Wetlands and Ducks in the Balance

Passage of the Clean Water Restoration Act is vital to the future of the nation’s wetlands and waterfowl

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Photo © Danny Brown

By Scott Yaich, Ph.D., and Gildo Tori

For well over a century, ducks and geese have been icons of wetlands conservation. That's for good reason, because as go wetlands on landscapes such as the Prairie Pothole Region (PPR), so go duck populations. Now the future of wetlands and waterfowl in the United States hangs in the balance as Congress debates the Clean Water Restoration Act (CWRA)-legislation every bit as important to Ducks Unlimited's conservation mission as the Farm Bill. The voice of sportsmen must be heard in this debate if we are to prevent a dramatic acceleration of wetland loss, a decrease in duck populations, and reduced hunting seasons in the future.

Most duck hunters know that the fortunes of ducks are directly tied to wetland conditions, especially on the prairies. And many waterfowlers remember when hunting seasons and bag limits were cut back during the severe prairie droughts of the 1960s and 1980s. Although periodic dry spells are natural on the prairies, a significant, policy-driven loss of our remaining wetlands would have the same effect on duck populations as a permanent prairie drought. And waterfowl hunters would pay the price.

The United States has already lost more than 53 percent of its historic wetlands in many areas. But that number is actually too low when it comes to waterfowl habitats. Unfortunately, regions that tend to be most important to waterfowl have typically experienced wetland loss that exceeds the national average. For example, the PPR of the United States once contained about 20 million acres of wetlands. Today, less than a third of those wetlands remain. In one five-county study area in southwest Minnesota, more than 87 percent of the wetland basins have been lost. What does that mean for ducks? This landscape can now produce less than 20 percent of the ducks it once did. Even more sobering, this study area is representative of much of western and southern Minnesota, all of northern Iowa, and significant portions of the eastern Dakotas.

The Rainwater Basin of Nebraska, the "neck of the hourglass" for migrating waterfowl in the central United States, has fared even worse. Approximately 5-7 million waterfowl, including 90 percent of the mid-continent's white-fronted geese and 50 percent of its mallards, depend on this small region's wetlands during migration. This landscape once contained over 7,800 wetland basins. Today, only about 375 remain. Given the extent of such habitat loss, it's remarkable that we still have enough waterfowl to support hunting today. But in regions like the PPR and the Rainwater Basin, waterfowl are rapidly running out of options.

Federal conservation laws are largely responsible for protecting the habitat base that sustains waterfowl populations at current huntable levels. One of the most important pieces of legislation for wetlands and waterfowl was the Clean Water Act (CWA), passed by Congress in 1972. The purpose of the CWA was to "restore and maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the nation's waters." In fact, the CWA went so far as to state that "it is the national goal that the discharge of pollutants into the navigable waters be eliminated by 1985." Following passage of the CWA, water quality improved across the country, rivers and streams became healthier, and the loss of wetlands most important to waterfowl slowed from over a half-million acres a year to approximately 80,000 acres a year (during 1998-2004).

Then rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2001 and 2006 threw the future direction of wetlands conservation in the United States into serious doubt. Even those who scrutinize every word in such rulings found them confusing. Making matters worse, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a new round of regulatory guidance following each Supreme Court decision. In both instances, the guidance went farther than required, stripping federal protections from tens of millions of wetland acres. Most vulnerable are small wetlands on agricultural landscapes, including prairie potholes that provide vital breeding habitat for millions of mallards, pintails, and other ducks. Without CWA protections, it's only a matter of time before we lose most of the remaining prairie potholes in the U.S. portion of the PPR and almost all the remaining unprotected Rainwater Basin wetlands. The consequences of such losses for waterfowl and hunters would be devastating. Fortunately, there is something we can do to prevent this from happening.

This spring, the Clean Water Restoration Act was introduced in Congress to restore past protections for the nation's rivers, streams, water quality, and wetlands, and to restore clarity for landowners and developers such as homebuilders about which wetlands and waters require permits to be filled and developed. The bill clarifies the responsibilities of the EPA and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to protect geographically isolated wetlands like prairie potholes, rainwater basins, and playa lakes, while also exempting normal farming, ranching, timber management, and some other activities from confusing and costly regulations and preserving the ability to conduct these businesses the same as before the 2001 Supreme Court case.

Waterfowl hunters and other wetland conservationists are not as numerous as they were in 1972. So if we are to successfully protect the future of wetlands and ducks, we must work hard and persistently to protect their habitat. If the dramatic loss of wetlands on the prairies and other critical landscapes and the associated decline of duck populations and hunting seasons are to be avoided, every Ducks Unlimited member and waterfowler must act immediately. We all must voice our support for the CWRA-early and often-to our elected federal representatives to ensure that this important legislation is passed and signed into law. The ducks and our waterfowling heritage depend on it.

Dr. Scott Yaich is director of conservation operations at DU national headquarters in Memphis, and Gildo Tori is director of public policy at DU's Great Lakes/Atlantic Regional Office in Ann Arbor, Mich.