DU and its partners also work with prairie farmers to convert marginal croplands to grass cover, typically for hay production or cattle grazing. During the past decade, an increasing trend in forage production has produced a net gain in grassland acres across southern Saskatchewan, the continent’s most important pintail breeding area. A two-year study conducted by DU and the Saskatchewan Wetland Conservation Corporation found that pintails hatched an average of one nest in every 142 acres of hay land—nearly 10 times the hatch rate observed in spring-seeded croplands.
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In areas of the prairies where large tracts of native prairie and wetlands remain intact—typically on grazing lands—DU is working to permanently protect highly productive waterfowl habitats that are threatened with conversion to cropland. In North and South Dakota, DU and the USFWS have permanently protected 570,000 acres of vital waterfowl habitat by purchasing wetland and grassland easements from private landowners. The ranching community has embraced these easements—in which landowners receive a one-time payment in return for granting permanent protection to wetlands and grasslands on their property—as a means of protecting their way of life. Unfortunately, the demand for easements far exceeds available funding. In July 2005, more than 580 farmers and ranchers were on waiting lists for easement evaluations on nearly 290,000 acres of grassland. DU and its partners are striving to raise the more than $47 million in public and private funding that will be required to protect this vital habitat for breeding pintails and other waterfowl.
DU also protects remaining tracts of native prairie by accepting donated conservation easements from private landowners and by purchasing select properties threatened with imminent development. A prime example is the 960-acre Cowan tract in South Dakota bought this summer by DU and the USFWS. This extensive tract of native prairie, which supports from 80 to 100 pairs of nesting ducks per square mile in wet years, would have been broken up and converted to cropland if DU had not provided vital emergency funding to save it. Located adjacent to an existing 1,441-acre waterfowl production area, the Cowan tract is especially productive habitat for breeding pintails because its flat topography contains numerous shallow wetland basins that regularly attract large numbers of breeding pairs.