Habitat & Conservation  |  06/21/2024

Restoring the Great Black Swamp in Northwestern Ohio

The Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) is bringing wetlands and wildlife habitat to a significant swath of northwestern Ohio.

Benefiting wildlife, people, and soil and water quality

By Garrett Caudill

The Pheasants Forever Ohio team expanded north this past summer when a new Farm Bill Biologist position opened in the Lake Erie Marsh Region of northwestern Ohio. I work with a staggering amount of CREP (Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program) wetlands to improve water quality in Lake Erie’s western basin, and to convert agricultural land to the historic wetlands that once dominated the landscape.

Restoring wetlands though CREP is critical to returning northwestern Ohio to its historical land use. The Great Black Swamp was said to have spanned a million acres. Stretching from northwestern Ohio into northeastern Indiana, the Great Black Swamp acted as a shield for the west basin of Lake Erie.

Currently, Lake Erie CREP between Ottawa and Lucas (East) counties, once territories of the Great Black Swamp, enroll 3,193 acres of wetland. These wetlands once harbored packs of wolves, wandering black bear, bugling elk and roaring mountain lions. Now you can witness the staging of a new generation of wildlife.

These wetlands help provide habitat for waterfowl, songbirds, aquatic invertebrates, muskrat, deer, and a slew of amphibians and reptiles. A diversity of forbs and grasses hosts all pollinators. The wetlands filter out agricultural runoff from the surrounding area before it flows into Lake Erie.

ducks flying in wetlands
Pintails, captured on a game camera, add grace and elegance to one of Mark Witt’s new wetlands.

Mark Witt has worked years for Ohio’s Department of Natural Resources, and is a longtime Pheasants Forever chapter volunteer and Lake Erie CREP wetland owner in Ottawa County. His background gives him a unique perspective on conservation in the region. We spoke about his wetlands, the wildlife that uses them, public perception of the wetland program, and the importance of private land conservation in the Lake Erie Marsh region.

Q: How many acres do you have enrolled into CREP wetlands?
A: 77 acres, with 36 acres as wetland pool area and the remaining 41 acres in native warm season grass/forbs upland habitat.

Q: Describe the wildlife activity on your enrollment acreage in spring.
A: Waterfowl concentrate on my Lake Erie CREP wetland because it offers abundant food in the form of annual seeds from the previous year’s growth. Plus there are abundant invertebrates present in the decaying vegetation, especially in the shallow water. I see dabbling ducks like mallards, black ducks, gadwall, wigeon, pintail, shoveler, teal and wood ducks, and diving ducks like ringneck duck, redhead, scaup and bufflehead. I also attract Canada geese, tundra swans, trumpeter swans and sandhill crane.

Q: Do you hunt on your CREP wetland?
A: Yes, I hunt waterfowl, deer, dove, pheasant and coyote, and we trap muskrat, mink and raccoon.

Q: What would happen if cattails, phragmites or woody species invaded your wetland?
A: I manage the density of cattails through herbicide applications to keep them at a density I want. Phragmites are the worst; I always treat any phragmites I find in September with herbicide. Some willow and cottonwood are good if kept to small patches, which adds to the structural diversity of the wetland.

Q: What kind of management/ maintenance takes place?
A: The biggest management effort is controlling noxious weeds. It’s Canada thistle or common teasel on dikes or in uplands. Controlling cattail density or woody encroachment with the backpack or ATV spot sprayer is important. I also trade help with my cousin during harvest for the use of his backhoe to fix muskrat damage. I conduct prescribed fire to control woody vegetation and remove excess thatch.

Swamp arial view

Q: How has the public perspective on government funded wetlands shifted?
A: I see both sides of the fence. Diehard agriculture people don’t like to see this ground go into conservation but some of them get it, as we are generally taking the poorest ground out of production. Some farmers have really benefitted by not farming this poor ground. Many people really enjoy seeing all the wildlife these practices attract — especially the hunters, trappers and birders.

Q: What about the relatively new incentive that awards $2,000/acre to landowners who convert their agricultural land into a CREP wetland?
A: Between current CREP program cost share / rental rates and Governor DeWine’s H2Ohio Water Quality Incentive “$2000 per acre onetime bonus,” we have reached a threshold that makes it super attractive for landowners to take this marginal ground out of production and put it back into wetland habitat. Many farmers and landowners remember these farms in a more natural state, and are happy to see it back in conservation. The incentive only helps.

Q: Tell us about the importance of private land conservation in northwestern Ohio and the Lake Erie Marsh Region.
A: We hold here most of the remaining wetlands in Ohio. Many agencies have stepped to the plate and made a huge difference. Local businesses have really benefitted from all the increased traffic during the spring migration; the Black Swamp Bird Observatory has really put this locale on the map for birders. All the private land conservation going on here contributes to a mosaic of habitat that benefits wildlife, people and the health of Lake Erie.

Great Black Swamp arial view
Restoring wetlands though CREP is critical to returning northwestern Ohio to its historical land use. The Great Black Swamp was said to have spanned a million acres. Stretching from northwestern Ohio into northeastern Indiana, the Great Black Swamp acted as a shield for the west basin of Lake Erie.

The closest wild pheasants find themselves several hours west. Yet, the projects taking place in the wetlands and marshes of northwestern Ohio help benefit an abundance of native wildlife. This new territory for Pheasants Forever showcases the organization’s ability to extend our technical expertise beyond the uplands. One day, pheasants will find their way back too.

To get a habitat project going in northwestern Ohio, contact Garrett Caudill at gcaudill@pheasantsforever.org or 419-565-0525.

Garrett Caudill is a Pheasants Forever Farm Bill Biologist II in Ohio.

This story originally appeared in the 2024 Summer Issue of the Pheasants Forever Journal. If you enjoyed it and would like to be the first to read more great upland content like this, become a member today!