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Special Report Prairies Under Siege: Part III

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By Mike Anderson and Scott Stephens

This article, the third in the series “Prairies Under Siege,” highlights how science underpins DU’s choices about investing habitat dollars in a region crucial for waterfowl conservation and beset by new and continued threats to nesting habitat

Imagine that you are DU’s director of conservation programs. Board a Northwest Airlines A320 bound for Minneapolis from Edmonton, Alberta, on a sunny day in May. In just under three hours you’ll fly a narrow transect across the Prairie Pothole Region—North America’s duck factory. These 300,000 square miles of farmlands and wetlands support more than half the continent’s breeding ducks.

As the jetliner climbs and banks east from Edmonton, you cast your eyes north to the horizon and glimpse the patchwork of dark and light green marking the southern fringe of Canada’s vast boreal forest. This has been a land of ducks and trees for thousands of years but is now a place of rapid resource development. Directly below the plane lie the aspen parklands—a matrix of aspen and willow clumps, grazing land, and fields dotted with thousands of small wetlands that reflect the rising sun. You can’t see the ducks from up here, but this is mallard country. Where the wetlands are deeper and fringed with cattail, it is also canvasback country.

As the jetliner levels off near 37,000 feet you can see below the climate-driven transition from forest to prairie. This high up, approaching the Alberta-Saskatchewan border, you can take in all at once the gradual change from mostly trees to mostly grass. Everywhere there are still potholes—remnants of the last glacial scouring. Most of the ponds are small; some lie in dense concentrations, more are sparsely scattered; many have been drained or filled.

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