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Measuring Conservation Success

How do current waterfowl populations and habitat levels stack up against the goals of the North American Waterfowl Management Plan?
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Canadian Prairie Pothole Region

While land use on the Canadian prairies has improved for waterfowl since 1986, the region is still unable to support 1970s duck populations during periods of average precipitation. Today, the Canadian PPR hatches about 7 percent fewer nests than it did in 1971. Encouragingly, grasslands have been restored on 6 million acres in Prairie Canada since 1986, when NAWMP was signed, resulting in important gains of critical nesting cover. Most of this cropland was converted to hay land or pasture in response to improved market forces that favor cattle production. While native grasslands were lost during this period, the overall change in nesting cover appears to have  positively affected the number of hatched nests.

The main culprit is wetland loss. Some large regions of the prairies have lost nearly 8 percent of their wetlands since 1971 with the rate of loss continuing during the past 20 years. As a result, the Canadian duck factory can support fewer breeding pairs under similar moisture conditions than it did 35 years ago, and habitat gains achieved during the past 20 years by NAWMP have been largely offset by wetland loss on unprotected lands. 

Although the Canadian Prairie Habitat Joint Venture has permanently secured nearly 500,000 acres of excellent habitat, the joint venture has long recognized that land acquisition programs alone will not achieve NAWMP population goals, even with increased funding. The region is simply too vast. Large set-aside programs like CRP are also unlikely because the Canadian tax base is too small to support such a subsidy program, and there is little interest in the agricultural community for removing large amounts of land from production. Nevertheless, Agriculture Canada’s new Greencover program has made some progress in this area, and new wetland conservation policies are presently being developed in each Canadian province.

The solution to the Canadian duck problem appears to lie mainly in policy initiatives that can produce positive changes across large landscapes. First and foremost are efforts to increase protection for wetlands. We stand little chance of returning to 1970s populations (the NAWMP goal) if we cannot halt wetland loss. Programs that restore lost wetlands, especially small shallow basins, are also needed. In addition, perennial upland cover must be maintained and restored where possible.

Recent changes in Canada’s Agricultural Policy Framework (the country’s “farm bill”) are encouraging. There is growing awareness that landowners who maintain wetland and upland habitats provide society with real benefits beyond wildlife habitat and that these landowners should be rewarded in some tangible way. The Prairie Habitat Joint Venture is working to make such programs possible and has already had success in developing conservation easement legislation that was formerly lacking for Canada. The Prairie Habitat Joint Venture has also helped researchers develop crop alternatives like cold-hardy winter wheat that can provide extensive tracts of spring nesting cover, which has been shown to significantly increase duck production. The Canadian PPR is largely in private ownership, and conservation solutions are being pursued vigorously in concert with farmers and ranchers.

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