Clockwise from the top left: Ovando, MT; Eastern MT - Joe Stutzman, USFWS; Peatlands; Slope Wetlands
Wetlands are areas that are saturated with water for part or all of the year. They are usually near water bodies, rivers, streams, or in low lying depressions that collect water. Montana residents are fortunate to have many different types of wetlands to enjoy. Prairie potholes, peatlands, seeps or springs, and riparian wetlands add to Montana's diverse landscape.
Wetlands have three special aspects: water, soils and plants. The presence of water changes the nature of the soil. Wetland soils are poorly drained and may look grey. The color of the soil is only one indicator and does not soley determine if an area is a wetland.
Wetland plants that thrive in wet, soggy ground are called hydrophytes (hydro=water, phytes=plants). Several common water-loving plants and trees in Montana include willow, alder, cottonwood, cattail, and water birch.
The presence of water is an obvious sign that the area may be wetland. But wetlands aren't necessarily wet all year round. During part of the year or during extended drought, the wetland might not be wet at all. To illustrate this point, please see photos below from Ducks Unlimited.
Wetlands serve many purposes. No doubt about it, wildlife thrives in healthy wetlands. Birds, fish and mammals use wetlands like we use the grocery store, nurseries, and hotels. Wetlands provide an ample supply of food and habitat for wildlife so they can feed, raise their young and find shelter.
Flood control - Many wetlands are located next to rivers and serve communities by absorbing flood waters. Large volumes of water that would otherwise accumulate and cause massive downstream flooding and endanger homeowners are absorbed by nearby wetlands.
Erosion Control - By absorbing high flows, wetlands also prevent erosion of stream banks. Healthy robust stream side plants and trees provide economical bank stability, cool stream temperatures, and excellent habitat for fish and wildlife.
Water Supply - Wetlands allow water to soak into the earth and replenish ground water supplies called aquifers. Approximately half of Montana’s residents need groundwater for their homes.
Pollution Prevention - Wetlands clean contaminated water and prevent toxins from entering nearby streams, rivers, and ground water. Wetlands break down pollutants and filter out sediment. Wetlands are often called the earth’s kidneys. They are giant filters which provide Montana’s communities with a clean water supply.
Riparian Areas are areas next to rivers and streams with more lush vegetation due to the presence of water. These areas provide many of the same benefits as wetlands.
Erosion control: The roots, stems and leaves of riparian plants slow the flow of the water in a flooding river and allow the sediment to settle, rebuilding the banks and preventing erosion.
Clean Water: Healthy riparian areas put the brakes on fast flowing polluted water from storms. These areas absorb and filter pollution collected from rainfall, streets, parking lots and other paved areas during storms (urban runoff) that would otherwise funnel into the river.
Wildlife: Riparian areas provide similar benefits to wildlife as wetlands: a place to live, eat and raise young.