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A Brighter Future for Great Lakes Mallards

DU researchers find that the conservation strategies needed to build mallard populations in the Great Lakes states differ from those needed to improve duck production on the prairies
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  • photo by Ross Dense
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by Tina Yerkes, Ph.D.

Mallard hens nesting in the Great Lakes states find themselves in a very different world than their relatives in the Prairie Pothole Region (PPR). The PPR will always be North America's primary duck factory, hosting not only the most breeding waterfowl on the continent, but also the greatest diversity of duck species, from pintails to gadwalls to canvasbacks. The prairie landscape was formerly the largest expanse of grassland in the world. More than 70 percent of the wetlands in the PPR have been drained or severely degraded, and the destruction continues at the rate of approximately 33,000 acres annually. In many places, are under greater siege than wetlands. For example, eastern North Dakota has lost nearly three-fourths of its original grassland, and Minnesota and Iowa have suffered even greater losses of native prairie. After years of research, Ducks Unlimited and the rest of the waterfowl-conservation community now recognize with certainty that inadequate grassland habitat is often responsible for low nest success in prairie-breeding ducks.

In the Great Lakes states, the mallard is king. Mallards are the most numerous breeding ducks in this region (encompassing Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana ), followed by wood ducks and blue-winged teal. The remarkable adaptability of mallards enables them to breed successfully in significant numbers on dramatically altered and fragmented landscapes throughout this heavily developed region.

Historically, the Great Lakes states consisted largely of mixed forest interspersed with large wetland complexes and tall-grass prairie in Wisconsin and Illinois.Unfortunately, these states have suffered extensive habitat losses to industrial, urban, and agricultural development, as well as water pollution and invasive plants like purple loosestrife and phragmites (or common reed grass). The Great Lakes states have lost 50 percent or more of their original wetlands, and many local areas have suffered wetland losses as high as 90 percent.

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