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Banding Together for Waterfowl

Gains and Losses 

While progress has been made in conserving the nation's wetlands, these vital habitats continue to decline at an alarming rate
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  • Drainage of wetlands, such as these shallow potholes in North Dakota, remains the greatest threat to healthy populations of waterfowl.
    photo by MichaelFurtman.com
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By Scott C. Yaich, Ph.D.

The status of the nation's wetlands at any particular time is just a snapshot of what is actually a dynamic state of affairs. Imagine all of the nation's wetlands represented by a bucket full of water. When the country was first settled, the bucket was full to the brim. Natural processes resulted in a few wetlands being gained (like water added to the top of the bucket) and a few being lost (through leaks in the bottom of the bucket). There were an estimated 221 million acres of wetlands in the lower 48 states in the 1780s, and gains and losses largely balanced out.

As settlement moved westward, however, things changed rapidly, and leaks sprang in the bottom of the bucket as more and more wetlands were drained. This was an era when great expanses of wetlands impeded travel, mosquito-borne illnesses were life threatening, and wetlands in many areas could be turned into productive farmland. In those days, wetland drainage was viewed as a good thing, and no one was interested in restoring wetlands. So our national bucket of wetlands lost considerable volume during the 19th century.

Fast-forward to the early 1900s. Declines in waterfowl populations noticed by duck hunters were among the first signs of trouble, and conservationists began to express alarm about the loss of wetlands. 

President Theodore Roosevelt responded by initiating a system of national wildlife refuges to protect important wetland habitats for waterfowl and other birds. Management and restoration of some of these refuges were likely the first additions to the national wetlands bucket. But the bucket was still leaking much faster than it was being replenished.

By 1937 millions of acres of prairie wetlands had been drained. At the same time, drought gripped the nation, loose soil roiled into dust storms, and waterfowl populations plummeted. Against this backdrop, a few duck hunters and conservationists came together to address wetland loss and declining waterfowl populations, and they formed Ducks Unlimited. Throughout the past 75 years, DU has been dedicated to conserving wetlands, first in Canada and later in Mexico and the United States as well.

Unless we can slow ongoing wetland losses, we simply won't be able to restore wetlands fast enough to make up the difference, and waterfowl will suffer the consequences.

Appreciation of wetland values grew beyond hunters and conservationists during the environmental movement of the 1970s. Conservation science demonstrated that wetlands not only provide important habitat for fish and wildlife, but also enhance water quality, recharge aquifers that supply irrigation and municipal water, and reduce flooding. Based on this science, Congress in 1972 passed the Clean Water Act (CWA). This landmark legislation likely did more to protect wetlands than any other single action in the 20th century, demonstrating the vital importance of public policy to wetlands and waterfowl hunters (see sidebar on next page).     

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