Science in Action

DU's conservation work is guided by cutting-edge research and high-tech tools

By Dale James, Ph.D., and Mike Brasher, Ph.D.
The mission of Ducks Unlimited is to conserve, restore, and manage wetlands and associated habitats for North America's waterfowl. Accomplishing this mission requires a thorough understanding of the ecology of waterfowl and the ecosystems that support them. DU biologists and other scientists work together to incorporate knowledge gained from the latest research into DU's on-the-ground conservation work and public-policy initiatives. This is the scientific foundation on which Ducks Unlimited was built, and the reason DU remains the world's most credible and trusted wetlands and waterfowl conservation organization.

Science aids in implementing effective, sustainable, and adaptive conservation strategies and ensures that the most efficient and cost-effective habitat-delivery programs are implemented in the highest-priority regions. Important information can be derived from what we normally think of as traditional waterfowl science, or research that enhances our knowledge of waterfowl ecology. It can also involve the application of new technologies such as Geographic Information Systems (GIS), remote sensing, and modeling techniques that allow DU and its partners to monitor and evaluate the status of waterfowl populations and the habitats they use throughout their annual cycle. In addition, DU scientists develop decision-support tools that help prioritize and guide habitat-delivery programs, and provide scientific analysis and expert testimony to policymakers in support of wetlands and waterfowl conservation. Collaboration and partnership with researchers in government agencies and universities is often essential to developing the science-based information necessary to guide waterfowl-management decisions. Let's take a closer look at how science actively supports DU's habitat conservation programs and helps ensure that we achieve the greatest return on our investments for waterfowl.   

Understanding Waterfowl and Their Habitats

Waterfowl are among the most studied wildlife in the world. Early pioneers in waterfowl science such as Alexander Wetmore and Frederick Lincoln played a key role in research focused on issues ranging from waterfowl diseases to population surveys. These efforts helped lay the foundation and build support for the use of nontoxic shot and the flyway system of waterfowl management. Understanding the ecology of waterfowl species, including the habitats they use during the breeding, migration, and wintering periods; the foods they eat; and other factors such as nest success, survival rates, and harvests, is essential to DU's conservation work. While considerable research has already been conducted on waterfowl, many uncertainties remain, and DU researchers continue to play an important role in addressing knowledge gaps about ducks and geese at the basic ecological level.

Researchers have also studied waterfowl habitats across virtually all of North America's landscapes. Among the continent's most important waterfowl habitats are prairie wetlands and grasslands, bottomland hardwood forests, coastal marshes, playa lakes, rainwater basins, Boreal wetlands, and rice fields and other waterfowl-friendly agricultural lands. Unfortunately, many of these vital habitats are endangered by development, land-use changes, coastal erosion, wetland drainage, and other threats.

Because the landscapes that support North America's waterfowl are constantly changing, DU conservation planners use geospatial technologies and satellite imagery to monitor and evaluate habitat conditions over time. Examples of these efforts include periodic inventories of forested wetlands in the Mississippi Alluvial Valley and wetlands along the Gulf Coast. This information is used by DU scientists to create conservation-planning models and to assess the state of important landscapes and their ability to support continental waterfowl populations.

Guiding Habitat Conservation Programs

Our ability to sustain North America's waterfowl populations at healthy levels depends fundamentally on the protection, restoration, and management of abundant high-quality wetlands and associated upland habitats. Given that funding for waterfowl habitat conservation is limited, DU must invest its resources wisely to ensure that its expenditures achieve the greatest possible benefits for the birds. This requires a thorough understanding not only of the value of existing waterfowl habitats, but also of how these habitats can be enhanced through specific management activities.

On the breeding grounds, Ducks Unlimited has worked extensively with research partners to document how waterfowl production is influenced by breeding habitat conditions. In recent years, research on the wintering grounds has focused largely on understanding how and why food abundance varies among different habitat types, and how it may affect habitat use by waterfowl. Collectively, these results help DU determine how much and what types of habitats are needed to support healthy waterfowl populations throughout their annual cycle. 

Through its habitat-delivery programs, DU employs a range of techniques to restore wetland functions and productivity on public lands, while also providing technical assistance to private landowners who wish to enhance wetlands on their property. Although past research provides the scientific foundation for these techniques and recommendations, additional monitoring and evaluation of DU's habitat work is required to ensure that conservation investments continue to benefit waterfowl habitats and populations as intended. Examples of DU's research and evaluation efforts include experiments conducted at various locations across North America that demonstrated how seasonal manipulation of vegetation and water levels can increase waterfowl food production in managed wetlands; studies on the Atlantic Coast that assessed the effectiveness of saltmarsh restoration techniques; and large-scale investigations on the breeding grounds that evaluated the effectiveness of grassland protection and restoration programs in improving duck nest success, hen survival, and brood survival. While investigations that confirm the effectiveness of conservation and management actions are reassuring, studies that reveal less-than-desirable results are often the most valuable, because they provide the impetus for modifying conservation actions or redirecting resources in ways that will achieve better outcomes for waterfowl. 

