Invaluable to wildlife

The last time I was at Delta Heritage Marsh was a couple of years ago to visit my friend Gord’s daughter, Melanie, who was conducting research on Richardson’s ground squirrel at the University of Manitoba’s field station. I confess to having gained little insight into the lifestyle and habits of the squirrel during my all-too-brief visit, but I was very impressed by the facility, the many research projects underway and the surrounding natural vista.

Throughout the years, the marsh has gained a well-deserved reputation as a world-renowned research station and habitat for wildlife. Its reputation should be further enhanced by the province’s decision to purchase another 32-hectares of land at the marsh, northwest of Portage la Prairie and 1.6 kilometres east of the Portage Diversion adjacent to existing Crown lands.

The land is of no use for farming, but it is invaluable to the plentiful wildlife which call the marsh home. Approximately 12,000 hectares of the marsh is owned by the province and the remainder of the 25,000-hectare marsh is privately owned. On the other side of the Portage Diversion from the field station is the privately-owned cottage development of Delta Beach.

Manitoba Conservation Minister Stan Struthers called the land an attractive nesting area for grassland birds such as bobolinks and waterfowl. Also, any additions in the wetlands and conversion from other uses will contribute to improved water quality by further filtering out nutrients and recharging groundwater.

The trip to the marsh reveals the presence of vast expanses of grassland interspersed by waterways. The dominant water feature along the way is the diversion which in time of flood carries water from the Assiniboine River to Lake Manitoba. The diversion is also noted as a prime angling location.

Lake Manitoba is an important sport and commercial fishery for the province. It may not have the multitude of fish found in Lake Winnipeg, but people do eke out a reasonable living hauling in their seasonal catches. 

The fishery on Lake Manitoba recently was the subject of media reports with fishermen dumping rough species, such as mullet, on the ice for the lack of a market to sell the fish. A partial resolution came when the mullet were transported to Winnipeg where they were handed out for free to North End residents for their consumption.

It’s the marsh which makes a fishery possible. The marsh weeds and grasses provide a natural hatchery for fish from native species such as perch and pickerel (walleye) to damaging invaders such as carp. Research at the marsh is looking into the effect of carp on local vegetation which they uproot.

A distinguishing feature of the field station is the rustic-looking Mallard Lodge built in 1932 by Donald Bain, a Winnipeg businessman, hunter and sportsman, who left the lodge and property to the province when he died in 1962. 

In the heyday of duck hunting in the early-20th century, personalities from around the world journeyed to Delta Marsh. One famous picture from 1939 shows movie star Clark Gable of Gone With the Wind fame getting off the train at Portage la Prairie en route to Delta Marsh. 

“Boy this is swell!” Gable is reported by Minnesota Star Tribune outdoor writer Jimmy Robinson to have said as he watched “mallards, canvasbacks and wigeons” flying overheard. 

“The air was full of ducks,” Robinson said in his article on the Gable expedition into the wilds of Manitoba.

Other stars visiting Delta Marsh were Roy Rogers, Fred McMurray, Don Ameche, Howard Hughes, Ginger Rogers and Gary Cooper.

In 1901, the Royal train pulled into the CPR station at Poplar Point and a hunting party which included Governor-General Lord Minto, Prime Minister Wilfred Laurier and the Duke of York, later King George V, arrived. They took a canoe eight kilometres through the marsh to their camp site. Over the next few days, they shot quite a few ducks with the duke bagging the most at 82.

Photos from the late 19th century typically show hunters with hundreds of ducks reportedly killed in a single day. But, the carnage couldn’t continue. The duck populations, which was said previously to number in the millions, commenced to drop in the 1930s. Only 17,952 ducks were found during a count on September 26, 2001 as reported in the Delta History News, published by the Delta History Initiative.

It wasn’t just the hunters who caused a decline in duck numbers. Regulation of Lake Manitoba water levels through an outlet and station at Fairford and agriculture played a role. Habitat conditions at the marsh have deteriorated over time and hybrid cattails have invaded which have pushed out pond weeds and other plants desired by ducks.

Cottagers at Delta Beach favour the regulation of the water to prevent land erosion, while visitors in other areas favour higher water for easier boat access. From ongoing studies at the field stations, it is known that for thousands of years before strict regulations of water levels, the marsh benefitted from wild fluctuations in water level brought on by naturally-occurring floods and drought.

The studies and research are ongoing so that sometime in the future a balance can be found to address the interests of all those who take advantage of Delta Marsh. In the meantime, the purchase of more property from the public purse at least ensures that more of the habitat and wildlife is preserved until a consensus on the marsh’s usage can be reached.