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January 30, 2014

Conservationist: Wabash River is a treasure

But waterway faces perils on its route

TERRE HAUTE — Seventy-five rare species of mussels and 151 species of fish call the Wabash River home. And these are among the many reasons why a conservationist called it “a treasure” in the state of Indiana.

The importance of the Wabash River was the topic of a presentation led by Brad Smith of The Nature Conservancy Thursday night in Terre Haute.

The presentation, “The Wabash: Indiana’s River,” was held at Clabber Girl headquarters in downtown Terre Haute. About 70 people attended.

Smith is the Lower Wabash and wetland program director for the organization. He is leading the organization’s efforts in the Lower Wabash region beginning in Terre Haute and downriver until it reaches the Ohio River.

The presentation used colorful pictures and graphics on a Powerpoint presentation to illustrate the biological importance of the Wabash River and the work that the Conservancy is doing to help protect the natural resource.

“The Wabash River is really a treasure that the State of Indiana has,” Smith said.

The river is free-flowing for over 411 miles, which is important from a biological perspective, Smith said, and drains over 33,000 square miles in 73 out of 92 counties in Indiana.

There have been 400 known locations of rare species and natural communities in the Wabash River, including 75 species of mussels and 151 species of fish.

Compared with other large river systems in the Mississippi basin, “that’s really biologically rich,” he said.

Paddlefish and lake sturgeon are two examples of rare species that inhabit the river. The lake sturgeon is an ancient bottom-feeding fish that is now endangered in much of North America.

The organization’s conservation targets in the Wabash are fish, mussels and migratory birds. The work involves not just what’s in the water but also the area around the water, including its floodplain.

“The Nature Conservancy’s strategy along the lower Wabash River in southwest Indiana is all about scale,” said Smith. “We’re fortunate to be working with several key partners, including the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.”

According to a news release, this partnership has conserved and restored more than 45,000 acres along the Wabash River to date. While much of this work is intended to help improve the health of the river, it has also had a dramatic effect on the use of the area by migratory birds.  As more and more habitat has been restored, migrating birds are finding more and more high-quality habitat to help them survive during their annual migrations.

Data from radar imagining and aerial surveys show the wetlands around the lower Wabash, Patoka and White Rivers are used by tens of thousands of ducks and at times over 100,000 geese during the winter, making it a major migration corridor in the central United States, the release said.

 “As habitat for various plants and animals, the Wabash is in ‘fair’ condition but continues to face degrading stresses,” according to the Nature Conservancy website.

The conservation group has identified six stresses: change in natural water flow; high nutrient, herbicide and insecticide levels; localized problems with pollution from cities; alternation of land adjoining the river; elimination of tree cover along the river; and non-native species.

To address the problem of high nutrients going into the water, the group has formed partnerships with farmers and the agricultural industry to reduce erosion and improve water quality. One of the practices Smith explained during the presentation was the two-stage drainage ditches “that reduce the amount of sediment and agricultural chemicals that run off farm fields into rivers,” according to the Conservancy.

“The Conservancy is also concerned with the numerous drainage ditches, creeks, streams and rivers that feed the Wabash River. These tributaries have been ditched and tiled in ways that significantly alter the natural flow of water,” its website stated.

Smith ended the presentation with a picture of a woman on a boat holding a large lake sturgeon.

The picture was taken at the Lower White River, which is a major tributary of the Wabash, and has the last remaining population of lake sturgeons left in the Ohio River basin. The rare fish should be the “poster child of why the Wabash is special biologically,” Smith said.

“This is why she should be so proud of the Wabash,” Smith said pointing to the picture.

“That’s [a symbol of] what we’re trying to preserve and protect.”

Tribune-Star Reporter Dianne Frances D. Powell can be reached at 812-231-4299 or dianne.powell

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