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Prairies Under Siege: New Threats to Ducks & Waterfowling

North America's Prairie Pothole Region is facing the greatest potential loss of habitat in decades
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  • photo by Jim Ringelman
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by Bruce Batt, former DU chief biologist

Wetland protection is at a critical juncture in North America. The United States and Canada have already lost 70 percent of their prairie wetlands. Despite the habitat conservation gains made with duck hunter investments over the past 60 years or more, new, unexpected forces and changes threaten much of the remaining waterfowl habitat. What's at risk? The most productive wetlands and grassland nesting areas still found in both countries, especially in their prairie regions.

In the United States, damaging changes have occurred as a result of a U.S. Supreme Court decision in January 2001 in the case of Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, commonly referred to as the SWANCC decision (details at http://www.ducks.org/conservation/404_report.asp). To summarize, the SWANCC decision disallowed the use of the so-called "migratory bird rule" to extend protection to many isolated wetlands that are important to waterfowl and other birds. Thus, federal protection was severely threatened for prairie potholes that have been under jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act (CWA) since 1972. Ducks Unlimited authored a technical analysis of the potential impact of the loss of CWA protection for isolated wetlands and concluded that most of the remaining wetlands in the Prairie Pothole Region (PPR) were at great risk.

With more than two-thirds of the prairie's wetlands already lost, the remaining basins are critical to future waterfowl production. The PPR produces 75 percent of the annual fall flight of some species of waterfowl. And the potential damage extended beyond the PPR, as there are isolated wetland systems in other regions of the country that are critical to waterfowl at other times of the year.

Sportsmen have anxiously awaited a decision from the Bush administration on how the Corps of Engineers and Environmental Protection Agency would implement the Supreme Court's decision. DU provided comprehensive comments and suggestions that entirely new rules were not needed and that that process could actually weaken current protection for wetlands in the United States (see http://www.ducks.org/news/DUcomments.PDF). In early November, draft materials were leaked indicating that possible rules were going to remove protection from most isolated wetlands as well as other waters throughout the United States. With this dark cloud on the horizon, DU was delighted when President Bush, on December 16, instructed the agencies to abandon new rule making. DU was also pleased that he reaffirmed his commitment to achieve a "no net loss of wetlands" under his administration.

"We applaud the administration's wetland-protection decision," said DU Executive Vice President Don Young. But we must remain vigilant. Since the SWANCC decision in 2001, regulatory authority guidance has allowed many wetland acres to be lost. Furthermore, there are still some outstanding issues, including pending cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, regarding isolated wetlands and the Clean Water Act. Therefore, DU will continue to devote time and attention to the topic in an effort to conserve and protect this country's critical wetland resources.

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