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Up in the sky at the Bottoms
Air war waged against invasive plant at refuge
bottoms phragmites main pic
A chopper from Manhattan sprays phragmites, and invasive plant species, at Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area Friday. The plants choke out desired vegetation and cause other damage to the refuge. - photo by COURTESY PHOTO Dr. Dan Witt

Call them phragmites or common, everyday reeds. But whatever term Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area Manager Jason Wagner uses to describe the invasive plant plaguing the refuge is typically accompanied by an expletive.

“It is a real problem,” he said of phragmites, which muscle out desirable plants and wildlife. “It’s a battle we fight every year.”

So, last week, Wagner took this war to the air.

Flying for a total of 14 hours, a chopper from VersaAir Services out of Manhattan sprayed 733 acres of Pool 2. The chemical used is rate safe for aquatic and wetland areas, he said. 

At a price of $1,575 per hour, each acre costs $31, Wagner said. But, “if you weigh the benefits, it’s worth it,” he said.  

The Post Rock Wind Energy Project, the wind farm in Ellsworth and Lincoln counties, interfered with the migratory routes of such species as the endangered whooping crane, Wagner said. As a result, developer Pattern Energy has paid for wetland problem mitigation efforts.

That has included funding the spraying at the bottoms every five years. This marks the second such effort.

“It started becoming a problem in the ‘90s,” Wagner said. “It’s an ongoing issue.”

They spray for it every year. But, they have not had the equipment to treat Pool 2, thus requiring the helicopter.

Now, Wagner said they have the ability to spray all five pools. Each pool is a subdivision of the Bottoms which are separated by levies. 

A deeply rooted problem 

Indigenous to Europe, phragmites are a perennial, aggressive wetland grass, Wagner said. Because of its height and its distinctive, fluffy seed heads, they are easy to spot, even by traveling motorists.

They spread quickly in marshes and wetland areas, robbing the fish, plants and wildlife of nutrients and space; and blocking access to the water for swimming, fishing and other recreation endeavors, Wagner said. They also spoil shoreline views and pose a fire hazard. 

The plants can grow to be over 15 feet tall and crowd out other vegetation, creating dense stands. It can spread through windblown seeds, soil transfer, animals or extensive over/under ground stems that will often re-sprout when broken. 

It is able to adjust its growing based on environmental conditions and can even survive stagnant, oxygen poor or salty conditions. 

And there is another problem – they are natural water pumps, sucking water out of the refuge and allowing it to evaporate at a rate four times higher than evaporation off the water’s surface, said Jimmy New, a Russell biologist who has worked at the Bottoms. “They are nasty, nasty plants.”

“It is quickly becoming a problem plant. I would rate it worse than cattails,” he said of phragmites. Cattails are another invasive plant that cause similar problems, and that require routine treatment.

“They make cattails look Mickey Mouse,” New agreed.

About the Bottoms

Located in central Barton County, the 20,000-acres belong to the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks and is administered as the Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area. The Nature Conservancy owns 7,300 acres which is administered as the Cheyenne Bottoms Preserve adjacent to the Cheyenne Bottoms wetland area which covers 41,000 acres in all. 

Cheyenne Bottoms in Barton County is the largest inland marsh in the United States.

It is the northern anchor of the 70-mile Wetlands and Wildlife National Scenic Byway that ends in Stafford County at the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge. Cheyenne Bottoms is one of only 29 places in the U.S. on the List of Ramsar Wetlands of International Importance.

bottoms phragmites
This image shows phragmites, an invasive plant that threatens sensitive areas like Cheyenne Bottoms.