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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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The productive prairie

Duck hunters have been core supporters of DU and of federal programs benefiting the prairies. The federal duck stamp program, which was created in 1934, has resulted in more than 5.4 million acres of critical wetland habitat being conserved. The majority (approximately 55 percent) of these acres have been in Waterfowl Production Areas, 95 percent of which are in the prairie pothole states. The remainder of the habitat that has been conserved by the duck stamp program has been wetland and related upland habitat in national wildlife refuges in other parts of the country. This inventory and legacy of conservation continues to grow each year and clearly demonstrates what can be accomplished when well thought-out programs to protect habitat are maintained. On top of these accomplishments, Ducks Unlimited expanded its breeding grounds work from Canada into the U.S. prairie pothole states in 1984, and has since conserved more than 600,000 acres of wetland and upland habitat in these prairie states.

Canada and the United States share the largest undefended border between any two countries in the world. They also share the entire prairie pothole habitat on the continent. However, many of the similarities stop there as the history of resource use, government policy, farm practices, and rural economic development has matured under very different political and economic circumstances in each country.

Ducks Unlimited in Canada worked exclusively on the Canadian prairies for the first 30 years of its existence. To this day, DU's Canadian operations allocate nearly 70 percent of conservation expenditures to the Canadian Prairie Provinces. As a result, 5,500 DU projects on the prairies have conserved 3.5 million acres of waterfowl habitat in Canada. In some waterfowl-important regions of Canada's prairies, DU has protected most, or portions of, all the major wetlands. This is an enormous legacy to the millions of DU supporters and the 16,000 Canadian landowners who own the land that they have enrolled with DU. This is a large portion of the habitat infrastructure that has been secured for waterfowl in the prairies of Canada, inasmuch as there is no Canadian counterpart to the government-managed wildlife areas in the United States.

About 15 years ago, DU Canada hit a crossroads with the realization that the magnificent wetland legacy it had accumulated was not enough. Historically, wetland loss had posed the greatest threat to waterfowl populations in Canada. However, it had become clear that the new threat was loss of upland nesting cover and reductions in waterfowl nest success rates. DU refined its focus to include entire landscapes of habitat, not just the wetlands. Landscapes with the highest densities of wetlands and the highest production potential have been the focus of this work.

Despite the new focus and the near complete redirection of effort, much remains to be accomplished in prairie Canada for the long-term future of prairie ducks. And, a basic fact of life in prairie Canada is that it is mostly excellent farmland—and it will continue to be farmed. As such, waterfowl conservation must be directed towards farming practices that are beneficial to waterfowl and encourage agricultural policies that make it beneficial to landowners to remove some parts of the land from cultivation or to simply farm it differently. A CRP-type program that encourages farming practices that are more beneficial to waterfowl is needed in Canada.

The good news is, large tracts of the Canadian landscape are still in native grasslands, and these are typically good areas for waterfowl production. Fortunately, because of a collection of economic and political forces in the last few years, a significant number of Canadian farmers have switched to cattle production and have converted land back into pasture and forage. This is a positive turn of events, as it is driven by market factors that are widespread and are more sustainable. However, an unexpected problem has emerged. Last spring, a single cow in Alberta was diagnosed with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), also known as Mad Cow Disease. The outbreak was quickly dealt with and confined to the single animal. Nevertheless, Canada's beef was immediately banned from many world markets, most importantly the United States and Japan, and it is still banned as this is written. This change threatens the progress being made towards increasing the more duck-friendly acreages of pastureland in western Canada as, with severely reduced movement of cattle across international borders, farmers have much less incentive to switch from raising crops to raising cattle.

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