A lot can happen in four decades in a natural habitat for wildlife.
Charlie Swank from rural Ellinwood saw most of it in Cheyenne Bottoms.
Swank retired from the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks in 2018. As a district wildlife biologist stationed at Cheyenne Bottoms since 1978, he has placed wildlife habitat management “in better hands than mine.” He still visits the ponds and crosses the raised roads between the dikes, sometimes more than once a week.
Most people who visit the Bottoms these days remark that they’ve never seen it so dry.
But, Swank says, in terms of wildlife biology, that’s a good thing. There is opportunity in the drought.
Swank and a fellow rider toured the Bottoms this week. As he drove, Swank pointed out features and the changes that have occurred there during his tenure and since. The Bottoms was actually dry. In fact, the only visible water was at two collection points between the pools.
Swank was reassuring. “The water is still there, it’s just not visible,” he said. “There’s still enough water out there to get someone stuck if they’re not sure where to go.” But the lack of surface moisture offers the best chance of hitting two of the Bottoms’ greatest natural enemies.
The first is the cattail, which is usually found anywhere in stagnant water. Cattails are a problem in almost all prairie wetlands, as they alter habitat structure and function, resulting in a reduction in wildlife exploitation.
But far worse than that, he said, are the Phragmites (pronounced frag-MY-teez). “Don’t ask me to spell it because you’ll only get four letters from me,” he said.
A stubborn enemy
Phragmites is the genus of four species of large perennial reed grasses found in wetlands around the world. Their main task is to crowd out more useful vegetation and rob fish and other plants of food and space. Their root structure is such that they resist attempts to spray, cut, or burn them out. Their plant structure even sucks water out of a basin and releases it into the air.
There are native and non-native varieties. The non-native species “is a real booger,” Swank said. “The worst thing is that they’ve been here for a while and nobody’s really sure how they got here,” he said, postulating that the first growth as a feature of someone’s boat camouflage may have appeared while they were out long duck hunting before.
However, while the bottoms are dry, “this would be the best time to load the gear and clear out as much as possible,” he said. “It won’t stop them, but it sure will slow them down.”
Charles Arthur Swank wasn’t always a Phragmites warrior. His family in Stillwater, Oklahoma, where he was born, have been lawyers for generations. His father Elmer was a lawyer and Uncle AR was a judge.
“My family consists mainly of lawyers. I guess everyone in Stillwater expected me to go to law school, but I didn’t. It was pretty early, someone gave me a bird book when I was a kid and I was quite taken with it,” he said.
“I went to the state of Oklahoma, studied wildlife biology, and got my degree in wildlife management in 1971. At that time it was really difficult to get a job in this field. Until 1974 I got nothing but part-time and summer jobs. Kansas had a big hiring contract called SASNAK (Surging Ahead for Skippers, Nimrods and Anglers of Kansas).”
The program was created in 1973 with the goal of significantly improving the department’s biologist staff and increasing statewide sport fishing catches by 50 percent and doubling the upland wild bird harvest on public lands.
“People came from all over the country,” he said. The competition was pretty tough; he didn’t get a job right away.
He was applying for a master’s degree in New Mexico when the Pratt office called him and asked if he was still interested in a position. He learned that there was a job as area manager in Council Grove.
“I’ve never been to Council Grove in my life; Being from Oklahoma I didn’t really know where it was. Without looking at it or anything, I just said I’ll take it,” he said.
When he checked into the Pratt office, “one of the guys there gave me a typewriter and a bunch of paper, forms and stuff and let me go. That was it.”
It turned out to be “a nice place.” There he teamed up with a fisheries biologist who turned out to be Troy Schroeder of Albert, Barton County. Shroeder took Swank under his wing.
“It was a great place,” he said. He met and married his wife, Deanna, and they stayed there until the job at Cheyenne Bottoms became vacant.
“I got really interested in duck hunting at the time,” he said. “I asked Troy how it was there and he said it was one of the biggest swamps in the interior, so I applied and got the job.”
At that time, the district biologist looked after the bottoms. The contract also included 14 counties with public lands.
“They eventually scaled it back to nine,” he said. Stan Wood was area manager. “I didn’t manage the bottoms, he managed it,” Swank claimed. Since that time, only two other Division Managers have managed the Bottoms; Karl Grover and current manager Jason Wagner.
In the private sector
After the reorganization, Swank began working more closely with landowners in the nine counties he served. He traveled to the extreme northwest corner of Kansas to the Oklahoma Line and worked with Natural Resources Conservation Service personnel.
“We always had something to do,” he says. “Some of it was really nice stuff.”
Swank made three trips to Wyoming to bring back antelope in hopes of establishing populations here. “It failed miserably,” he said. “Maybe there are two left somewhere in Comanche County.”
One thing that worked was trapping and transplanting turkeys, he said. One of the Rio Grande’s largest turkey populations was around the Oklahoma Line, so Swank would go and set up nets and then release the captured bird in the western half of the state. “They were successful,” he said.
Swank is also proud of the rows of trees he has planted in shelter belts across the state, including some in the Bottoms. “They’re pretty big now,” he said. “You’re getting old.”
Back in the bottoms
At home, he was stationed in the block building that has since been surrounded by other buildings in the Bottoms. “It basically started as a bunch of guys being put in a closet,” he said. “I can remember when the winter snows came, I would brush snowdrifts off my desk.” Other times he would catch mice eating his typewriter ribbon.
When Swank went into the Bottoms proper on a recent tour, he explained the various structures, particularly those that control the flow of water in and out of the pools.
“There are no wells here; the water comes from different streams and rivers,” he said. Historically, it was the creeks and rivers, such as the historic Blood Creek and Wet Walnut River, that water came from.
“There were always times when it got dry,” he said. “The pools in the middle held the most water and they then fed the other pools outside.
“A lot has changed here,” he says. “A lot of work has been done that I would say is almost too expensive these days.”
Arriving at the scenic viewpoint, a panorama stretches across the horizon.
“It’s a shame a lot of the people who live here have never been to the Bottoms,” Swank remarked as he surveyed the marshland views. “It’s really something to see, even so.”
Swank still makes regular trips to the bottoms just “to check things out,” he said. He and his wife have a country house just south of Ellinwood, where his son Tanner graduated from high school.
Tanner also went to OSU, but not law. Like his father, he studied wildlife management and now practices wildlife biology in Woodward, Okla. He is also an accomplished wildlife artist, and his prints find their way into Barton County homes. “He can draw, he’s the artist,” said his father. “I would have trouble drawing a stick figure.”
On the way back to town, Swank had one last observation. “You know, I would probably still be working if it weren’t for computers,” he said. “I was a typewriter and paper guy. I just couldn’t understand how to work with the things they sent me on screen.
“It was a fun run, 44 years,” he said. “I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.”
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