By Chris Jennings
Early waterfowl biologists called the Prairie Pothole Region of the United States and Canada the "Duck Factory" because of its incredible productivity for breeding waterfowl. Dotted with millions of small "pothole" wetlands, this region remains this continent's most important waterfowl breeding ground. In especially wetland-rich areas, duck breeding densities can exceed 100 pairs per square mile. Following is a visual tour of the prairies and why it's so important to conserve this region's wetlands and grasslands for waterfowl and other wildlife.
April is a time of renewal on the prairies. Winter slowly releases its icy grip on the landscape and the first waterfowl pairs begin to return as snow melts and ice thaws. Returning ducks should find favorable wetland conditions across the pothole country this spring, thanks to a good frost seal and runoff from a solid snow pack.
Habitat conditions in the prairies vary based upon regional and local precipitation. Wet conditions prior to freeze up in late 2014 may help wetland conditions in the PPR for the 2015 breeding season. Currently, Ducks Unlimited Canada biologists in the Canadian Prairies are expecting average spring runoff, due to a decent frost seal, which would keep wetland conditions fair to good for the waterfowl breeding season. This image shows a prairie landscape dotted with wetlands filled with snowmelt.
The combination of abundant small wetlands surrounded by expanses of native grassland is what makes the PPR, the Duck Factory. These native grasses provide secure, attractive nesting cover for breeding ducks and other wildlife.
Unfortunately, native prairie is being lost at an alarming rate across the Duck Factory. In addition, many former Conservation Reserve Program lands in the Dakotas are returning to crop production. Consequently, waterfowl will find less suitable habitat on the prairies this spring than last year. Ducks Unlimited is working closely with the agricultural community in both the United States and Canada to conserve prairie wetlands and grasslands on working farms and ranches.
Ducks Unlimited has worked with agricultural producers and businesses to expand the availability of winter wheat throughout the Prairies. This fall-seeded crop provides more secure upland cover for nesting ducks, especially compared to spring-planted crops, and gives farmers a way to diversify their cropping practices.
Waterfowl aren't the only wildlife that benefit from conserving native prairie. White-tailed deer utilize the cover provided by healthy wetlands as well. Today America's grasslands support an estimated 20 million deer, 500,000 pronghorn antelope, 400,000 elk, and many other wildlife species.
Waterfowl use a variety of wetlands of different sizes, shapes, and depths during the breeding season. In the public-policy arena, Ducks Unlimited is working to restore Clean Water Act protections for prairie wetlands weakened by recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions.
Once out of the nest, ducklings feed heavily on protein-rich wetland invertebrates. Dense vegetation provides essential cover for ducklings as they grow to flight stage.
Of the top 10 most commonly harvested duck species, six of them achieve their highest nesting densities on the prairies. If you are an avid waterfowler, the prairies likely raise many of the birds you harvest during the duck season.
Hens often lead their ducklings long distances in search of ideal feeding areas. The loss of wetlands and grasslands not only limits breeding habitat availability, but also reduces the survival of hens and ducklings.
Every year, DU conducts a variety of research in different parts of the Duck Factory. This research helps DU learn more about how habitat changes affect waterfowl breeding populations.
For waterfowlers and other conservationists, the Duck Factory is a special place. The future of waterfowl populations and our waterfowl hunting heritage depends on the health of this region. Through grassroots fundraising, public policy work, and major sponsors, DU is focused on conserving this prime waterfowl habitat in the Duck Factory.
America's Grasslands: A Threatened National Treasure
More PPR Information