Cheyenne Bottoms, Kansas

James S. Aber
Emporia State University

Table of Contents
Introduction History of CB
Geology & biology Nature Conservancy
Land-cover change Field trip
Related sites References


Cheyenne Bottoms is the premier wetland of Kansas. Located in the center of the state, it is considered to be the most important wetland site for shorebird migration in the central United States. Cheyenne Bottoms occupies approximately 64 square miles (166 km²) in Barton County near Great Bend and Hoisington. It is managed in part by the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks and partly by the Nature Conservancy.

Satellite image of Cheyenne Bottoms and surroundings in central Kansas. CBWA - Cheyenne Bottoms State Wildlife Area, located in the downstream "sump" at the southeastern end of the bottoms. Nature Conservancy land includes deltas of Blood and Deception creeks in the upstream northwestern portion. Image date 25 June 2001; Landsat TM band 5 (mid-infrared); taken from Aber et al. (2006, fig. 1).

Cheyenne Bottoms is famous for great flocks of migrating waterfowl that include many rare and endangered species. The site is an important point for rest and nourishment for hundreds of thousands of birds in their annual migrations between the northern Great Plains and Arctic summer breeding grounds and southern winter ranges along the Gulf Coast, Caribbean and in South America. Cheyenne Bottoms is considered by many to be the single most important wetland for migrating shorebirds in North America, if not the entire western hemisphere (Zimmerman 1990). It is designated as a Ramsar wetland of international importance.

History of Cheyenne Bottoms

Coronado was probably the first European to see Cheyenne Bottoms during his expedition of 1541. He reported a bountiful land. However, American explorers in the early 19th century, such as Pike and Long, came to a different conclusion. The concept of a "Great American Desert" began for the region that includes Cheyenne Bottoms. Although the Arkansas River once carried enough water to be designated a navigable river, its flow soon diminished due to drought and widespread diversion of water for irrigation in the late 19th century. Further withdrawal of irrigation water from the High Plains (Ogallala) aquifer during the 20th century culminated in the 1980s with a dire result. Cheyenne Bottoms was drying up (Zimmerman 1990).

In light of this alarming situation, the Kansas Legislature did something quite unusual in 1985; it authorized funding for a study of Cheyenne Bottoms. Both the Kansas Geological Survey and Kansas Biological Survey cooperated in conducting substantial research on all aspects of the bottoms--its geological origin and history, hydrology, biology and ecology. These results were published in 1987 and represent a turning point for wise management of the bottoms.

The era of modern management at Cheyenne Bottoms began in 1925 when the Kansas Foresty, Fish and Game Commission was created and assumed responsibility for the bottoms. Federal support allowed construction of dikes, canals, roads, and hunting blinds starting in 1949, and the bottoms was openned to hunting in 1952. An ambitious water transfer scheme was put into motion in the 1950s. It involved a canal from the Arkansas River to Cheyenne Bottoms via Walnut Creek (see handout map). This water diversion was designed to supplement natural inflow to the bottoms from Blood Creek and Deception Creek. The canal scheme was completed in 1957 along with acquisition of a key water right--50,000 acre-feet from both the Arkansas River and Walnut Creek (Zimmerman 1990).

Winter view looking toward the northeast over the Kansas state wildlife refuge at Cheyenne Bottoms. Nature Conservany land is located to the northwest (left) of the area shown in this scene. Taken from a small plane, image date 2/02, © J. Zupancic.
Winter view looking toward the east over the Kansas state wildlife refuge at Cheyenne Bottoms. The inlet canal is prominent at bottom-right of this scene. Larger water bodies have ice/snow cover. Taken from a small plane, image date 2/02, © J. Zupancic.

In the passing years, it became increasingly difficult to exercise the water diversion, however, because of decreased flows within the Arkansas and Walnut drainage basins. By the 1980s, less than 10% of the authorized water volume could be obtained. Upstream diversions and pumping ground water for irrigation were the primary culprits in this situation. The crisis of Cheyenne Bottoms in the 1980s led to water restrictions for upstream users, most of whom had junior water rights. Reduced upstream water diversion combined with relatively wet and cool climate of the 1990s resulted in recovery and stability for water supply to Cheyenne Bottoms. Also during the 1990s, the Department of Wildlife and Parks undertook significant improvements in water handling and habitat conditions in the state wildlife area.

High-capacity pumps to move water between pools 1, 3 and 4, northeastern side of state wildlife area, Cheyenne Bottoms. Photo date 3/03, © J.S. Aber.
Outlet canal and control gates. View westward with pool 1 in background, southeastern side of state wildlife area, Cheyenne Bottoms. Photo date 3/03, © J.S. Aber.

