How do I monitor wetlands?
If you are interested in monitoring a wetland in your area, the first step is to find out what kinds of data have already been collected by other groups. Check with your local Izaak Walton League chapters, watershed associations, local universities, and state and local government. You may discover that the information you are looking for already exists! Additionally, many of these groups have trained members and protocols that may be able to guide you along the most effective and productive path towards reaching your goals. A good place to check for local groups active in your watershed is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Adopt Your Watershed page at www.epa.gov/adopt. Another EPA resource is the National Directory of Volunteer Monitoring Groups at www.epa.gov/owow/monitoring/vol.html.
Once you have done some background research on your wetland, one of the best ways to learn about these unique ecosystems is to explore them. Monitoring wetland characteristics such as plants, soils, hydrology and wildlife will help you better understand wetland functions and track changes in the wetland ecosystem.
Several scientists have pioneered wetland biological monitoring techniques that rate the health of the ecosystem based on vegetation, macroinvertebrates (insects and crustaceans large enough to see with the naked eye), amphibians and other components. But these techniques are specialized for particular types of local wetlands and cannot be standardized to work in all wetlands.
Although assessing the health of a wetland ecosystem may be difficult, it is useful to collect data and keep records about the hydrology, soils, species of vegetation and species of wildlife present. This information will be valuable if you are interested in pursuing restoration or enhancement of the wetland, or if you are opposing its development. In addition, changes in the wetland over time may alert you to problems within the watershed or the wetland itself that may need to be addressed. For example, changes in plant life may indicate that the wetland is gaining or losing water. Changes in vegetation or wildlife also may show that an invasive species of plant or animal is taking over native populations and needs to be controlled. Monitoring the wetland also can be a great educational tool for adults and students of all ages.
Tips for Monitoring Success
Always make sure that you have the permission of the landowner to monitor the wetland. Due to the complexity and fragility of wetland ecosystems, you should assemble a team of technical advisors such as botanists, hydrologists, soil scientists and others to assist you. Establish goals for your monitoring project. Decide how the data will be used and who will use it. Gather materials that you will need to assist you in monitoring, such as plant identification keys, maps and soil surveys. You may want to order the League’s “Handbook for Wetlands Conservation and Sustainability." The book describes three levels of wetland monitoring based on your time and resources. In addition, it provides information about wetland ecology, functions and values, and how to start a community wetland stewardship program.
Draw a map of your wetland and include all of your monitoring locations. Use the map each time you monitor. Chose monitoring stations, record their locations and permanently mark them with stakes if possible. This will help you find the right place and make sure that you always monitor in the same location.