Of the many factors that can determine the effectiveness of conservation activities, location and the proximity of waterfowl habitats to each other are among the most important. For example, DU research has demonstrated that duck nest success is influenced by the amount of grassland on the surrounding landscape. Other studies have found that the distance between foraging and roosting habitats can influence the amount of energy used each day by wintering waterfowl, which may affect their ability to acquire fat for the upcoming spring migration and breeding season. The development of advanced computing technologies and widespread availability of geospatial data, such as land-cover classifications and satellite imagery, have enabled DU to develop decision-support tools to identify areas on the landscape where conservation activities will provide the greatest benefits to waterfowl (see sidebar). DU has invested heavily in the development and application of these science-based tools, which have greatly increased the efficiency and effectiveness of DU's on-the-ground habitat conservation programs across this continent. 

Influencing Public-Policy Decisions

Today, waterfowl and their habitats are increasingly affected by public-policy decisions that impact waterfowl and their habitats at scales that far exceed DU's ability to address them through direct habitat delivery alone. In these cases, policy-based solutions are often the best alternative, and this is likely where science has its greatest value to waterfowl conservation. DU relies heavily on objective science to inform policymakers about how proposed legislation and regulations may affect waterfowl populations, and to ensure that the habitat needs of waterfowl are explicitly considered when important policy decisions are made. DU's application of science in the public-policy arena sometimes consists of simply summarizing available information into clear and concise communications, while in other cases DU conducts multiyear studies to fully explore and develop a clear understanding of a particular issue of great importance to waterfowl. For example, DU scientists have compiled a wealth of data about the ecological goods and services provided by wetlands to help ensure that wetland-regulation policies are guided by the best available science. DU is also conducting field-based investigations on the effects of wind energy and oil and gas development on duck production in North Dakota, and is using bioenergetics models in Texas and California to demonstrate the importance of securing reliable water supplies for rice agriculture and the crucial foraging habitat these agricultural lands provide for wintering waterfowl.

Continentally, DU is pursuing a three-tiered approach in which science, public policy, and direct habitat delivery programs are used to achieve lasting progress in sustaining healthy wetlands and waterfowl populations on ever-changing landscapes. DU's scientific foundation is what gives the organization credibility as the "leader in wetlands and waterfowl conservation" as well as considerable clout among policymakers and the general public. Clearly, continued investments in research and analytical work are essential to develop and support public policies that benefit waterfowl and to ensure that DU's habitat-delivery decisions are always made with the best available science in mind.

Sustaining current scientific capabilities and capacity, as well as educating and training the next generation of waterfowl scientists, will be crucial to the future success of DU's wetlands and waterfowl conservation work.

Based in Ridgeland, Mississippi, Dr. Dale James is manager of conservation planning in DU's Southern Region. Dr. Mike Brasher is biological team leader for the Gulf Coast Joint Venture, based in Lafayette, Louisiana.

Location, Location, Location

The idea that location is an important consideration in determining the value of a certain property is as true in waterfowl conservation as it is in real estate or any other business. The only difference is that in DU's work, value is measured in terms of the benefits derived by waterfowl populations rather than financial gain. The recent convergence of new scientific disciplines, advanced computing capabilities, and diverse spatial datasets have allowed scientists to better understand how the location of habitats and their proximity to each other influence their productivity for waterfowl. With this knowledge, it becomes possible to develop maps that provide important guidance on where conservation dollars should be spent to achieve the greatest "biological" return on DU's investment. Formally referred to as "spatially-explicit decision support tools," these maps often take the appearance of multicolored thunderstorm radar signatures (hence their nickname, "thunderstorm maps"). More intense colors indicate greater biological value of existing habitats or proposed conservation actions.  

Perhaps the most well-known application of these tools in DU's conservation work are maps that predict densities of breeding ducks across the Prairie Pothole Region based on the amount and distribution of important grasslands and wetlands. When combined with estimates of conservation costs and risks of habitat conversion, which also vary across the landscape, these techniques provide invaluable guidance on where to target grassland and wetland restoration or protection efforts. The ability to identify "hotspots" of potential biological value has not only allowed DU to take a more strategic approach to its conservation investments on the prairies, but has also influenced other large-scale conservation programs, such as those included in the U.S. Farm Bill. Grounded in science and culminating in products that are easy to understand, these techniques will continue to play a key role in DU's conservation activities for years to come.