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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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Conservation and society

Apart from the scientific arguments for and against the safety of biotech crops, the debate over their use provides a valuable insight for waterfowl conservationists. The lesson for waterfowl conservation is that science can develop solutions, but society must embrace their application.

DU is a science-based organization. Science has honed our knowledge of waterfowl biology; cutting-edge GIS computer software and LANDSAT satellite imagery have helped us target the highest priority landscapes, and we have a toolbox full of proven techniques. But these tools are implemented within a society that has competing viewpoints on how wetlands, grasslands, and ducks should figure into their future.

On both sides of the international border, those living in the PPR are facing similar problems. There is an out-migration of people. Small towns are being abandoned, and young people are leaving. Schools are being consolidated. The traditional economic driver, agriculture, is moving rapidly to large operations requiring relatively few people. It remains heavily dependent on government subsidies. Understandably, these concerns generate apprehension about the future, which promotes conservatism and a tendency to fall back on what has worked in the past, namely an agro-economy that continues to pressure wetlands and grasslands.

Biologists have a term for the maximum number of ducks that can be accommodated in a given area. It's called the biological "carrying capacity." In the PPR, where economic and social concerns weigh heavily on people's minds, the political carrying capacity for conservation is the amount of habitat that society feels should be set aside in fee-title ownership, conservation easements, and protected wetlands. Unfortunately, there is often a large gap between that political carrying capacity and the amount of secure habitat needed to assure the long-term future of breeding ducks. In the minds of many people, prairie wetlands and native grasslands are viewed as placeholders on the landscape, waiting to be converted to a better, more profitable use. Therein lies one of our biggest conservation challenges. The history of conservation is that society tends not to place a high value on natural features until those resources are almost gone. We cannot afford to repeat that lesson in the prairies.

Conservation organizations need to promote the economic and quality-of-life values of wetlands and grasslands, and DU is doing just that. In Canada, Ducks Unlimited has taken the lead in promoting agricultural policy reform. DU is actively working to ensure that policymakers recognize that establishment of perennial cover on marginal croplands provides societal values beyond ducks and other wildlife, including improved water quality, enhanced flood control, and soil conservation. Since these ecological goods and services are being provided by landowners, new agricultural policies should ensure that individuals who conserve habitat are compensated accordingly. Adoption and eventual broadening of such policies will be critical to our mission of restoring waterfowl habitat in the Canadian PPR. Greencover Canada, an agricultural program that pays for the conversion of cropland to perennial grassland, has recently been announced. This is a very positive first step, and will improve habitat conditions on acres that are enrolled, similar to the positive impacts of CRP in the United States.

In the United States, wetland and grassland easements purchased from willing landowners not only provide direct economic benefits, they also enable individuals to achieve their vision for the future of their land. This is a win-win situation that is popular with landowners and good for ducks. Likewise, habitat restorations and management can provide not only improved waterfowl habitat, but also economic returns in the form of hunting leases and nature-based tourism, and can also enhance the quality of human life on the land. In the new economy of the 21st century, where cyberspace shrinks the world down to size, individuals and companies are choosing to locate in areas that provide an enhanced quality of life. Landscapes that include open space, wetlands, natural plant communities, and wildlife figure prominently in the quality-of-life equation.

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