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Potholes in Peril

New threats to prairie wetlands could mean big trouble for duck populations
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By Jim Ringelman, Ph.D. 

In the Prairie Pothole Region, small glacially formed wetlands, known as "potholes," make a duck's world go round. These shallow, highly productive wetlands provide the invertebrate food resources hens need to produce eggs and determine how many breeding ducks the landscape can support. As a result, public policies and market forces that affect prairie potholes have huge implications for duck populations and duck hunters. 

Sadly, prairie wetlands are threatened more than ever. An unfortunate series of events has set the stage for massive wetland drainage in the heart of North America's "Duck Factory." Persistent wet weather over the past several years has created a pent-up demand for drainage. Inexpensive plastic drain tiles provide an easy way to move water off the land. Commodity prices, which are at or near all-time highs, provide a strong financial incentive to bring every acre into production. In the past, the wetland compliance provision of the Farm Bill, commonly known as Swampbuster, effectively deterred wetland drainage. 

But that deterrent is now weakening.

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