U.S. Prairie Pothole Region
For nine straight years between 1994 and 2002, breeding duck populations met or exceeded the plan’s objectives for the U.S. prairies. None of this was lost on members of the Prairie Pothole Joint Venture. They recognized that the region was capable of meeting NAWMP goals in its current state. The table was already set; the challenge would be to maintain it.
Heavy rain and snow, CRP, and the efforts of Prairie Pothole Joint Venture partners all contributed to the duck boom. In hindsight, wetland protection in the years before the boom had been especially critical. Swampbuster (a Farm Bill program that discourages wetland drainage), wetland easement programs, and the Clean Water Act had maintained wetland basins capable of attracting large numbers of breeding waterfowl when water returned to landscapes enriched by new expanses of nesting cover.
But there are serious challenges ahead. More than 5 million acres of CRP on the U.S. prairies will expire between 2007 and 2010. Nearly 2.8 million acres will expire in 2007 alone. While some of these acres will be re-enrolled, even partial loss of CRP will reduce the upland cover that helped fuel the duck recovery on the U.S. prairies. Alarmingly, during a time when CRP converted 8 million acres of cropland to cover, nearly 3 million acres of native grassland were converted to cropland. Thus, NAWMP programs in the absence of CRP were not able to maintain pre-1986 conditions, let alone realize net gains in upland cover. Finally, Supreme Court decisions regarding the Clean Water Act have reduced federal protection for prairie potholes, leaving Swampbuster as the primary defense against drainage. Moreover, Swampbuster is merely a provision of the Farm Bill, not a law, and it has been repeatedly challenged.
While CRP was not a product of NAWMP, plan partners have worked tirelessly over the past 20 years to see it maintained and targeted toward duck country. The outright loss of CRP would make it extremely difficult to meet the plan’s objectives for the U.S. prairies. In recognition of this, the Prairie Pothole Joint Venture has increased its protection goals to include 10 million acres of grasslands and 1.4 million acres of wetlands, most of which would be accomplished using conservation easements. While this is a fivefold increase over the joint venture’s original habitat objectives, achieving it will help ensure that the U.S. Prairie Pothole Region can permanently support the duck numbers envisioned by NAWMP, even if support for CRP falters.