by Scott Stephens, Ph.D.
As I bumped along a dusty gravel road in central South Dakota, I checked my map for the next red-outlined square. With the public radio station as my only companion, I was recording the location of remaining native grassland in this sparsely populated portion of the Missouri Coteau. As I approached the next tract of grassland, I noticed a dark plume of smoke rising from one corner of the section. Driving closer, I could see that the source of the smoke was a large four-wheel-drive tractor, and it was plowing under the native prairie.
Although I had spoken to groups and written many times about the recent increase in prairie loss across the Dakotas, I was not prepared for the visceral reaction I had while witnessing the destruction firsthand. Many thoughts and emotions surfaced as I watched the little bluestem and buffalo grass turned under to expose the gray dirt beneath. One thought I could not shake was that pintails returning here would find their ancestral nesting area gone. Thousands of generations of pintails had likely returned to this very patch of prairie to nest and raise their young since glaciers created these wetland-rich grasslands over 10,000 years ago.
The destruction of this irreplaceable ecosystem is tragic, and unfortunately, it is escalating. What I witnessed occurs each year across tens of thousands of acres in the Dakotas. Sadly, the loss of these prairie grasslands, and the wetlands within them, will be devastating to duck populations, sportsmen, and businesses related to waterfowling.