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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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Progress in Canada

Despite the BSE crisis, significant and positive progress is being made with agricultural policy in Canada. The Canadian federal government's new Agriculture Policy Framework (APF) is set up to allow producers to safeguard the environment by improving grassland management practices, thus protecting water quality and wildlife habitat while supporting their own farm interests. A key component of the APF is Greencover Canada. This is the first year of a five-year $110 million program to convert environmentally sensitive land to perennial grass cover. Other components of Greencover Canada focus on shelterbelts and technical assistance. The Canadian government consulted organizations such as Ducks Unlimited during its development.

This is a momentous first step towards assuring that as much of the Canadian prairie as possible will be sustained in permanent cover that is the most beneficial for nesting waterfowl and other wildlife.

"This program has the potential to improve wildlife habitat on more than two and a half million acres of land in the next five years. If it is well received by producers, we are hopeful that an even bigger program will be developed to follow this one," says Dr. Brian Gray, DU's director of conservation programs in Canada.

One of the most significant shifts in prairie agriculture in the United States and Canada occurred in the 1980s when farmers greatly reduced the amount of land tillage to conserve soil and water resources and to reduce the costs of cultivation. This resulted in millions of acres of unplowed stubble persisting on the land each spring. This stubble is a preferred nesting cover for pintails and is used by some other ducks. Unfortunately, new crops and cultivation systems have also moved most prairie farmers to continuous cropping, so most of this stubble cover is seeded most springs before the early nests have a chance to hatch. As a result, cultivation machinery destroys tens of thousands of nests every year. This is especially detrimental to pintails, as they are the earliest nesters. This factor alone is thought to be the driving force behind the record low numbers of pintails over the past few years.

DU has conducted research that confirms this stubble cover can be very productive for nesting waterfowl if it is seeded in the previous fall under a zero-tillage scheme. DU-supported research at the University of Saskatchewan has helped develop better strains of winter wheat for fall seeding, but there are major challenges in getting wider use of fall-seeded cereals on the prairies. In Canada, DU has adopted a goal of having winter wheat replace a majority of the 16 million acres of spring wheat that is currently planted each year. DU has developed expertise in agriculture, specifically in winter wheat production, and in developing strategies to accomplish landscape-level change. There are many hurdles, but few agricultural practices hold more promise for the future improvement of prairie agriculture for both wildlife and producers.

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