Geology and biology of Cheyenne Bottoms

The basin is developed in lower Cretaceous bedrock overlying upper Permian salt-bearing strata. Structural movement (faults) and subsurface salt solution are possible causes for subsidence of the basin, and wind erosion may have further scoured the basin. The sedimentary record of Cheyenne Bottoms encompasses the past 100,000 years (Zimmerman 1990). During this interval, the bottoms has alternated between wet and dry conditions many times. Since the end of the Pleistocene Epoch 10,000 years ago, a distinct drying trend developed and culminated in the hypsithermal or altithermal, a period of warmer and drier conditions across the western United States a few 1000 years ago. More recently the world's climate has cooled slightly during the past three millennia. Cheyenne Bottoms has continued to experience wet and dry cycles until the present.

Dry mudflats during a drought cycle in late winter, at the beginning of March, 2003. At this time, many pools at Cheyenne Bottoms were completely dry. Photo date 3/03, © J.S. Aber.
During World War II, Cheyenne Bottoms was used as a bombing and gunnery range. Dry mudflats reveal evidence of this past activity; seen here are 50-caliber machine-gun shells. Photo date 3/03, © J.S. Aber.

Water supply to Cheyenne Bottoms is irregular with periods of drought and times of flooding. Nine major floods have taken place since 1885 (Zimmerman 1990). During floods the bottoms is inundated and becomes a large lake. Wet periods with high water levels favor expansion of cattail beds in the marsh. Cattail (Typha) is the dominant emergent wetland plant at Cheyenne Bottoms today, but this was not always the case (Zimmerman 1990). Cattail (both broad- and narrow-leaved) first appeared in the 1960s, but were minor constituents of the wetland vegetation at that time; bulrush and spikesedge were the dominant wetland plants. Cattail has spread aggressively across the Great Plains since the 1970s. As a consequence of this vegetation succession, cattail is the main primary producer at Cheyenne Bottoms today.

Muskrat is a keystone species that feeds on cattail roots and uses the stems to build shelters. Other plant eaters include crayfish and turtles. Plant debris collects on the marsh floor where it is foodstock for anaerobic bacteria that release methane, hydrogen sulfide, and ammonia as waste products. The bacteria are foodstock for roundworms (nematodes) which make up a substantial part of the total invertebrate population. The cornerstone invertebrate organisms at Cheyenne Bottoms are bloodworms, larval form of midges (chironomids), that feed on plant detritus on mudflats and marsh floor. The huge biomass of bloodworms is the feast that attracts hundreds of thousands of migrating shorebirds (Zimmerman 1990). The shorebirds feed primarily on open mudflats, the maintenance of which is the key for supporting shorebird species (R. Penner, pers. com. 2002).

Muskrat lodge built of cattails, pool 4, eastern side of state wildlife area, Cheyenne Bottoms. Photo date 3/03, © J.S. Aber.
Beaver swims in the inlet canal with control gate in background, southwestern side of state wildlife area, Cheyenne Bottoms. Photo date 3/03, © J.S. Aber.

Nature Conservancy

Beginning in the early 1990s, the Nature Conservancy (NC) started to acquire land in the upstream portion of Cheyenne Bottoms, north and west of the state wildlife area. Cheyenne Bottoms is a network of shallow lakes and marshes, of which the state wildlife area comprises about 20,000 acres (8000 ha), and the Nature Conservancy owns nearly 7700 acres (3080 ha). The management goal of the Nature Conservancy is to protect habitat for shorebirds and waterfowl through reclamation of natural marshes, mudlflats, and wet meadows. In pursuing this goal the Nature Conservancy has undertaken substantial alterations of the previous agricultural land use in the acreage it owns and manages.

Several management technique have been applied to restore and maintain the wetland habitat. The NC is working to remove artificial barriers to water drainage, such as roads, levees, ditches, fence lines, trees, etc. The idea is to restore overland, sheet flow through a network of marshes and wet meadows.

The most important concern of recent years was spread of cattail thickets during the 1990s, which threatened to take over open marsh and mudflats. A drought in 2002-03 caused many marshes to dry up and cattails died. Two means were attempted to remove dead cattail thatch--mowing and burning. Mowing was impractical due to soft soils, and burning proved more difficult than expected. Repeated rains during the relatively cool summer of 2004 refilled the marshes, which contained open-water pools surrounded by bulrush and sedge vegetation. This habitat is highly desirable for migrating shorebirds and waterfowl (Aber et al. 2006, 2016).

Favorable wet conditions continued through 2005. Drought returned in 2006, and the NC marshes were completely dry in the autumn. This allowed considerable mowing and plowing (disking) of dry marsh zones. However, heavy winter snow and early rains refilled the marshes in the spring of 2007 to high water levels not seen for many decades. Rising water culminated in nearly complete inundation of the bottoms by mid-summer 2007, and water levels remained through 2008-2009.

