Keeping the table set
To understand DU's philosophy about prairie conservation, one must first recognize the most unique feature of the prairies: their dynamic environment. Floods and drought. Extreme heat and bitter cold. Occasional fires and gusty winds. The prairie ecosystem has not only evolved under these dynamic conditions, it requires them to maintain its productivity. Waterfowl have adapted to this variability by capitalizing on the fertility of reflooded prairie wetlands when good times prevail, and abandoning the region in times of drought. During the 50 years that biologists have tracked continental breeding populations, we have witnessed three peaks in duck populations, and two valleys. Each event coincided with times of wetland abundance or scarcity. Thus far, the pattern has been remarkably cyclic. Valleys of about 23 million ducks, peaks of roughly 40 million, and an average breeding population index of about 31 million birds. How can effective conservation programs be implemented in such a dynamic environment? By taking the long view of prairie conservation.
The long view acknowledges that duck populations will naturally build and decline as an inevitable consequence of wet periods and drought. No human intervention can change this reality. But because water and nesting cover are the two critical elements that determine annual production, what we can do is protect the wetland basins and the intact grasslands so that the table is set for the ducks when Mother Nature provides the right conditions. As we protect this baseline, we can also selectively implement wetland and grassland restorations to compensate for the extensive habitat loss that has already occurred. It's a dual-pronged approach that has served waterfowl conservation—and Ducks Unlimited—for almost seven decades. Where large tracts of intact habitat still exist, it makes sense to emphasize the protection of these areas before they are lost.
Some detractors argue that securing the current base of habitat is not a suitable "stretch goal" for conservation, and a few maintain that this approach is flawed because it does not provide new, incremental ducks to the population. But those who espouse these viewpoints overlook the current trends and the pressures that exist in the PPR. The truth is, the prairies are under siege like no time since the mid-1970s, when farmers were urged to plow "fencerow to fencerow." A duck that is never added to the fall flight because of the drainage of a wetland or plowing of native grassland impacts population totals much the same as not producing an "additional" duck using more intensive management techniques. Moreover, in today's economy, guarding against the loss of habitat is usually a far wiser business decision than only costly restoration of habitat that is already degraded. For example, in much of the U.S. PPR, a one-time payment of $45-110 per acre can secure a perpetual grassland easement on the best waterfowl breeding habitat in the world. This is much more cost effective when compared to more intensive management techniques that can be 10 times as expensive. The highest priority, therefore, should be to protect the habitat base that provides for the duck population booms, like the one that occurred in 1993-1999. If we don't secure the intact habitats before they disappear, we will soon be in the unfortunate position of depending primarily on intensive management and expensive restorations.