Much has changed on the northern plains since my flight a decade ago. Surging global demand for food, federal mandates for corn-based ethanol production, and other policies are encouraging cultivation of every available acre, including native prairie and land formerly enrolled in CRP.
"Driving across the Dakotas this fall, you didn't have to go very far to see big tracts of grassland that were being burned or plowed under," says Dr. Scott Stephens, director of conservation planning at DU's Great Plains office in Bismarck, North Dakota. "In many areas, upland nesting cover is being lost on a landscape level, which our research shows is devastating to breeding waterfowl and other wildlife."
The situation is dire, but with your help, Ducks Unlimited can save the most productive waterfowl breeding habitat on the prairies. Right now, more than 650 landowners in North and South Dakota have offered to sell DU and the USFWS perpetual easements that would permanently protect more than 300,000 acres of wetland-rich native prairie. Landowner demand for easements currently exceeds available funding, but DU is dedicated to closing the funding gap and protecting this vital waterfowl habitat forever.
Through its new Rescue the Duck Factory campaign, DU is working to raise $40 million in new private gifts to secure easement funding for all the landowners on the waiting list. "The Missouri Coteau and similar prairie landscapes are much more suitable for cattle grazing than cultivating row crops because their light, rocky soils and hilly terrain are highly erodible and drought and disaster prone," Stephens says. "Despite strong incentives to convert native prairie to marginal cropland, many ranchers are determined to be good stewards of the grasslands. Easements provide extra income that helps them protect their land and their way of life."
Among the hundreds of conservation-minded landowners who have partnered with DU and the USFWS to conserve key waterfowl habitat are Delbert and Donna Eszlinger. They run a successful Angus beef cattle operation in McIntosh County, North Dakota, in the heart of the Missouri Coteau. Delbert's father started the ranch in 1940 with 160 acres, and the couple lives in the same house where Delbert was born and raised. The Eszlinger's ranch consists entirely of grassland and wetlands, and they have protected nearly 1,300 acres of prime waterfowl habitat with grassland easements.