HAND COUNTY, S. D., Sept. 16, 2006 – More than 10,300 acres of South Dakota native prairie grasslands and wetlands have been permanently protected with a nearly $3 million grant. This is thanks to the efforts of a broad coalition of conservation partners including Ducks Unlimited (DU), the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), the North American Wetland Conservation Act (NAWCA) and 13 private landowners in central South Dakota. DU received a grant from NFWF that provided a springboard to purchase grassland easements on native prairie grassland and wetland complexes that supply critical breeding habitat for a diversity of grassland birds including waterfowl, shorebirds, raptors and songbirds.
South Dakota is part of the Prairie Pothole Region, a critical duck production area for Oklahoma.
The native prairie and wetlands of Hand County have long been recognized as a prime breeding area for a diversity of bird species but, unfortunately, these populations are increasingly threatened by conversion of the grassland to cropland. DU led an effort, with a host of conservation partners, to research the magnitude of prairie conversion in the Missouri Coteau and to develop models that would help identify tracts that are at greatest risk of being converted. DU was able to use its investment in this research to obtain the grant from NFWF to kick start protection of these critical ranchland tracts in Hand County.
A portion of the funding from NFWF comes directly from the “Help Budweiser Help the Outdoors” program. As part of the Budweiser sales promotion, more than 180 participating Anheuser-Busch wholesalers donated a percentage of proceeds from all bottles and cans of Budweiser sold from Sept. 1 to Oct. 31, 2005. Ducks Unlimited and Budweiser have partnered for years to conserve vital acres of habitat. The relationship continues to pay off for the benefit of waterfowl.
The USFWS used significant funds from the Migratory Bird Conservation Stamp, or “duck stamp,” to help protect a large portion of these ranches via easements. All migratory bird hunters in the United States are required to purchase a Migratory Bird Conservation Stamp to hunt waterfowl, and the proceeds are used to protect critical habitat such as the breeding areas in South Dakota. Out of every dollar generated through stamp sales, 98 cents goes to the protection of critical habitat. Since its inception in 1934, sales of Duck Stamps have generated more than $670 million for wildlife conservation.
“This partnership illustrates the scale of conservation work that can be done when foundations, federal agencies, non-profits and conservation-minded landowners work together,” said Scott Stephens, director of conservation planning for DU’s Great Plains region. “The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation grant funding was critical to being able to move quickly on protecting these important habitats. When combined with dollars from the Fish and Wildlife Service, DU and NAWCA, the partnership was able to perpetually protect a keystone block of prairie and wetlands in central South Dakota that is especially important to pintails.”
“Helping to catalyze the protection of such a large block of grassland habitat is exactly the type of result NFWF seeks to achieve through its grants,” said Jeff Trahndahl, executive director for NFWF. “This project illustrates all of the key elements NFWF epitomizes, including strong partnerships, leveraged returns on invested grant money and long-term approaches to conservation challenges that achieve results.”
“The current limitation to protecting more of this old-growth native grassland is funding,” said Tonna Hughes, supervisory realty specialist with the USFWS in Huron, S.D. “We know how critical these prairie grasslands and wetlands are for many migratory birds,” Hughes said. “Landowners and ranchers all across eastern South Dakota are interested in helping protect these grasslands and wetlands through our easement program. As a result, new funding from DU and NFWF provides the means to help protect this critical habitat.”
“The easement is a way to be rewarded for good stewardship,” said Brad Magness, cattle producer from Huron, S.D. and one of the landowners involved in this critical block of habitat. “The easement helps us to pass the ranch on to the next generation and even expand it while still maintaining the grasslands, our ranching operation and the wildlife that have always depended on the prairie.”
The benefits of this collaborative conservation work include maintenance of the diverse native mixed grass prairie along with the embedded wetlands and protection of critical breeding habitat for Northern Pintails, mallards, blue-winged teal, marbled godwits, Wilson’s phalaropes, chestnut-collared longspurs and Baird’s sparrow. The grasslands are also critical to ensuring the viability of the local ranching industry, which is a cornerstone of the rural communities across South Dakota.