MANAGEMENT OF QUIVIRA NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE
Contributor: Steve Bubna
Brief History and Overview
The name Quivira is Spanish for “raccoon eyes” and was given to the area by the explorer Coronado in 1541 as a result of local Indians he observed who had dark tattoos around their eyes. Quivira National Wildlife Refuge is a 22,135 acre complex of freshwater and inland salt marshes in southcentral Kansas. Its marshes are scattered among prairie grass and agricultural fields. The refuge was established in 1955 “as an inviolate sanctuary” by the Migratory Bird Conservation Act. Its creation came at the urging of local supporters who wanted to see a migration stop as well as a wintering area for these waterfowl. Its international significance is also recognized by Ramsar.
Before European settler arrived, Native Americans camped in the area because it was a great place to hunt duck and geese as well as buffalo on the surrounding grasslands. As settlers moved west during the middle of the 19th century, they too, found this a desirable place to settle for the same reasons that the Indians liked it. Thus, cattle ranches grew up around the marshes.
By the early 1900’s, some wealthy waterfowl hunters bought parts of the marshes and the land around them and used these parcels as private hunting clubs for themselves and their guests. In fact, at one time there were 17 such clubs in the area. This use of the land, whether intended or not, served as a protection for these wetlands, because in many other parts of the midwest wetlands were being drained to make more tillable ground. This served to protect the wetlands and the waterfowl who used them until the federal government took control in 1955.
Quivira was established and is still operated primarily to provide migratory water birds with water, food, and a sheltered habitat. (for example, Quivira is a refuge for 5 different bird species that are either endangered or threatened).
On a federal level, the stated goal of the National Wildlife Refuge Service is: “....to administer a national network of lands and waters for the conservation, management and, where appropriate, restoration of the fish, wildlife, and plant resources and their habitats with the United States for the benefit of present and future generations of Americans.” (National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act, 1997)
As stated earlier, one of the primary goals for Quivira’s existence is to support the waterfowl who use the refuge. So in that sense, all other management (land, water, etc) is done with this goal in mind - to maximize the habitat of waterfowl, some of which are endangered and threatened. But other wildlife come into consideration as well.
Hunting of some specified waterfowl as well as other big game
is permitted on 8,000 acres of the Refuge. Hunting in the Refuge follows all
Kansas regulations, with the exception that when the endangered whooping cranes
appear, hunting comes to a halt until they leave again.
Fishing is permitted in all 34 marshes in the Refuge. Fishing is regulated by the Kansas fishing regulations, however Quivira has additional guidelines that prevent boats and prevent unattended fishing lines (limb lines).
These unique inland salt marshes result from salt formations below the surface which underground water flows over. This groundwater, which is a least partly saline, goes into nearby Rattlesnake Creek and also emerges in some springs. Of course, there is also water contributed from runoff and precipitation.
Twenty-five miles of dikes have been created to retain water in desired areas and protect others from flooding. Twenty-one miles of canals have been built, complemented by other water control structures, which distribute water to 34 wetlands in the refuge, some as small as 10 acres and some as large as 1,500 acres.
The refuge has a “senior water right” that allows it to draw off 14,632 acre-feet of water annually from Rattlesnake Creek. This is used to keep the wetlands up to the desired level as much as is possible. (Ramsar site) The water level in the marshes is also regulated to discourage growth of unwanted vegetation (cattails, etc.) and encourage growth of those plants that are food for wildlife.
While the Refuge established its water right back shortly after it came into existence (1957), subsequent decades saw the use of irrigation increase greatly in the surrounding area. Meaning that many others private landowners were using more and more of the water from Rattlesnake Creek as well as the aquifer below. US Fish and Wildlife observed declining water levels in Rattlesnake Creek, which of course affected Quivira.
When this situation arose, instead of filing suit for water rights, the Refuge entered into partnership with state and local water boards as well as private landowners to try to find solutions. This partnership seeks to decrease overall water usage by using incentives. This partnership, and its success or lack of success, will be the single largest factor to impact the future of the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge.
Before the area was settled by pioneers looking to farm, this area was “managed” by short periods of intense grazing by buffalo and by almost annual prairie wildfires. Current management strategies have tried to replicate those past conditions. Over 5,000 acres are “burned off” each according to a prescribed plan and timetable. Also, local ranchers supply cattle which are placed in great numbers in a small area for a short period of time, then they are moved to another location.
Goats are being used this year to control the sandhill plum brush which are invading the grasslands. These Spanish goats are well-suited to the task because they eat primarily brush and leave the grass alone.
In cooperation with local farmers, about 1,200 acres of the refuge are cultivated for winter wheat and milo, and some of the crops are left unharvested for the wildlife to eat. Some agricultural crops are planted to provide feed for wildlife.
Groups Involved in Maintaining Quivira National Wildlife Refuge
- Ramsar - an international group established for the protection of wetlands
- US Fish and Wildlife, Department of the Interior, United States Government
- Friends of Quivira - a community of individuals promoting the use of the Refuge. This group gives financially, donates their time, and sponsors a number of activities throughout the year to promote awareness and use of Quivira.
Economic Benefit of the Refuge
Besides improving the quality of life for people in the area, the Refuge is an economic boon. Since opening the Visitor Center, visitation to the Refuge has increased until it is now over 60,000 visitors annually. These visitors come from all over America, even from other countries. Quivira is of particular interest to bird-watchers, also know as “birders.”
One study in 1994 looked at the local impact just from the 17,000 birders that visited that year and found they had spent $636,000 locally while visiting the Refuge. Another study a year later (now 8 years ago) estimated the total taken in from all visitors to be in excess of $1 million.