Spanning the U.S. and Canadian border, the Prairie Pothole Region forms the core of what was formerly the largest expanse of grassland in the world. Glaciers receding at the end of the last Ice Age left behind millions of shallow wetlands-so-called prairie potholes-speckled in an endless sea of grass. Shallow wetlands teeming with aquatic plant and animal life are juxtaposed with grasslands communities lying atop deep, nutrient-rich soils. An impressive array of bird species is dependent on the productive and highly-diverse nature of the prairie.
Waterfowl are uniquely adapted to take advantage of all aspects the prairie-gorging on abundant, protein-rich aquatic invertebrates in the spring, nesting in expansive fields of prairie grasses, and finally returning with newly-hatched broods back to wetlands to prepare for fall migration. Additionally, prairie wetlands provide crucial food resources for young and adult waterfowl alike, and provide sanctuary for ducks during molt.
When it comes to breeding waterfowl, surrounding grasslands are equally as important as the prairie potholes themselves. North America's upland-nesting duck species (i.e. northern pintail, mallard, blue-winged teal, gadwall, etc.) will successfully nest up to several miles away from wetlands provided adequate grassland habitat exists. Nests and hens incubating nests are extremely vulnerable to predators. Even in intact prairie systems, duck populations can lose two out of three attempted nests to predators. Nesting success is a scientific measure of how many nests that were started actually hatch at least one duckling. As the abundance of grassland increases in a landscape, nesting success also rises. After years of research Ducks Unlimited and the rest of the conservation community now recognize with certainty that inadequate grassland habitat is responsible for low nesting success. This knowledge is the cornerstone of Ducks Unlimited Grasslands for Tomorrow Initiative. Protecting and restoring grasslands is paramount to ensuring healthy waterfowl populations.
A whole suite of other bird species is also dependent upon the unique character of the prairies: marbled godwit, bobolink, short-eared owls, Wilson's phalarope, Baird's sparrow, Sprague's pipit, chestnut-collared longspur, grasshopper sparrow. Although their life strategies might differ; shorebirds, wading birds, passerines, hawks, owls, and ducks are inextricably tied to the fate of the prairies. Grasslands for Tomorrow is dedicated to protecting 2 million acres of the disappearing prairie-the prairies need your help and support.
All is not well on the prairies. Over 70% of the wetlands in the Prairie Pothole Region have been drained or severely degraded, and the destruction continues. Wetland communities are less diverse and fewer in number, reducing the capacity of the land to sustain species' populations. Grasslands crucial to waterfowl populations have been decimated-less than one-fourth remains and the prairies continue to be converted to cropland at an alarming rate. These losses have had dire effects on waterfowl and all prairie-dependent species. Northern pintail and lesser scaup populations are undergoing a long-term decline. And the habitat base continues to be lost.
Threats to the prairie abound. In the United States, the federal farm program subsidizes wheat, corn, soybeans and several other crops under a complex system that pays growers based on acres planted and prevailing market prices. The current subsidy system is designed to bolster low commodity prices, which are often caused by over-supply. These subsidies not only fuel more overproduction but also prompt speculators to purchase native prairie and convert it to new cropland. Because these newly broken acres tend to be in drought- and disaster-prone areas, federal disaster relief payments per cropland acre have tended to be several-fold greater than in areas better suited for growing crops. Along with the U.S. taxpayer, breeding waterfowl, godwits and grasshopper sparrows suffer the consequences.
But the threat to native prairie grasslands does not stop with subsidies. Drought-hardy, cold-resistant, and herbicide-tolerant varieties of soybeans, wheat and corn are allowing these crops to expand into native grassland. Land once incompatible with row-crop agriculture -- but which provided a living to ranching families and habitat for prairie wildlife -- is being converted to row crops. Compared to grassland, cropland provides few or no resources for breeding birds. These new cropping technologies, in combination with other factors such as the current subsidy programs, are accelerating the destruction of our native prairie
The Northern Great Plains is quickly becoming a highly fragmented landscape in which remnant patches of grassland are interspersed within large, monotypic crop fields. This mix of land uses provides poor habitat for prairie wildlife, and skews the composition of the mammalian predator community to favor species that are particularly harmful to ground-nesting birds and fragments the landscape in a manner that enhances the nest-searching efficiency of these predators. Consequently, nesting success of waterfowl, shorebirds and songbirds plummets, and their populations decline. The solution is to work with ranchers and others who own prairie grasslands to secure the habitat through conservation easements. Protecting our remaining native prairie remains the highest priority of Ducks Unlimited.