Zoo working to breathe new life into wetlands

Posted at 7:00 AM, Apr 27, 2016
and last updated 2016-04-27 07:00:18-04

MASON, Ohio -- Those driving down country roads outside Mason may barely notice an isolated marsh nestled amid miles of corn and soybean fields. But for hundreds of species of birds, small mammals and reptiles, the restored wetlands represent a welcome sight: an oasis they can once again call home.

Since the Cincinnati Zoo has worked to restore the wetlands at its EcOhio Farm in Mason, more than 150 species of birds have returned to the area. Photo by Brian Jorg

As part of their ongoing commitment to conservation, the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden is helping to breathe new life into 529 acres of land known as EcOhio Farm. The grounds currently features newly restored habitats, growing space for hundreds of species of native and exotic plants, beehives and organic farming. Future plans include additional wetlands, maple syrup tapping and potentially a cheetah breeding facility.

In 1995, a local family donated the property formerly known as Bowyer Farm with the stipulation it could never be developed unless it was to help further the zoo’s mission. Three years ago, a team of zoo employees and volunteers began transforming farmland by breaking up soil, then building a small dike to create natural flooding, explained Brian Jorg, manager of native plants.

“Basically we turned what was once a cornfield into a thriving wetland,” he said. “We added 300 species of plants and immediately wildlife started showing up.”

Of all 50 states, Ohio is the most imperiled, with 90 percent of its wetlands lost to farming, Jorg said. As a result, many species disappeared from the region as vital resources to support them no longer existed. Since their farm restoration, Jorg said they’ve tracked more than 150 species of birds on the property, including the bobwhite quail, which virtually vanished from Ohio in the late '70s.

“We lost 97 percent of the population and it’s never rebounded,” he said. “We put in hedge rows, fence rows and food even in the grassland areas so the quail would come back — and actually we heard our first quail out here, which for me was more exciting than seeing the bald eagle — and that’s pretty exciting.”

In order to take on a project of this magnitude with limited funding, Jorg said the zoo relies heavily on volunteers who, ironically, probably pull the same weeds from their home gardens that they plant in the wetlands. As part of their native plant program, Jorg explained they’re growing and reintroducing plant species that both help the environment and thrive regionally. He said it’s a simple formula: the more diversity, the more wildlife.

“People curse milkweed and then come here and we save every last one,” he said. “Having an emerald green lawn has an impact further down the line. I have dandelions in my yard and if I go out right now, it would probably be loaded with honey bees and I think that’s part of the whole process.”

One element to keeping the grounds viable both ecologically and financially is leasing land to eco-friendly partner Green Bean Delivery, said sustainable communities advocate Sophia Cifuentes. For the last several years, the produce company has been developing 100 acres of land to ensure it meets the highest organic standards, she said.

"It's a three-year process, so I think for two years now it’s been certified organic — so for us that just shows their level of commitment," she said. "What I really love about that partnership is they totally mesh well with our mission as far as sustainability and conservation of ecosystems and wildlife."

Another green on THE property is the green team, said Cifuentes. That's their diverse group of volunteers who come to work the property, including corporate and university groups, retirees, master gardeners and nature enthusiasts of all ages. She said people tend to gravitate toward what most interests them, including working the wetlands, helping with plant propagation, building birdhouses or tending the beehives.

Quonset huts, buildings made of corrugated metal that have semicircular cross sections, house endangered and native plants at the EcOhio Farm. Photo by Brian Jorg

“Our green team is a stellar group of volunteers,” she said. “They’re so passionate about what they do.”

With a number of new and expanding projects on the horizon, Cifuentes said they’ll have even more opportunities with plans for maple syrup tapping as well as additional classes in beekeeping as part of their Pollen Nation group. She said their first offering in January was a big hit, with attendees looking to either set up hives in their own homes or add plants to help pollinators thrive.

“After going through the class, a lot of them come back and ask, 'How can we stay involved?' and 'How can we help?' ” she said. “So they’ve joined to not only help us at the farm in the bee yard, but they’re also helping us table special events to get the word out about Pollen Nation and what we do.”

Another passionate group of volunteers work directly with Jorg to help propagate species of native and endangered plants. He said CREW grows rare cryogenically frozen plant embryos, then passes them on to the Eco Farm to take them to the next level. Ideally, he explained, they’ll reintroduce the healthy adults back into the wild, bringing up numbers to get them off the endangered species list. He said most people don’t even realize thousands of plants species are currently endangered and face extinction, just like animals.

The spring will be filled with a cacophony of sound as frog and toad eggs hatch. Photo by Brian Jorg

“We’re at the fastest period in history for extinction of plants — and it’s basically because of us humans,” he said.

While the future may seem bleak looking at the big picture, Jorg said he sees hope when he looks out over their burgeoning ecosystem, now thriving with a vast variety of wildlife. Along with the return of numerous species of birds, he said rodents and reptiles have found their way to the wetlands where they, too, now thrive.

With the pristine waters free from chemical runoff and pesticides, Jorg said he expects to hear a cacophony of sound as the toad and frog eggs continue to hatch throughout the spring.

“I love everything and how it all ties together — to be able to do a project like this and have it all fit is really satisfying,” he said. “And you really do feel like you’re accomplishing something when what was a monoculture of just one plant — corn or soybeans three years ago — and now have that diversity out there and see the wildlife return, it does feel pretty cool.”