The remaining 22 million acres of native prairie in the U.S. portion of the PPR produce the majority of the fall flight from this country each year and serve as the backbone of a robust ranching industry. Unfortunately, this native prairie habitat base is being whittled away, the victim of drought-tolerant crop varieties, high commodity prices, increasing demand for food, and federal policy that encourages farming marginal cropland. The PPR has already lost 70 percent of it’s native grassland, and DU researchers have documented annual loss rates of up to 2 percent of this habitat in the heart of the “duck factory.” Two percent may not sound high, but when 1 percent of native prairie produces 25,000 ducks, it equates to 50,000 fewer ducks than the year before.
A recent study by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that South Dakota counties with high rates of native grassland conversion received crop insurance and disaster assistance payments that were at least 12 times higher than in traditionally cropped counties. The GAO report concluded that federally subsidized crop insurance and disaster payments are encouraging conversion of native prairie to marginal cropland.
Armed with this knowledge, DU joined concerned ranchers and other partners to develop and promote a “Sodsaver” provision for the Farm Bill. This provision would discourage plowing of native prairie by removing crop insurance, disaster payments, and other select subsidies from newly broken grassland across the country. Both the House and Senate included mandatory, nationwide versions of Sodsaver in their original bills. The conference report, however, adopted language that made the provision apply only to the PPR states (North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Minnesota, and Iowa) and made participation optional at the governor’s discretion. DU scientists estimate that an additional 3.3 million acres of native prairie will be lost in the next five years if the governors of these states do not opt into Sodsaver. Considered along with other provisions that encourage cultivation, this estimate is likely conservative.
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