Fueling the Migration

Ducks and the Farm Bill

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Photo © Clayton Holmes

During spring, waterfowl need high-quality wetland habitat to fuel their journey to the breeding grounds

By Tina Yerkes, Ph.D.

We've all been on those long car trips where the monotony of the highway is broken only by periodic stops for fuel. It's not very different for migrating waterfowl in spring. Like other travelers, the birds must stop frequently to refuel during their long journey north to the breeding grounds.

Spring migration is taxing, particularly for female waterfowl. The birds need an abundance of food, not only to have the energy to fly long distances but also to store extra fat that is used upon arrival on the breeding grounds. To complicate matters, the wetlands that serve as fuel stations for waterfowl are becoming increasingly scarce along the birds' migration routes. The landscape over which waterfowl travel has changed dramatically. Many areas have lost more than half their historic wetlands. In the Mississippi Flyway alone, the key migration states    of Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Missouri have lost as much as 90 percent of their wetlands. With wetland losses continuing at the rate of at least 80,000 acres a year across the United States, migrating ducks may soon be running out of gas, or at least traveling on fumes, on their way to the breeding grounds.

What kind of fuel do waterfowl need during migration? In the fall, waterfowl are focused on getting out of the way of approaching winter weather up north and generally do not make many stops. During this time, ducks consume high-energy carbohydrates like seeds and waste grain, which are plentiful on the way south.

In spring, waterfowl have one thing on their minds—returning north to breed. At some point during the spring migration, ducks shift from eating mainly carbohydrates to proteins. Initially eating seeds provided by natural wetland plants and waste grain in agricultural fields, female ducks switch to eating bugs (aquatic invertebrates) that provide the protein and minerals needed for egg production. Wetlands are the factories and storehouses for these invertebrates. Continued loss and degradation of wetlands mean less food for migrating waterfowl and other birds.

The shortage of spring migration habitat poses immense challenges for waterfowl and other migratory birds. The loss and degradation of existing wetlands must be stopped, and additional habitat must be restored along spring migration routes used by waterfowl. But relatively little is known about this phase in the annual life cycle of waterfowl and how to meet the birds' needs through landscape-level habitat restoration. DU is addressing these issues through research (see sidebar), by utilizing existing conservation provisions in the 2002 Farm Bill, and by supporting the reauthorization and expansion of these programs in the 2007 Farm Bill currently being crafted in Congress.

With the majority of North America's remaining wetlands in private ownership, cooperation with farmers and ranchers is essential to meeting the habitat needs of waterfowl in the spring and throughout the year. Farm Bill conservation programs provide much-needed federal funds to private landowners willing to restore wildlife habitat on marginal cropland. The 2002 Farm Bill has been very helpful in restoring spring migration habitat, primarily through the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP), as well as other incentive-based programs that encourage farmers and ranchers to meet environmental challenges on their lands.

WRP is a voluntary program that provides landowners with incentives  to restore and protect wetlands on marginal, flood-prone, restorable agricultural lands. From the outset, WRP has been highly popular with landowners, and the demand for enrolling land in the program has far exceeded available funding. Under WRP, landowners enroll land in 10-year, 30-year, or permanent easements. In return, they receive financial assistance in the form of easement payments and cost sharing on habitat restoration activities. Landowners continue to control access to their land, which can include hunting and fishing.

Although WRP projects have been completed in all 50 states, the majority of WRP acres are located in the Mississippi Flyway, where the need is greatest for migrating waterfowl and flood-prone land has significant recreational value. But WRP is vital to waterfowl habitat conservation in every flyway. In California, for example, where more than 60 percent of Pacific Flyway waterfowl migrate and winter, WRP enrollment recently surpassed 100,000 acres.

Restoring wetlands not only provides habitat for waterfowl and other wildlife but also benefits people through hunting and fishing opportunities and by improving water quality. Wetlands filter sediments and nutrient runoff from adjacent lands, buffer surrounding areas from floods and storm surges, and recharge aquifers that are a vital source of drinking water. Several provisions of the Farm Bill encourage landowners to reduce sediment and nutrient levels in runoff through wetland and upland habitat restoration. This is a win-win for everyone as more wetlands benefit people and provide additional food for migrating waterfowl and other wetland-dependent species.

WRP is not the only Farm Bill program that restores spring migration habitat for waterfowl. The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) encourages farmers to convert highly erodible cropland or other environmentally sensitive acreage to vegetative cover such as tame or native grasses, wildlife plantings, trees, filter strips, and riparian buffers. Farmers receive an annual rental payment for the term of the multiyear contract, and cost sharing is provided to establish vegetative cover practices. CRP practices provide habitat for wildlife populations across the nation. Most notably, CRP habitat is highly beneficial to nesting waterfowl. According to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates, increased nest success on CRP lands adds an average of 2 million ducks to the fall flight each year. CRP has multiple additional environmental benefits, including conservation of millions of tons of topsoil, reduction of runoff and sedimentation, protection of ground-water, and improved water quality in lakes, rivers, ponds, and streams. 

Two conservation practices under CRP especially relevant to migrating waterfowl in spring are "wetland restoration" (CP-23) and "shallow water areas for wildlife" (CP-9). Wetland restorations are restricted to areas that were once wetlands but have been converted to agricultural uses. Under CP-23, hydrology must be restored on former wetlands as well as an upland buffer at least three times the size of the restored wetland acreage. CP-9 entails restoring or enhancing shallow-water areas for wildlife that must hold six to 18 inches of water during the majority of the year. These are fantastic fueling stations for migrating waterfowl as they are the first wetlands to thaw and consequently the first to support invertebrates sought by feeding ducks.

Right now, the new 2007 Farm Bill is being crafted and deliberated in Congress. As this important work goes forward, DU needs your help to ensure that policymakers balance the needs of waterfowl conservation with those of farmers and ranchers. National enrollment in WRP has reached 1.5 million acres, yet landowner demand for WRP currently exceeds available funding by at least 3 to 1. At the end of 2005, the eight Great Lakes states alone had a waiting list of 1,111 WRP applications on 117,238 potential wetland acres.

To meet this demand, WRP must be reauthorized in the 2007 Farm Bill with an increased acreage cap. But that's only half the battle. Additional funding will also be required to meet the full potential of Farm Bill conservation provisions and the needs of farmers and ranchers. Under the 2002 Farm Bill, for example, WRP has received only 70 percent of the funding required to meet the program's acreage cap of 2,275,000 acres through 2007. With full funding, tens of thousands of additional acres of vital waterfowl habitat could be restored across the United States.

Ducks Unlimited and its supporters have a lot of work to do to ensure the 2007 Farm Bill is reauthorized and funded in a manner that provides significant benefits for continental waterfowl populations. This can only be achieved by supporting the national cap of CRP acres with at least 7.8 million acres targeted for the Prairie Pothole Region; maintaining a robust annual WRP allocation with an increased nationwide cap on acres; supporting a "Sodsaver" provision to remove incentives to convert native prairie to cropland; maintaining protection measures that prevent conversion of wetlands to other uses; and including wildlife conservation goals in biofuels policy development. By taking an active role in supporting these conservation programs in the next Farm Bill, you can help ensure that waterfowl will have a safe and successful journey back to their breeding grounds in coming years. 

Dr. Tina Yerkes is director of conservation planning at DU's Great Lakes/Atlantic Office in Ann Arbor, Michigan.