By Jim Ringelman, Ph.D., and Scott Stephens, Ph.D.
If you live in or have visited the Prairie Pothole Region recently, you have no doubt witnessed how quickly the landscape is changing. And if you haven't visited the Duck Factory lately, well, there is reason for concern. In Prairie Canada, cropland that had been planted back to grass for cattle forage is once again seeing the plow. In the United States, Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) grasslands are also returning to cropland on a grand scale, and corn and soybeans now dominate in areas where prairie was once plentiful. On both sides of the border, large numbers of wetlands are being drained or degraded. And while the economics of farming are looking bright, one can't help but wonder how these changes will affect waterfowl populations.
Ducks Unlimited believes that sustainable agriculture and wildlife can co-exist if we work together. That philosophy is the underpinning of DU's new Preserve Our Prairies Initiative, an international effort that refocuses DU's conservation work across North America's pothole country. It's also a clear acknowledgment that ducks don't recognize international borders. To meet our objectives, neither should DU's conservation programs.
In fact, many of the challenges facing waterfowl and their habitats are the same in both the United States and Canada. Highly profitable crops like corn and soybeans have expanded northward into the Duck Factory, thanks to improved crop genetics and agronomic practices. These new crops compete for land formerly used to grow other commodities, which in turn drives up the cost of all land. This creates a strong incentive to convert grasslands and wetlands to more cropland. Clearly, cooperation with the agricultural community will be essential to providing a secure future for waterfowl and their habitats on the prairies. Fortunately, DU has a long history of partnering with farmers and ranchers to achieve common goals.
Working with Agriculture for Waterfowl
Across the Prairie Pothole Region, maintaining grassland and wetland habitat requires a healthy livestock sector, as ranching is the economic basis for grassland's existence on the landscape. DU biologists work closely with ranchers to help them remain economically competitive and to keep pastureland and wetlands intact. Cattle prices are currently strong in both the United States and Canada, yet in some areas of the Duck Factory, the ranching industry is being squeezed by grassland loss. When ranchers can no longer find sufficient pasture to support enough cattle to sustain their livelihood, the remaining grassland often goes up for sale and is quickly converted to cropland. That's bad news for ducks, which depend on grassland for nesting cover and wetlands for pair and brood habitat.
DU also works with prairie farmers to improve waterfowl breeding habitat conditions on cultivated landscapes. For example, successful farmers know that rotating crops from year to year minimizes disease problems and increases soil health. Winter wheat, which is a duck-friendly crop because it provides undisturbed nesting habitat in the spring, fits nicely into crop rotations on the prairies. DU agronomists provide technical expertise to help farmers produce a successful winter wheat crop, and work with university researchers and corporate partners to develop strains of winter wheat that will thrive on the northern prairies and command a high return at the grain elevator. Moreover, DU is working with farmers to secure wetland easements on cultivated landscapes. These agreements compensate landowners for preserving seasonal wetland basins embedded in cropland, while also allowing cultivation to occur when these shallow basins are naturally dry.
In certain situations, the best way for DU to protect wetland-rich agricultural land is to purchase the property outright. In these cases, DU borrows from a revolving fund to purchase the property, conducts any needed habitat restorations, permanently protects the habitat with easements, and then resells the land to someone who is willing to abide by the terms of the easement. The buyer is usually a rancher who is seeking pasture for his cattle or a recreational landowner who will manage the habitat for wildlife. Both types of buyers retain the vital habitat needed by breeding ducks. After the transaction is completed, the proceeds from the sale return to the revolving fund, ready to be used for another acquisition of crucial waterfowl habitat.
Conserving Habitat through Public Policy
Public policies that protect and restore grasslands and wetlands are important to waterfowl on both sides of the border. In the United States, incentive-based Farm Bill conservation programs like CRP and its cousin, the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP), remain popular with landowners, provided that these programs are economically competitive with other land uses. That's why DU is employing Farm Bill biologists in the United States to help landowners understand their options and walk them through the application process for these programs. The result is that millions of dollars that would otherwise revert to the federal treasury are now being utilized to conserve waterfowl habitat on the prairies. Funding for these important DU staff positions is cost-shared by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and our state agency partners.
In Canada, DU is working to achieve effective wetland conservation policies at the provincial level, where the jurisdiction for wetland regulation rests. Currently, rampant wetland drainage in Prairie Canada is taking a significant toll on waterfowl habitat, downstream water quality, and communities that are vulnerable to flooding. As a result, DU Canada is focused on improving wetland policies for the benefit of waterfowl and people.
In this era of fiscal austerity, building a broader base of support for wetlands and waterfowl conservation is more important than ever. The need to influence public opinion will require DU to clearly and effectively communicate not only with our core supporters and partners, but also with new potential advocates of wetlands conservation. To be successful, we must demonstrate how our work benefits everyone by supporting healthy wildlife populations, reducing flooding, providing clean water, sustaining aquifers, and much more.
Expanding our understanding of the "ecological goods and services" that wetlands and grasslands provide society is essential to this effort. For example, DU Canada recently spearheaded watershed research in Manitoba and Saskatchewan that is demonstrating a cause-and-effect relationship between wetland drainage and downstream flooding and degraded water quality. These findings are helping to shape wetland policies in Prairie Canada, particularly as vexing problems like flooding and massive algal blooms in Lake Winnipeg are front page news. Similarly, in the United States, DU is actively exploring the sale of carbon offset credits as a way to help pay for grassland easements that protect native prairie. In this case, the same easements that save nesting habitat for ducks also ensure that the organic carbon stored in the soil under 10,000-year-old native prairie remains there for another 10,000 years.