VIGO CO., Ind. (WTHI) - It's a steamy spring afternoon, and James Tibbett is launching his packed boat for a trip down the Wabash River through Kentucky and back. He's been planning this trip for almost a year, and he says that planning is critical.
"This is all about survival on your own," Tibbett said. "You plan it, you live it. (If) there's no risk involved, there's no danger and there's no fun."
A half mile to his north, Gary Payton is fishing the river from a boat floating beneath an old railroad bridge.
"The thing I like about fishing the river is that you never know when you're going to catch one of them real big ones," Payton said.
Both men were enjoying a river, its wildlife and its wildness. That wildness, however, has faced its own challenges.
As developments, cities and farms grew up around the river through the 20th Century, the forests and wetlands that had surrounded the river began to disappear. That left many wildlife living along the river without room to migrate. According to the Nature Conservancy, the Wabash River is home to 120 rare, endangered or threatened plants and animals.
To view a slide show of endangered species along the river, click here.
"When it comes to these rivers … you're looking for connectivity (of habitat)," said Kent Wamsley, of the Nature Conservancy's Wabash River Initiative.
Though native fish and wildlife may have struggled with loss of habitat, other invasive species like Asian carp have grown in the river, consuming food and other resources needed by native species.
"Some of these invasives could be fish; they could be plant life," Wamsley said. "A lot of that really stems from overseas. They're coming in from Asia and places like that. A lot of them come through commercial trade."
In recent years, however, conservation groups have begun rebuilding forests and wetlands along the river with projects like the Wabashiki wetlands in Vigo County. Meanwhile, Governor Mitch Daniels' Healthy Rivers Initiative calls for 43,000 acres of connected wetlands and forests along the river.
Conservationists say those wildlife preserves are already yielding results.
"You're starting to see migration of water foul species that weren't even being tracked before," Wamsley said. "Just the other day, I had an individual that sent me some photos on a trail cam of a bobcat."
Meanwhile, Wamsley also said that, by fostering forests and wetlands along the river, conservationists can help reduce the risks of flooding.
"Floodplains, by having them in a forest and wetland type complex, they are natural sponges," Wamsley said. "That's the problem, we've gotten rid of our natural sponges, our little woodlots."
Wamsley said that wetlands help reduce the speed and force of flood waters, and that removing them can lead to worse flooding.
"It's not that we're getting more water, it's that we're sending it through faster by the things we've done to alter the landscape," Wamsley said. "What we're trying to do is slowly start reverting the landscape back to a form that's more functioning."
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