Discouraging words in Congressional report on “most endangered ecosystem in North America”
BISMARCK, North Dakota, April 12, 2007 – Home, home on the range where the deer, antelope and ducks play may become a thing of the past if the rapid loss of America’s prairie grasslands isn’t stopped. Ducks Unlimited (DU) believes a new Congressional report will help Congress focus on solutions to the loss as it writes the new 2007 federal farm bill.
The report says the country’s few remaining native grasslands in the Great Plains are being plowed under. The Prairie Pothole Region of the Great Plains is the world’s most productive duck breeding habitat.
“It is encouraging to see that the issue of grassland conversion in the Northern Plains has the attention of Congress as it prepares to write the 2007 farm bill,” said Scott McLeod, DU’s farm bill lead for the Great Plains Region. “This issue has greatly concerned conservation groups, hunters and ranchers across the country for several years.
DU has identified the loss of native prairie grasslands as a critical issue affecting waterfowl and other wildlife. Many other hunting, fishing, conservation, environmental and agriculture groups list a solution to grassland loss as essential for their organizational success in the next farm bill.
DU says the report released by the Congressional Research Services (CRS) on grassland conversion in the Northern Great Plains should help Congress in efforts to reduce the conversion of native grassland into cropland. The report drew on research conducted by DU and its conservation partners in North and South Dakota.
According to DU Director of Conservation Planning for the Great Plains, Scott Stephens, the recent trends in conversion of native prairie to cropland are clear. The practice is increasing. Stephens led DU’s research efforts cited in the CRS report.
“Those trends were evident even before the recent jump in crop prices driven by demand for ethanol,” said Stephens.
Stephens says native grasslands provide critical breeding habitat for many of the continent’s ducks, shorebirds and songbirds, as well as being the primary food source for cattle on many ranches.
In 2006, the chief of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, Bruce Knight, testified before Congress. Knight told Congress, “The grasslands look to be probably the most endangered ecosystem in North America, when you put the tall grass, mid-grass and short grass prairies together.”
DU’s answer to fix the conversion problem is adding what it calls a “Sodsaver” provision to the next farm bill. The Sodsaver provision was recently included in the USDA farm bill proposal. Sodsaver would remove all federal incentives on land with no previous cropping history.
“The conversion of grassland to cropland in this part of the world only works economically if you have the federal supports,” said Wendi Reinhart, a South Dakota rancher. “Removing all federal payments on newly broken lands would retard if not stop the escalation of farming practices coming into soils that are totally unsuitable. The best commodity we have on this prairie is the grass itself, and it’s time not only the politicians but our nation in general, wake up and pay attention to what’s happening to our vanishing prairie.”
DU recognizes the important role of government support for agricultural production on high-quality cropland. But offering federal support to convert drought- and disaster-prone land to cropland is poor policy that costs taxpayers in both federal payments and the lost environmental benefits that grasslands provide.
Becky Jones Mahlum
With more than a million supporters, Ducks Unlimited is the world’s largest and most effective wetland and waterfowl conservation organization. The United States alone has lost more than half of its original wetlands - nature’s most productive ecosystem - and continues to lose more than 80,000 wetland acres each year.