by Matt Young
Ten years ago, I joined John Solberg, a pilot-biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), while he was flying part of the May Waterfowl Breeding Population Survey in North Dakota. After several consecutive wet years on the prairies, duck populations were booming, and there was so much water—and so many breeding ducks—that Solberg and fellow biologist Mike Oliver had a hard time counting all the birds from the low-flying Cessna. Having endured the grim duck depression of the late 1980s and early 1990s, when many waterfowl hunters feared prairie duck populations would never recover, I almost couldn't believe my eyes. Seeing the fabled "Duck Factory" in full production was like a dream come true.
During a morning flight over the Missouri Coteau, I had a bird's-eye view of North America's best waterfowl breeding habitat. Stretching mile upon mile below us were rolling green hills of native prairie dimpled with innumerable "pothole" wetlands of various sizes, depths, and shapes. Occasionally we passed over rectangular quarter sections (160 acres) of former croplands that farmers had enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and planted with mixes of legumes and warm-season grasses. The dense nesting cover afforded by CRP fields surrounded by larger blocks of native prairie provided abundant nesting cover for waterfowl that settled on the numerous wetlands dotting the landscape. In especially wetland-rich areas, more than 100 breeding pairs of ducks could be found on a single square-mile section of prairie. In 1999, a year after I flew with Solberg and Oliver, duck populations reached the highest level since waterfowl surveys began in 1955.