• Melissa Rosales

Mysterious Wetland Appears Near Beatrice

Updated: Oct 5

Published for Nebraska Public Media

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The new wetland brought aquatic plants, animals, and insects into the park. (Photo by Melissa Rosales, Nebraska Public Media News)

A wetland has mysteriously appeared in Homestead National Historical Park in Beatrice. The tallgrass prairie now has chorus frogs croaking and a thriving ecosystem.


Park Superintendent Mark Engler says he's excited for visitors to see the wetlands and learn more about the important landscape. (Photo by Melissa Rosales, Nebraska Public Media News)

Like every spring, Linsey Schardt of Beatrice and her husband open their windows to welcome the new season. However, they didn’t expect to chorus frogs this spring.


"When you open your windows for the first time in the spring after a long winter, and hearing that, it just reminds you of summer," she said.


The Schardts have lived near the tallgrass prairie around the park for 10 years, but heard the frogs for the first time a few months ago.


Park Superintendent Mark Engler said they noticed changes to the tallgrass prairie about two years ago.


"It was swampy, it was mucky and, people were getting their shoes wet as they were on our trails," he said. "As time moved forward, we saw other changes taking place with the landscape, with the plant life, and also with frogs croaking, and a different mix of insects."



The Investigation
Wetlands expert Mark Willoughby stabs the ground with his probe to investigate the soil. (Photo by Melissa Rosales, Nebraska Public Media News)


Engler said they called retired wetlands expert with the Natural Resource Conservation Service Mark Willoughby to come down and investigate their observations. Willoughby said to classify a wetland, it needs to have a lot of water, a lack of oxygen in the soil, and water-living plants.


"This is a soil probe, where we'll take a shallow soil sample, about 12 inches down," Willoughby said. "And then I will look for those indicators in that soil profile that's telling me this is an anaerobic or oxygen depleted situation."


He stabbed the ground with his probe and compared the mud’s color with his field book.


Wetlands expert Mark Willoughby compares the wetland soil in his probe to his Munsell Soil Color Book. (Photo by Melissa Rosales, Nebraska Public Media News)

"Black contains a lot of dark gray. So that's telling me the soils really wet the oxygen that used to occupy the soil pores is now full of water, and there's no free oxygen in the system anymore," he said. "That's one primary property of a wetland."


According to Willoughby, the ¼ acre of land has become a natural wetland in part because of the Friends of Homestead’s efforts in 2009.



'Letting mother nature do its thing"

When Opal Shum, part owner of the West Court Dairy Queen in Beatrice, passed away, she left a quarter of her estate to the Friends of Homestead to buy land south of the park. After buying the land, they removed 140 acres from row crop production to plant native grass and flowers in 2009. Willoughby said natural grass can absorb rainfall, unlike crops that leave runoff.


"When you had a rainfall event more of that water was soaking into the ground because of the vegetative protection," he said. "And somehow there's some underground plumbing, that's concentrating that water, it's sliding underground, and it's surfacing right here."


Member of the Friends of Homestead Don Schuller said it’s refreshing to know the wetland developed partially because of their efforts.


"Just by leaving it alone and letting Mother Nature do its thing, it developed it on its own," Schuller said. "And it could disappear again, depending on what kind of weather we have."


Interconnectedness

Almost half of all wetlands were drained and converted to crop production in the U.S. according to the EPA. In Nebraska, wetlands used to make up 6% of the state, but the Game and Parks Commission Wetlands Guide said the state only has about 3% of wetlands left. Supervisory Park Ranger Amy Genke said it’s important to protect wetlands because they offer many benefits to ecosystems.


"They are great for recharging the groundwater," she said. "I think of the wetland is almost like a sponge. So when we have heavy rains, this wetland can kind of hang on to that water, and then slowly release it out, so it reduces impacts of flooding and erosion."

One of the park's main resources is Cub Creek. (Photo by Melissa Rosales, Nebraska Public Media News)

Natural Resource Specialist at Homestead National Historical Park Jesse Bolli said the wetland helps clean the water that leads to nearby Cub Creek, which flows downstream into rivers and eventually the Gulf of Mexico.


"I think when we start thinking about water, it's good to remember that all waters are connected," Bolli said. "And actions here in Gage County have impacts all the way downstream, all the way [to the] Big Blue [River], to the Missouri River, to the Mississippi River. It's just good to remember how interconnected we are with the water process."


Bolli and the park’s intern also believe the wetland has potentially helped them reintroduce mussels into the creek, because mussels are sensitive to cloudy waters. Bolli said he’s noticed more deer, dragonflies, and frogs have been visiting because of the wetland.



Mapleleaf mussels (above), and giant floater mussels (below) were recently found in Cub Creek. (Photo by Melissa Rosales, Nebraska Public Media News)

Linsey Schardt, who lives nearby, said she only visits the park once a month but she still feels connected to nature because of the chorus frogs.


"They're really loud, " she said. "And I mean, I don't notice them like I used to so they were really, really loud in the spring, but who knows, maybe I'm just getting more used to them."


Schardt said the sounds have made her family realize how fortunate they are to live so close to a unique, and new natural resource.

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