Satellite image of Cheyenne Bottoms vicinity in drought conditions, July 2003. Green shows active vegetation; pink and purple indicate fallow fields and mud flats. Water body at center is the conservation pool of the state wildlife area. Otherwise, little surface water and active vegetation are present. Landsat TM 345 composite; adapted from Owens et al. (2011).
Satellite image of Cheyenne Bottoms vicinity in June 2007. Nearly the whole of the bottoms is inundated by flood water that persisted for several months. Landsat TM 345 composite; adapted from Owens et al. (2011).

Aerial views of the Nature Conservancy (2002-2015).

Land-cover changes at Cheyenne Bottoms

The Nature Conservancy and state Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area have worked in combination during the past decade to enhance and restore the wetland environment of Cheyenne Bottoms. Most conspicuous in this regard is a system of curved levees built during the 1990s within the state wildlife area. These levees subdivide the previous large pools into smaller pools that can be managed individually to control water levels. The state also constructed several artificial islands, particularly within pools 3 and 4 (see below). Meanwhile, the Nature Conservancy cleared salt cedar and other trees from its properties, ceased crop agriculture in favor of cattle grazing, closed many drainage ditches, and dug artificial potholes.

Landsat TM 257 composite of Cheyenne Bottoms vicinity, 25 June 2001. Culmination of a wet phase with expanded water bodies. New (curved) levees can be seen in the state wildlife area (CBWA) along with several artificial islands (~ features). Pools are designated by number. Click on small image to see large version.

While these human interventions took place, climate also experienced significant variations. Drought conditions at the beginning of the 1990s gave way to a period of relatively cool and wet years in the mid and late 1990s, then another drought cycle started early in the 21st century, followed by historic flooding in 2007. The combined effects of human and climatic impacts on land cover are illustrated in multi-temporal satellite images. By comparing images taken in the same season from different years, changes in the landscape can be documented. One such technique is to build a multi-temporal composite image that consists of three different years of data (Pavri and Aber 2004).

Colors of the resulting multi-temporal image represent conditions of change, particularly change in vegetation cover, from year to year in the three-year composite. Bright primary colors (red, green, blue) indicate a substantial change in a single year. Bright secondary colors (yellow, magenta, cyan) result from significant change for two years of the multi-temporal composite. Neutral gray and drab olive colors represent little or no change in the three-year dataset; black shows perennial water bodies.

Landsat TM 4 multi-temporal composite for 1986, 1989 and 1991, color coded as blue, green and red respectively. The most dramatic changes are located in wetland complexes of the state wildlife area (CBWA) and the Nature Conservancy, where bright red zones indicate spread of cattail marsh in 1991.
Landsat TM 4 multi-temporal composite for 1991, 1995 and 2001, color coded as blue, green and red respectively. Agricultural fields display noticable changes, particularly around the oval margin of Cheyenne Bottoms. This zone had increased agricultural vegetation in 1995 and 2001. Bright red in the Nature Conservancy wetland highlights expansion of cattail marsh in 2001. Blue of the state wildlife area shows where cattail marsh of 1991 was removed in 1995 and 2001.

Field trip to Cheyenne Bottoms

Index map for Cheyenne Bottoms vicinity, based on Landsat TM band 5 (mid-infrared) image; 10 July 1989. This Landsat TM scene illustrates conditions prior to changes in land management introduced by the Nature Conservancy in the 1990s. Numbered field stops are noted below. Click on small image to see a larger version (244 kb).

Potential field stops at Cheyenne Bottoms

  1. Overlook from bluff on northeast side of basin.
  2. Entrance to Nature Conservancy portion of CB.
  3. Cattail marsh and pools on Nature Conservancy land.
  4. Inlet canal from Walnut Creek.
  5. Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area (CBWA) headquarters.
  6. Inlet canal and control gates, pools 1, 2 and 5.
  7. Overview of pools 1 and 2 from levee.
  8. Pumping station for pools 1, 3 and 4.
  9. Outlet canal and control gates
  10. Kansas Wetland Education Center.

On Saturday morning we will tour Cheyenne Bottoms, including Nature Conservancy land and the state wildlife area (see map). After observing Cheyenne Bottoms, we will proceed to lunch and then visit Quivira National Wildlife Refuge near Stafford--see QNWR.

Related sites


Return to wetlands syllabus.

© Notice: Wetland Environments is presented for the use and benefit of students enrolled at Emporia State University. Any other use of text, imagery or curriculum materials is prohibited without permission of the instructor, J.S. Aber (2016).