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Prairies Under Siege: The Future of the Prairie Pothole Region

Without aggressive measures to secure its habitat base, North America's duck factory faces an uncertain future
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But protecting the base is a credible approach only if the threats are genuine and losses are imminent. Are they? Let's examine the threats more closely.

President Bush recently announced that he continues to support no net loss of wetlands, and that is positive. However, the U.S. Supreme Court decision that removed isolated wetlands from protection under the Clean Water Act still stands. This is arguably the gravest threat to the PPR and to North American duck populations. The prairie potholes are the engines of the duck factory, and no amount of secure grasslands or intensive management can make up for their loss. Of additional concern is Canada's weaker wetland protection laws that have allowed relatively greater rates of loss than south of the border. Encouragingly, that trend is showing signs of reversing as Canadians embrace a renewed interest in wetlands conservation. But now that U.S. laws have effectively been weakened by the Court's interpretation, the only line of defense that still protects prairie pothole wetlands in the United States is the "swampbuster" provision of the Farm Bill. As with all such provisions, swampbuster is up for review every time a new Farm Bill is crafted. The next retooling is scheduled to begin in three or four years.

Second only to the wholesale loss of wetlands is the threat posed by the ongoing destruction of native prairie, the backbone of North American duck production. Big tracts of prairie are especially important, because duck nesting success increases with the amount of grassland in the landscape. Unfortunately, the much publicized "mad cow disease" (BSE, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy) has halted a recent trend that was favoring cattle ranching over cropping in parts of prairie Canada. In the blink of an eye, BSE now threatens the economic viability of the Canadian beef industry—and therefore grasslands—across much of prairie Canada.

In the United States, the conversion of native grassland to cropland has been accelerating, pushed by world demand for grain, by favorable loan rates, and by U.S. Department of Agriculture price supports. Of all the restorations performed by Ducks Unlimited, bringing back native prairie is one of the most challenging. Not only is it expensive—at least six times as expensive as an easement purchased to protect prairie from being destroyed in the first place—but it is also ecologically extremely difficult. When it comes to native prairie, an ounce of prevention is indeed worth a pound of cure.

If native grasslands are the cake that feeds the duck booms, then Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) lands are the frosting. Under CRP, landowners agree to plant and maintain grassland on their marginal cropland for a 10-year period in exchange for an annual government payment. The 4.7 million acres of CRP that are currently enrolled in North and South Dakota provide nearly ideal nesting cover. During 1992-1997, CRP contributed to a 30 percent improvement in duck recruitment rates and added an additional 12.4 million birds to the fall flight. But in 2007, 2.4 million acres of CRP contracts will expire in the Dakotas alone. That represents 51 percent of all the remaining CRP in these critical states. Another 1.4 million acres will come out of enrollment in 2008-2009. Acres coming out of the program today are not being replaced because of new national ranking factors for CRP that favor areas outside of the PPR. This change, coupled with attractive commodity price supports and upward trends in world grain demand, makes it questionable whether even a fraction of the CRP acreage will be re-enrolled. Fewer acres of CRP in the prairies will mean fewer ducks in North America.

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