Common Ground


Photo © David Devore

By Gildo Tori

DU works hand in hand with farmers and ranchers to find conservation solutions that benefit both agriculture and waterfowl


Have you ever wondered where that mallard drake over your decoys came from? Or where those high-flying Canada geese might be headed on a cold, moonlit night? Most waterfowlers like to ponder where the birds have been, where they are going, and the habitats and haunts they frequent throughout the year. Such mysteries certainly add to our fascination with ducks and geese.

Today, scientific studies reveal much about the birds' seasonal movements and habitat preferences. Banding and satellite transmitter research shows that waterfowl spend considerable time on private land, and often on land that is in agricultural production. That being the case, North America's farmers and ranchers are some of the best friends that waterfowl and waterfowl hunters have—a fact Ducks Unlimited has long recognized. Although DU's conservation work on state and federal lands may be better known, DU has a great history of working with farmers, ranchers, and other private landowners.

"Production agriculture is an essential part of the economy and vital to our nation's security," says Dr. John R. Anderson, a technology development director for the Monsanto Company and manager of the Monsanto Farm & Wildlife Management Center at Stuttgart, Arkansas. "The future of agriculture and wildlife depends on our ability to utilize the best technology to increase crop production on our most productive farmland, while also providing habitat for wildlife on less productive lands."

Ducks Unlimited couldn't agree more with this philosophy, and that's why we embrace the phrase farm the best, conserve the rest. DU has completed thousands of projects on private land, nearly all of which are in partnership with working farmers and ranchers. Through these partnerships with landowners, DU has conserved more than 1.8 million acres of waterfowl habitat by protecting, restoring, and enhancing wetlands and uplands on private lands. DU biologists have also consulted with landowners and provided technical assistance on more than 3.7 million acres nationwide.

Key federal programs tied to these projects include the conservation provisions of the Farm Bill: the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP), Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP), Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP), and Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), among others. In many states, DU works closely with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and Farm Service Agency to help deliver these important conservation programs. Additionally, North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA), Partners for Fish and Wildlife, and other programs administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) have restored private-land wetlands and uplands throughout the country and facilitated hundreds of thousands of acres of conservation easements in the Prairie Pothole Region (PPR) alone, securing land for the long-term needs of both livestock producers and waterfowl.

DU also works closely with agricultural producers, companies, and industry groups like CropLife America (see sidebar) to improve land management and conservation practices on working farmland and provide vital habitat for waterfowl and other wildlife.

Partnering on the Prairies

The PPR, also known as the duck factory, is one of DU's top conservation  priorities. In the north-central United States, DU has been extremely active in working with private ranchers and farmers through its Grasslands for Tomorrow initiative and Farm Bill conservation programs, particularly CRP.

Large grassland and wetland complexes are key ingredients for duck production in the PPR. Prairie wetlands attract ducks in the spring and later provide brood habitat, while surrounding native grasslands and CRP lands afford crucial nesting cover. These same habitats are also essential for cattle production and form the backbone of the region's ranching industry. Accordingly, DU partners with the USFWS and ranchers to permanently protect native grassland and wetland complexes with perpetual easements. This classic partnership not only helps sustain the ranching lifestyle but also conserves our nation's best waterfowl breeding habitat. Since 1998, DU and USFWS have worked with nearly 1,960 ranchers and private landowners to secure more than 730,000 acres of grasslands and wetland complexes. Despite rising commodity prices, interest in the program remains strong, with more than 900 ranchers and private landowners currently waiting to protect their pieces of prairie heaven.

DU has also worked extensively with landowners in North Dakota and South Dakota to restore grasslands and wetlands through CRP. There are 4.2 million acres of CRP land in the Dakotas, 79 percent of which is in the PPR. The importance of CRP to nesting waterfowl cannot be overemphasized. USFWS estimates that CRP in the prairies is responsible for adding 2 million ducks to the fall flight each year. CRP is another prime example of a mutually beneficial program for ducks and prairie landowners. Besides providing abundant nesting cover for ducks and pheasants, CRP offers farmers a stable income source on former cropland that was generally unproductive. CRP grasslands also provide ranchers an emergency forage source during severe droughts and help sustain the ranching industry during these difficult times.

Jim Faulstich, who raises cattle on an 8,000-acre family ranch in the Missouri Coteau of central South Dakota, understands the value of CRP to his operation and wildlife. Faulstich strongly advocates the concept of holistic management on his ranch and says that CRP fits well with this approach.

"We have only about 160 acres enrolled in CRP, but these acres were not productive cropland and now provide a critical forage source, or grass bank, to help sustain my cattle herds during a drought," Faulstich said.

He also recognizes the importance of well-managed and diverse grasslands to prairie wildlife populations. "Wildlife is a true barometer for how well I am managing my entire ranching operation," he explains. "Wildlife populations tell me whether I am doing a good job of managing my cattle operation or whether I need to make some adjustments. CRP grasslands are different from my native pastures and help me provide a diversity of habitats that balance the needs of wildlife, particularly ducks and pheasants, on my ranch."

