The opening of teal season on Saturday, Sept. 9, could draw hundreds of hunters to the Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area. Last year, over 600 people came for the opening day, according to Jason Wagner, the new wildlife area manager at the state-owned portion of the Barton County marsh. Some 11,000 hunters were there during the season that runs from September to March, he added.
There are 10,000 birds at the Bottoms now, and on Monday the staff started moving water to bring in more for the big day.
Wagner spoke Wednesday at the Great Bend Noon Kiwanis meeting, discussing the challenges at Cheyenne Bottoms.
Longtime manager Karl Grover retired in the spring, and on June 5 Wagner became manager of the area owned by the state and managed by the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks & Tourism. In all, more than 40,000 acres make up the natural land sink known as Cheyenne Bottoms, and the state owns close to 20,000 acres. The nonprofit Nature Conservancy owns another 8,000 acres.
Originally from Otis, Wagner grew up hunting in the area and working for farmers.
“I learned to hunt, fish and trap on my grandpa's farm. That’s been my career path since I was 6 or 7 years old; I wanted to be outside,” he said. “I grew up in tune with the land, I guess you could say.”
Wagner earned a bachelor’s degree from Fort Hays State University and his master’s in Texas, studying wildlife/natural resource management. He worked in Texas for eight years, returning to Kansas about four years ago to work as a wildlife biologist in Hays.
$6 million challenge
Two of the biggest challenges at Cheyenne Bottoms are water management and cattail control.
During the 1940s and 1950s, the state of Kansas purchased land in the Cheyenne Bottoms area and took steps to build permanent wetlands. Dikes were built to impound water in five pools, and canals and dams were put in to divert water from the Arkansas River and Walnut Creek.
During the last major renovation, in 1994, “some of the contractors didn’t do a complete job and we’re still paying for that,” Wagner said. And now, a lot of the heavy equipment is at the end of its lifespan.
Flooding in 2007 created more problems.
“In 2007 it was completely full. It caused a lot of issues out there. It moved around a lot of silt and caused a lot of our water-control structures or infrastructure to be under water for a long period of time,” he said. “That has caused a problem of cattails — they have pretty much taken over Cheyenne Bottoms.”
Wagner has already started looking at ways to increase funding. Last week he met with KDWPT officials and with representatives from Ducks Unlimited. They created a list of “immediate needs” that totals $6 million. “It’s looking like they are pretty receptive to the idea,” he said. “We may do it in a couple of phases over three to five years.”
“This summer, lots of the pools were full, which hindered work,” Wagner said. During the dry period, they sprayed 775 acres of cattails, at a cost of $28,000.
He has looked into alternatives for dealing with cattails. Previously, a $60,000 machine was purchased, but the results were disappointing. Wagner said that “barge with teeth ... hit a wall of cattails and just died. They used it one day and they realized it didn’t work.” Only a few feet in, it became clogged by the cattails.
Now, Wagner said a company has offered to demonstrate a machine that promises more success. Wagner compared it to a “floating UTV.”
New uses are being found for the troublesome plants. Perhaps in the future, they can be used for silage, biodiesel fuel or as “wood” pellets.
“Harvesting cattails sounds like a win-win to me,” Wagner said.