This study was part of an effort by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to quantitatively assess the environmental quality or 'health' of wetland resources on regional and national scales. During a two-year pilot study, we tested selected indicators of wetland quality in the U.S. portion of the prairie pothole region (PPR). We assumed that the amount of cropland versus non-cropland (mostly grassland) in the plots containing these basins was a proxy for their quality. We then tested indicators by their ability to discriminate between wetlands at the extremes of that proxy. Amounts of standing dead vegetation were greater in zones of greater water permanence. Depth of litter was greater in zones of greater water permanence and in zones of basins in poor-quality watersheds. Amounts of unvegetated bottom were greater in basins in poor-quality watersheds; lesser amounts occurred in all wetlands during a wetter year. Greater amounts of open water occurred during a wetter year and in zones of greater water permanence. When unadjusted for areas (ha) of communities, plant taxon richness was higher in wet-meadow and shallow-marsh zones in good-quality watersheds than in similar zones in poor-quality watersheds. Wet-meadow zones in good-quality watersheds had greater numbers of native perennials than those in poor-quality watersheds. This relation held when we eliminated all communities in good-quality watersheds larger than the largest communities in poor-quality watersheds from the data set. We conclude that although amounts of unvegetated bottom and plant taxon richness in wet-meadow zones were useful indicators of wetland quality during our study, the search for additional such indicators should continue. The value of these indicators may change with the notoriously unstable hydrological conditions in the PPR. Most valuable would be indicators that could be photographed or otherwise remotely sensed and would remain relatively stable under various hydrological conditions. An ideal set of indicators could detect the absence of stressors, as well as the presence of structures or functions, of known value to major groups of organisms.
Additional Publication Details
A test of vegetation-related indicators of wetland quality in the prairie pothole region