Agricultural Innovation in Canada

In Canada, DU has a long history of working with farmers, ranchers, and other landowners to conserve waterfowl breeding and staging habitat. As in the United States, DU in Canada has increasingly turned its attention to influencing land-use policies on a large scale. DU began talking with Canada's parliament in earnest about environmentally friendly agricultural policies in the late 1990s and presently is one of the few conservation organizations to have an official advisory role in developing Growing Forward, which established the policy vision that will serve as the underpinning for  the successor to the current Agricultural Policy Framework, the Canadian equivalent of the U.S. Farm Bill. One promising initiative is Greencover Canada, which encourages farmers to convert cultivated land to pasture or forage. The program is projected to meet its initial goal of converting 650,000 acres to perennial cover, and DU has asked the Canadian government to expand the program by 2 million acres in the future. The expanded program is increasingly important given high commodity prices that could slow unaided conversion of annual cropland to perennial cover on the Canadian landscape. DU is also working with policymakers to compensate landowners who already conserve wetlands and other native habitats through voluntary long-term agreements and to expand incentives to restore wetlands on working farms and ranches. All these efforts are part of DU's ultimate goal of entrenching environmental stewardship in Canadian agricultural policy, which would result in extensive, long-term habitat gains for breeding waterfowl, especially in the Prairie Pothole Region.

DU Canada is also working directly with agricultural producers to replace spring crops with winter wheat. Planted in fall, winter wheat provides good early nesting cover for waterfowl the following spring and is not harvested until well after hens hatch their broods. Early attempts to develop viable winter wheat strains by researchers at the University of Saskatchewan showed promise, but government funding for further development expired. DU responded with financial and technical support, contributing significantly to the development of several winter wheat hybrids. The result has been a great victory for nesting waterfowl and for wheat farmers across Prairie Canada. Early research shows excellent duck nest success in winter wheat, and a growing number of farmers are now planting the crop, which should bode well for nesting waterfowl. In fall 2007, 1.5 million acres of winter wheat were planted across Prairie Canada, and increasingly, farmers are interested in expanding their winter wheat acreage, a mutually beneficial solution for farmers and ducks, catalyzed by DU.

Conserving America's Heartland

Most waterfowlers know that agriculture is the dominant landscape feature across much of America's heartland. Many of us have spent hours lying on our backs in cornfields, hunting productive farmland for ducks and geese. Across the Midwest, DU actively works with farmers, ranchers, and other landowners who want to "farm the best, conserve the rest."

Among these enlightened landowners is Herb Metzger of northern Ohio. For several generations, the Metzger family has farmed along Lake Erie's famed Sandusky Bay, growing corn, soybeans, wheat, and fruit trees. The Lake Erie Marsh region is a key staging area for black ducks and a high priority for DU's conservation efforts. Several of Metzger's fields were once wetlands that were drained early in the century and now must be pumped frequently to produce crops. But the highly organic hydric soils produce excellent yields if the rain and moisture are just right. Recently, Metzger determined that some of the fields just weren't worth the battle, so he enrolled them in CRP, planted them in warm-season grasses, and restored wetland basins.

Response by waterfowl and other wildlife has been fantastic. One wetland has hosted a nesting pair of endangered trumpeter swans for several years, and the pair fledges young almost every year. Other nesting waterfowl include mallards, wood ducks, blue-winged teal, and Canada geese.

"Raising ducks, geese, and swans on that land has been more productive than trying to grow crops, and we get so much enjoyment from watching the wildlife," Metzger says. "Working with the Farm Bill conservation programs, Ducks Unlimited, and other organizations made the effort work smoothly and efficiently."

Safeguarding Chesapeake Bay
 Tim and Susan Brown have owned a 632-acre farm in Accomack County, Virginia, since 1994. It's located on the northern half of a peninsula that looks west across Chesapeake Bay and east across the Atlantic Ocean. Living between such vital resources for people and wildlife, the Browns felt a heightened sense of responsibility to manage their land in a way that promotes the health of these waters. With this spirit of stewardship, the Browns sought an economical yet environmentally sound solution to an ongoing problem.

"We kept experiencing low crop yields on a field that previously had been poorly drained," Tim Brown explained. So in 2005, the Browns tapped into funding from NAWCA and other partners to restore nine of their most unprofitable acres back to beneficial wetlands. Through CREP and with assistance from DU, they also planted 16 acres of warm-season grasses along Hunting Creek, creating a creek buffer and providing habitat for waterfowl and other birds. The Browns' farm now provides good income as well as significant environmental benefits, helping to safeguard the integrity of Chesapeake Bay for future generations.

