Preserving Native Prairie
Waterfowl need a combination of secure upland nesting cover and wetlands to successfully nest and raise their broods. Native prairie provides the ideal mix of these habitats
, supporting millions of breeding waterfowl across the northern Great Plains. Native grasslands are also essential for livestock and forage production on the prairies. Maintaining a healthy livestock sector is vital to the future of waterfowl and their habitats in the PPR, as ranchers manage much of the most important waterfowl breeding habitat in this region.
In recent years, federal policies, improved farming technologies, and other economic drivers have fueled large-scale conversion of native prairie across the Great Plains. During 2006−2011, the Dakotas, Minnesota
, and Nebraska
suffered a net loss of 1.3 million acres of grasslands—a rate and scale not seen since the Dust Bowl era. In the PPR, grassland loss has exceeded the rate of protection by 500 to 600 percent. Widespread conversion of native prairie is harmful not only to waterfowl and other wildlife, but also to livestock producers, who in many areas of the PPR are dependent on native rangelands to sustain their herds.
Thankfully, the 2014 Farm Bill provides much-needed relief to native grassland habitats on the northern Great Plains. The new law includes a stronger Sodsaver
provision, which creates a federal disincentive for converting native prairie to cropland. While Sodsaver does not prohibit producers from breaking new land, it ensures that they do so at their own financial risk, and not at the taxpayer's expense. Under the new law, farmers who plow native sod will see their crop insurance premium subsidies reduced by 50 percentage points during the first four years of production on newly converted lands. This provision also prohibits landowners from applying yield performance from more productive acres in their operations to less productive newly broken lands. Bringing this often marginally productive land into production provides little benefit to taxpayers, increases soil erosion and nutrient loss, and ultimately leads to reduced water quality, increased flooding, and the loss of valuable wildlife habitat.
Unlike the 2008 Farm Bill, which created a PPR-only Sodsaver program that required each state's governor to "opt in" to the program (none of them did), the new law is mandatory; there is no opt-in requirement. Furthermore, the new law includes the entire states—not just the PPR portion—of North Dakota
, South Dakota
, Iowa, Minnesota, and Nebraska. If the risk of growing crops on recently plowed native prairie is not underwritten by taxpayer-subsidized crop insurance and disaster assistance programs, much of this land may never be cultivated. This will help slow the loss of crucial waterfowl breeding habitat across the nation's Duck Factory.