had no water either. Across the ditch just south of the road, a coyote stared out at me partially hidden in the wild grasses and there was nighthawk above, both signs that perhaps life persisted in the area. But these two sightings were not repeated as I drove deeper into what I knew to have been wetlands. Those wetlands had become drylands. a wasteland void of life.

My heart sank. The 250,000 birds, ducks and geese was reduced to ten, ok, I exaggerate, maybe twenty.

I remember how just a few years ago the Bottoms was teaming with birds and ducks of all kinds – and with their human interlockers, birders and hunters. It was impossible to count their numbers but in my mind’s eye, it was tens of thousands. A marvelous site. almost unbelievable for someone who started life in a Brooklyn, New York fifth floor apartment watching from a window as subway trains emerged from a tunnel to the Parkside Ave subway station. What was worse staring out at a vast filed of mud and dirt that not that long ago had been wetlands, the feeling came over me that I was looking at more than the undoing of an overcrowded stopping station of nearly half the birds in North America, but something bigger, a peak into the future, a dark future for Kansas, the nation and the world. Climate change – those two words seemingly never spoken by the mainstream Kansas media – and no one in Great Bend that I spoke to – had just kicked me in the shins … or a little bit higher up.

Rather than turning around to leave, I made my way through the entire road system of Cheyenne Bottoms to see if there were any pools of water left. I found two small ones – tiny ponds actually on the east side, in one a solidarity pair of ruddy ducks (pictured below); in the other some gulls with a lone great blue heron standing in the background. On the east side, a peregrine falcon stood in the mud. These were the few survivors of natural neutron bomb that had made life in Cheyenne Bottoms unlivable.

Asking around, I was told that the situation at Quivera was about the same; I didn’t bother to go down there; Quivera is vast and I had planned to spend more than one day there. Instead, the next day, I headed up to Wilson, KS, “Czech capitol of Kansas” to buy their “world famous” (well in my world) summer sausage – which I did, took a rare “selfie” in a park around the corner from the grocery store and headed the 409 miles from Great Bend home to Denver

Ruddy duck couple – among the last survivors of the drought at Cheyenne Bottoms – swimming in one of the two small pools of water still there. 

4 Comments leave one →
  1. William Conklin permalink
    October 13, 2022 8:16 pm

    I hope all the birds didn’t get bird flu and they will be back when it rains.

  2. October 14, 2022 6:25 am

    Sobering report. Brings to mind the song
    “Their small town eyes will gape at you
    in dull surprises when payment due
    Exceeds accounts received
    At 17”

    We all, and especially the oil and gas states, ignored at our own peril.

  3. Paula VanDusen permalink
    October 17, 2022 5:55 pm

    At one time about 20 years ago, Texas entrepreneurs were buying farmers’ water rights to the Arkansas to sell to the big cities in Texas in the future. Also, I drove through middle Kansas from east to west two weeks ago (end of Sept. 2022) and it wasn’t horribly dry. However much of the corn crops there were for ethanol and there were oil pumps and collecting stations dotting the roads about 25 miles south of I-70.

    • October 17, 2022 7:28 pm

      Well I was in the area around Great Bend Paula – and these two great wetlands – Cheyenne Bottoms and Quivera National Wildlife Refuge were quite dry. I was told (at the Cheyenne Bottoms Visitors’ Center) that while there had been rains in April and May that a drought which has characterized the region more broadly intensified and the summer temperatures were scorching hot. The Arkansas River which flows just south of Great Bend was dry as well. Besides the lack of rain there other aggravating factors – farmers and ranchers upstream on the creeks feeding the Bottoms that still, despite new rules, essentially steal water with less and less state and/or federal oversight, water wars between Colorado and Kansas and of course the other aggravating factor – Climate Change which no one in Great Bend that I talked to seemed to know much or anything about.

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