Restoring Southern Wintering Grounds

In the Mississippi Alluvial Valley, Ducks Unlimited has a long and notable history of working cooperatively with farmers, ranchers, and other private landowners to restore, enhance, and protect wetlands and other wildlife habitat on their property. During the last century, millions of acres of bottomlands along the Mississippi River and its tributaries were cleared and converted to agriculture—primarily soybeans. But many fields, despite best efforts to drain them, did not reliably produce crops. Enter the Wetlands Reserve Program, created as part of the 1990 Farm Bill. WRP is a voluntary, nonregulatory, incentive-based program for working farmers, ranchers, and private landowners to restore the functions and values of wetlands on marginal croplands. Demand from southern farmers was extremely high, often outpacing available funding and labor to implement the program. So DU worked with the NRCS to help deliver WRP to landowners in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Arkansas, as well as other states in the South.

During the last 15 years, DU's Southern Regional Office (SRO) has partnered with nearly 5,000 private landowners across 14 states to enhance, restore, or protect 927,000 acres of wetland and waterfowl habitat through a variety of in-state private-land programs, the Wetlands Reserve Program, and conservation easements. SRO staff has also provided technical assistance to more than 5,500 landowners wishing to enhance or restore waterfowl habitat on approximately 3.4 million acres. The SRO's work on private land has greatly benefited wintering waterfowl, as well as waterfowl hunters.

Besides waterfowl, more than 900 other species of wildlife depend on wetlands to fulfill some portion of their life-cycle needs. One great example is the now-threatened Louisiana black bear, which historically occurred in Louisiana and Mississippi. In spring 2007, two Louisiana black bear cubs were born in the Mississippi Delta on land owned by Hunter Fordice, heralding the first documented black bear reproduction in that area in 30 years. This land was enrolled in WRP and reforested by Ducks Unlimited in 1992 and 1993.

"As a landowner, it is extremely gratifying to see the habitat restoration efforts of WRP actually coming to fruition with the birth of these black bear cubs," Fordice said. "The fact that the den site is in the middle of a WRP field is evidence that the habitat restored under this program is suitable for supporting these animals, and I am proud to be a part of their return to this area."
 Across the Mississippi River in neighboring Louisiana, four more litters of black bear cubs have been located on privately owned properties enrolled in WRP. Ducks Unlimited members can take great pride in knowing that their contributions provide crucial habitat not only for waterfowl but for many other wildlife species as well. 

California Rice and Ducks

Ducks Unlimited has partnered with the California Department of Conservation, California Department of Fish and Game, USDA's Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program, and many farmers and other landowners to protect important agricultural lands in the Sacramento Valley. When flooded during the winter, rice fields in particular provide vital wintering habitat for waterfowl and other migratory birds in a state where 95 percent of the historical wetlands have been lost to urban sprawl and agriculture. Flooded fields not only provide food and habitat for the birds, but also hunting and birdwatching opportunities for thousands of outdoorsmen and women throughout the season. Farmers also make extra income from hunting leases on these lands. And winter flooding helps rice straw decompose, eliminating the practice of burning rice straw and improving air quality in the Central Valley.

To ensure that these important wintering areas are protected in perpetuity, DU has developed a conservation easement program using state and federal funds raised for the protection of important agricultural lands. This program not only provides habitat for waterfowl and other migratory birds but also protects the Central Valley's farming culture. Protecting farmland benefits the rural economy by safeguarding the agricultural infrastructure on which farming families rely. Agricultural conservation easements protect the farming land base, which then protects other related agricultural businesses, including implement dealers, agricultural chemical sales, grain storage facilities, and more.

 Currently, Ducks Unlimited's Western Regional Office has protected more than 2,500 acres of rice agriculture in Sutter County and 1,500 acres in Butte County. These lands are most often adjacent to large tracts of federal or state wetlands and act as buffers between development and some of the best waterfowl hunting areas in the state. Ducks Unlimited is now securing five more conservation easements in the Central Valley, which will protect another 1,200 acres in 2008.

"Farm the best, conserve the rest" is more than just a slogan: It's a philosophy that must be embraced by all of society if we are to secure a future for waterfowl, clean water, a healthy environment, and a productive, sustainable agricultural economy. DU's vision statement—wetlands sufficient to fill the skies with waterfowl today, tomorrow, and forever—will not be attained without the partnership of North America's farmers, ranchers, agribusiness, and support agencies and groups. Public lands alone cannot provide enough high-quality habitat, food, water, and nesting cover to meet the needs of the continent's waterfowl. Thankfully, DU has been working closely with agriculture for decades, and many farmers and ranchers are now part of the strong conservation culture in our country. So the next time you visit a farm and ask for permission to hunt, please remember to give the landowners a big "thank you" for all they do for wildlife. 

Ducks Unlimited staff members Scott McLeod, Ross Melinchuk, Bart James, Jasper Lament, and Joe Navari also contributed to this article.