Clemson Extension Forestry and Wildlife

Your Pond as a Focal Area for Wildlife: Management of Watershed Zones

It is no secret that water attracts and holds life. This is true for many species of flora and fauna. Humans are no exception. Globally, roughly 40% of the human population lives within 60 miles of the coast (United Nations Ocean Conference, 2017). We are instinctively drawn to water, both man and beast. South Carolina is blessed with water resources, including an abundance of freshwater ponds. In this article, we will focus on management options to make your ponds more attractive and beneficial to wildlife. If we are to think of ponds as wildlife habitats, then we must consider not only the water but also the land tied to the water. Land which supplies water to the pond is as much a part of the wetland as the water itself. The health of aquatic systems is greatly influenced by the land feeding the system. Many use water quality as the standard for watershed health. If land feeding the pond is healthy, the pond should also be healthy. Healthy systems support a diversity of life.

A pond with a lot of vegitation
Aquatic vegetation is a critical part of a healthy pond. Photo credit: W. Cory Heaton, Clemson University.

Starting with the pond itself, we must understand that a healthy pond is not a pond free of aquatic plants. Aquatic plants and algae serve important roles in the wetland/pond system. Plants are primary producers and the basis for the food chain. Plants store carbon and oxygenate the water. Plants filter and accumulate nutrients. Aquatic plants provide structure and refuge for wildlife. A pond that lacks aquatic plant life is NOT HEALTHY. Management goals will determine which species of plants and the densities of plants that should be in the pond. Identify the species of plants in your pond, and investigate the value of those species for wildlife. This information will allow you to determine which plants are welcome and which are weeds. Managers looking to supplement their ponds with desirable aquatic plants will find a considerable collection offered by plant vendors. However, if you plan to add plant species, make sure the species is native and unlikely to become an invasive nuisance.

Moving from open water toward the shoreline, we encounter the “emergent” zone. This zone is comprised of a gradient from shallow waters to moist soils. This zone is capable of supporting a diverse plant community and, thus, a diverse wildlife community. Broadleaf herbaceous plants, grasses, sedges, and rushes abound in this zone if allowed. These areas, when vegetated, provide food resources, escape cover, loafing cover, thermal cover, travel cover, nesting cover, and brooding or nursery cover for numerous species of wildlife. They also serve as a final filtration system for runoff water before it reaches open water. The importance of this zone to the habitat value of your pond cannot be overemphasized.

Vegetative material around the pond edge
Managing the vegetation in the zones around your pond can ensure a healthy aquatic habitat. Photo Credit: W. Cory Heaton, Clemson University.

The moist soil area inland of the emergent zone is known as the “riparian” zone or the edge of the pond. The riparian zone also serves as a filtration zone. If properly vegetated, this area significantly slows runoff water and traps nutrients. These areas typically have fertile soils and are capable of supporting diverse plant communities. Pond managers should strive to maintain a diverse assemblage of plants in this zone. This area can support some plant and wildlife species common in the emergent and upland zones, in addition to species that seem to occur only in the riparian zone. Wildlife use these areas for foraging, traveling, loafing, nesting, and brooding. The value of these areas to wildlife is tied directly to the plant communities present. If you are interested in wildlife, then you should avoid planting these areas in turf grasses. Turf grasses will stabilize soils and help reduce the speed of runoff, but they do not provide much in terms of wildlife habitat. Pond managers often mow pond edges with the goal of maintaining the aesthetics of a well-kept lawn. Lawn-style management greatly diminishes the value of the riparian zone and the overall wildlife value of the pond. If allowed, natural vegetation will eventually dominate this area. You may also supplement the species present thru planting. Many species of herbaceous plants, grasses, sedges, rushes, shrubs, vines, and trees are suitable for riparian zone plantings. This edge habitat can be managed quite successfully without mowing. Spot spray applications of herbicides targeting woody stems accomplish the same goal of keeping the landscape open/non-forested without eliminating the habitat provided by the plant community. Targeted herbicide applications allow the riparian zone to perform its environmental and ecological services.

Drier soils upslope from the riparian zone are known as the upland zone. The upland zone is the first zone of filtration for runoff waters leading to the pond. In the absence of disturbance, the upland zone is or will become, a forested area. If healthy, the upland zone has a multi-layer forest with abundant flora diversity in the ground, mid-story, and canopy layers. Many upland landscapes have been changed to provide pasture, hay lands, agronomic crops, or development. Efforts can be made in these situations to ensure plant communities are established to handle runoff and support biodiversity while maintaining agricultural production. Soil testing, precision agriculture, and Integrated Pest Management will also help to reduce the amounts of fertilizer and pesticides that may translocate from uplands and eventually end up in your wetlands and ponds.

The health of each of the zones mentioned is directly tied to the plant communities that live within. The health of the pond is directly tied to the health of each of these zones. The value of the pond for wildlife is directly tied to the health of the pond. An understanding of these zones and their dependency on each other is critical to managing a pond for wildlife. The first step for a pond owner interested in maximizing the value of their pond for wildlife is to ensure that each of these zones is managed to promote diverse plant communities. When these zones are managed properly, wildlife will abound.  Clemson University has a great fact sheet on management of these zones and restoring their representative plant communities (


United Nations Ocean Conference.  2017.  Fact Sheet: People and Oceans.  The Ocean Conference.  New York, NY.


W. Cory Heaton, Cooperative Extension, Forestry and Wildlife Specialist

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