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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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Farm Bill threats

The waterfowl conservation community was happy with the passage of the 2002 Farm Bill, as it contained several important provisions that promise great benefits for waterfowl and other wildlife. But, the devil is in the details.

The 2002 Farm Bill also contained commodity subsidies for grain producers. Those subsidies have prompted some speculators to purchase native prairie ranchlands (which contain grasslands vital to nesting waterfowl) and convert them to crops. New strains of wheat and soybeans can now be seeded directly into prairie soils at relatively low cost. This allows some new landowners to, in effect, "farm the Farm Bill," because these crops qualify for subsidies paid to growers based on acres planted and guaranteed base prices. Once converted to cropland, however, the former grasslands can never again be returned to their native state with the full complement of plants and wildlife species. Their loss is permanent.

Waterfowl biologists credit much of the last decade's duck population recovery to production on the U.S. portion of the prairies. Most people feel the driving force was the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which, since its inception, has returned more than 10 million acres of cropland to better nesting habitat. Where CRP covers the landscape, waterfowl nest success is much better than in areas where habitat is fragmented.

However, a second surprise in the 2002 Farm Bill is in the regulations that determine which landowners can receive CRP payments. CRP is the most important U.S. program affecting duck production on the prairies. Nonetheless, in the recent sign-up of new CRP contracts, almost none of the acres were awarded to the prairie pothole states. The bulk of the new contracts are going to provide habitat buffers along streams and the edges of fields outside the PPR. Habitat buffers are good environmental practices, but they don't benefit nesting prairie waterfowl. In 2003, the total new enrollment in the PPR dramatically decreased from annual levels over the past 15 years. (In fact, in 2003 only 57,000 acres were enrolled in CRP in North and South Dakota, compared to a peak enrollment of 2.8 million acres a few years ago.) Correcting this change by regulators will require diligence and another campaign by duck hunters and others who have an abiding interest in the prairies and all the wildlife that its wetlands and grasslands provide.

Quietly in the background, yet another battle over CRP in the prairies is being sorted out. This time, the issue is the frequency of allowable management by grazing, burning, or haying of the cover on CRP fields. One emerging formula allows management every three years, which is good for quail in some regions but results in lost waterfowl habitat every three years. Prairie grasses do not need to be managed that frequently, so DU and its partners are heavily engaged with the Farm Services Agency to help develop rules that allow a more beneficial management schedule on prairie CRP fields.

Ducks Unlimited, other conservation groups, and public agencies have focused their waterfowl conservation efforts in the PPR for more than 60 years. Many substantial accomplishments have resulted from those efforts. The most significant evidence of those accomplishment is the dramatic recovery of the birds during the mid- and late 1990s, when duck numbers increased by a remarkable 69 percent from their low in 1993.

That recovery was possible because, as changed as the prairies appear to the human eye, enough underlying productivity of the land remains to allow the birds to multiply when good water conditions return following dry periods. Ducks Unlimited's fundamental philosophy regarding these landscapes is to aggressively restore, manage, and protect the habitat, through wet and dry years, so that when water conditions allow, the birds will be highly productive once again.

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