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World Leader in Wetlands Conservation

Stewards of the Prairie

Cattle ranchers manage much of this continent's most important waterfowl breeding habitat
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  • photo by photo by Scott Stephens, DU
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by Dave Smith

Whenever I see cows, I see wetlands and ducks.

Kurt Forman has dedicated his career to conserving the grasslands and wetlands of the Prairie Pothole Region (PPR). He's one of the most knowledgeable and passionate advocates for conserving this region that produces many of North America's ducks each year. Yet the most concise description of the relationship between land use and waterfowl came not from him, but from an untrained observer on a flight over the Missouri Coteau in South Dakota.

"My guest looked down at the landscape and came to it on his own," says Forman, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's (USFWS) Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program coordinator in South Dakota. "Family-owned ranch land is the glue that is holding together much of the breeding grounds. Keeping ranching on the prairies is by far the best way to maintain a functional landscape."

The linkage between ranching, grasslands, wetlands, and waterfowl is strongly supported by research conducted over the past three decades by Ducks Unlimited, the USFWS, and others. In the PPR, environmental parameters such as annual wetland conditions greatly influence waterfowl production from year to year. But the magnitude of the booms in duck production that occur in wet years is influenced by landscape conditions, including the amount of grassland on the landscape. Moreover, wetlands embedded in grasslands are often more productive and support more breeding pairs and duck broods than do wetlands surrounded by a sea of cropland. 

The thread of ranching ties it all together. "We want to keep the table set with intact native prairie and wetland systems that allow ducks to respond to favorable environmental conditions," says Dr. Scott Stephens, DU Canada's director of regional operations for the PPR and formerly a scientist at DU's Great Plains office in Bismarck. "If ranching isn't profitable, we can't maintain grasslands at the required scale, and the capacity of the region to produce ducks at desired levels will be lost forever."

Sadly, grasslands in the PPR are being converted to cropland at an alarming rate. According to DU government affairs representative Scott McLeod, more than 500,000 acres of native prairie were lost from 2002 to 2007 in the PPR of South Dakota, North Dakota, and Montana. In some areas, the rate of grassland conversion approaches 2 percent a year. If losses continue at this rate, more than half of the remaining 23 million acres of native prairie in the U.S. PPR will be lost over the next 34 years. 

The development of more drought-resistant and faster-growing varieties of corn and soybeans are allowing row crops to be planted in areas of the PPR that were previously unsuitable for farming. Prices are also high because of a strong export market and federal mandates for the production of biofuels. But market prices are only part of the grassland conversion equation. Beef prices have also been strong during much of the same period. However, in many cases, the availability of commodity support, crop insurance, and disaster payments make cultivating marginal lands more profitable than raising cattle on them. This trend increases agricultural land values and reduces the availability of grazing land for cattle production. 

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