Playas Provide Critical Wildlife Habitat

By January 9, 2013Stewardship

Grady Grissom, a rancher in southeast Colorado, had a problem playa. Someone had pitted a playa lake on his ranch many decades earlier to make a deeper water pond for cattle. While good for cattle, it concentrated the water into the pit, degrading the wetland habitat for other wildlife. To solve the problem, he turned to the Stewardship team at Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory for help.

RMBO biologists worked with Grady to fill the playa, reseed the area around the lake with native western wheatgrass (which is good for cattle) and install a water storage system. But why bother? Why is it important to maintain healthy playa lakes?

Poor Playa Equals Poor Habitat


A healthy playa is filled with water in southeastern Colorado.

Playas are seasonal wetlands that are generally round and small, with clay lined basins. Their shallow basin is formed through a combination of wind, wave and other disturbance processes. They are unique because of their constant wet-dry cycles, periodically filling with rainfall and runoff. Playas are the most numerous wetland type in the Great Plains – more prevalent than rivers or streams. With rich vegetative and insect resources, they provide critical habitat for wildlife, including several species of conservation concern, and a resting area for birds migrating through the central flyway. They also serve as a major source for recharging the Ogallala Aquifer, with water seeping through deep cracks in their clay bottoms into the aquifer below.

While there are more than 80,000 playas scattered across the Great Plains, they are a vulnerable habitat. Playas are threatened by a variety of human-caused factors, such as sedimentation (from agricultural runoff), roads, transmission lines, wind turbines, non-native grasses and pitting, which caused the problem playa for Grady.

Restoring Playa Lakes

For years, RMBO scientists have been studying playas in eastern Colorado and southwestern Nebraska to better understand the locations and conditions of these important wetlands. They have been investigating how bird use, plant composition and human disturbance relate within playas. This research provides vital information for designing conservation efforts at the landscape scale, as well as informing specific prescriptions for future habitat enhancement projects.

Playa and Wildlife

Wildlife use a healthy playa.

Since about 99% of playas are located on private land, this information is crucial for landowners and natural resource managers who hope to conserve water and maintain agricultural stability. RMBO offers landowner workshops to raise awareness about playas and provide best management practices for restoring playas to health. This information is also being used by partners such as Playa Lakes Joint Venture, which recently released phase two of the creation of a Playa Decision Support System, and RMBO’s Private Lands Wildlife Biologists, who provide technical assistance to landowners across the shortgrass prairie of Colorado and Nebraska – landowners like Grady Grissom.

After RMBO helped restore his playa, Grady was pleased with the healthy wetland. The playa had a perimeter of vegetation, grass had started to regrow and insect life once again thrived. During the following year, more than 100 cranes visited his ranch, feasting on grasshoppers during the day and returning to the playa at night. Listen to more about Grady’s story on a recent episode of Playa Country Radio.

Interested landowners, managers and others are encouraged to attend our next talk on playas at the annual High Plains Snow Goose Festival from Feb. 21-24, 2013, in Lamar, Colo.

~ Laura Quattrini, Stewardship Biologist