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Introduction

A well functioning riparian wetland on Public Lands of the high cold desert region of Wyoming has a rich mixture of sedges, grasses, forbs, and some dead older growth, completely covering the wetland. Very little open water exists, and moisture is abundant in the soil even during periods of drought. What is visible on the surface of a wetland is far less complex than what is below. A wetland is a layer of sedges, grasses and forbs overlying a giant sponge comprising humus and humic materials, mycorrhizal fungi, soil bacteria, and decomposing materials supplied each yearby remains of previous vegetative growth (Figure 1).

Wetland "sponges" underlying riparian wetlands serve as major water storage reservoirs. They accept water when water is available, storing significant amounts of excess inflow when it is provided, and releasing water continuously downstream during both wet and dry periods. Not only do these "stored supplies" provide critically needed water for wildlife, cattle, and other creatures. They also reduce stream flooding, while assuring that streams continue to flow during dry periods.

Wetlands defined by Section 404 of the Clean Water Act are: Those areas that are inundated or saturated by surface or ground water (hydrology) at a frequency and duration sufficient to support, and under normal circumstances do support, a prevalence of vegetation (hydrophytes) [water loving plants] typically adapted for life in saturated soil conditions (hydric soils) [soils with an abundance of moisture]. As can be seen, Section 404 of the Federal Clean Water Act defines wetlands broadly. Various groups and agencies have resorted to "subclasses" to categorize wetlands that compare closely with one another. As stated by the Riparian Wetland Research Program, University of Montana (undated): ""Riparian" and "Wetland" are not synonyms and usage varies greatly. We often use the terms in combination when speaking of general situations that include both." Riparian is placed in front of wetland in this document to categorize it as within a special subclassification. This subclass of wetlands is found interspersed between riparian and intermittently inundated stream bank cover. Most of the streams in the high cold desert region would be of stream order 1 or 2 (unbranched, or with two stream branches) according to Strahlerís system (The Federal Interagency Stream Restoration Group, 1998).

Most riparian wetlands of the Sweetwater Drainage are in a perilous condition because of the rapid rate at which humus and humic materials are being eroded away. Without continuous supplies of dead vegetation to create humus for retaining water, or an adequate supply of water, a wetland will dry up and lose its functionality. The humic sponges with the riparian wetlands not only retain water for slow release, but also greatly reduce the effects of evaporation normal to lakes and ponds. Losing a series of formerly functioning wetlands is no different from losing a string of reservoirs. The overall impacts to both water quality and water quantity can easily extend beyond State borders if widespread enough.

In 1994 through 2000, BLM assessed the proper functioning condition of the wetland and riparian habitat of the Green Mountain Common Allotment (GRNMCA), which is on the south side of the Sweetwater River. This allotment is the largest unfenced allotment in the State. It is comprised of 468,000 acres of public lands (excluding non public lands), with much of allotment draining to the Sweetwater River. A total of 88.5% of the riparian habitat (running water) and 77.3 % the wetland habitats (standing water) were classified by BLM as either in a Functional at Risk, or a Non Functional category. A letter from BLM to the author, dated July 23, 1999, stated riparian and wetland vegetation of the allotment did not meet Rangeland Standards, nor did viable populations and species diversity (Kelly, Jack Jul. 23, 1999). Mr. Kelly addressed the Green Mountain Common Allotment permittees and interested public, December 13, 2001. He stated that public land riparian conditions in most allotments within the Sweetwater Drainage were in the same poor condition as those of the Green Mountain Common Allotment. The conditions of wetlands in Granite Mountain Allotment (GRTMTA), North of the Sweetwater River, support Mr. Kellyís statement.

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