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New Report Shows U.S. Wetland Losses Accelerating

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MEMPHIS, Tenn., Oct. 17, 2011 –
Ducks Unlimited scientists have completed an analysis of a recent federal report on the status of America's wetlands. The report, issued periodically by the U.S. Department of the Interior, indicates gains in some wetland types and disturbing declines in others that provide important habitat for waterfowl and other wildlife. Overall, the study shows a negative trend with the rate of wetland loss accelerating in recent years.

Status and Trends of Wetlands in the Conterminous United States 2004 to 2009 compares wetland losses and gains during this period to those documented during the previous study period (1998-2004). In recent decades, wetland loss had slowed, largely because of beneficial wetland conservation policies and programs, but the new report reveals wetland loss has now accelerated, increasing by 140 percent since 2004. The 1998-2004 report showed a net gain of 32,000 wetland acres per year while the latest research shows a net loss of 13,800 wetland acres each year. The new report covers the first complete study period since a 2001 U.S. Supreme Court decision weakened Clean Water Act protection of certain wetlands.

Some wetland types showed alarming declines:
  • Marine and estuarine intertidal wetlands in America's coastal regions were lost three times faster than during the previous study period. About 25,000 acres of salt marsh disappeared each year between 2004 and 2009. Eighty-three percent of these acres were lost to open water, predominantly through subsidence and sea-level rise.
  • More than 140,000 acres of bottomland hardwood forests were lost each year in the United States between 2004 and 2009. These seasonally flooded wetlands in the South and Southeast provide vital wintering habitat for ducks. 
Since the 1950s, the United States has lost more than 26 million acres of coastal wetlands, bottomland hardwood forests and freshwater marshes—an amount equivalent to the surface area of Lakes Superior and Erie combined. 

Wetlands are among nature's most productive ecosystems, providing habitat for waterfowl, fish and many other species of wildlife. Freshwater wetlands alone cover only 1 percent of the earth's surface but provide habitat for more than 40 percent of the world's species. Coastal wetlands are similarly productive and diverse. For example, 66 percent of marine fish rely on coastal wetlands at some stage in their life cycle. Wetlands also provide a host of important societal benefits, including recreational opportunities, floodwater storage, groundwater recharge and water purification.

"The Department of Interior's Status and Trends of Wetlands serves as a report card on our nation's wetlands," said Paul Schmidt, chief conservation officer for DU, "and with wetland losses now outstripping wetland gains, the findings in the 2004-2009 report are discouraging." 

The accelerating losses documented in the report are especially troubling in light of current federal budget discussions centered on future funding for wetland conservation programs. "Significant cuts to federal funding for wetland conservation programs would result in further dramatic increases in the rate of wetland loss in the United States," Schmidt said. "Funding for programs such as the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, the Wetlands Reserve Program, and the Land and Water Conservation Fund is essential to protect our wetlands and wildlife, safeguard the quality and quantity of our nation's fresh water, and preserve our hunting and fishing heritage."

The report's findings highlight the significance of the habitat restoration and conservation efforts of DU and its partners, while underscoring the need for strong federal wetland policies and programs. "Everyone who cares about wetlands, wildlife, and the health of our nation's environment and economy should contact their members of Congress and urge them to support funding for the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, Wetlands Reserve Program, and Land and Water Conservation Fund," said Dale Hall, Ducks Unlimited CEO. "We agree that the deficit must be controlled and our nation's debt must be reduced, but Congress should avoid slashing funding for conservation programs that produce a positive return on investment for our nation's economy." 

Overall, hunting and fishing support more than 1.6 million jobs and generate more than $25 billion a year in federal, state and local taxes. Hunters and anglers in the United States spend about $76 billion each year on their outdoor pursuits. 

For assistance in contacting members of Congress to urge them to maintain funding for federal programs crucial to wetlands conservation, please visit www.ducks.org/conservation/public-policy.   

Ducks Unlimited is the world's largest nonprofit organization dedicated to conserving North America's continually disappearing waterfowl habitats. Established in 1937, Ducks Unlimited has conserved more than 12 million acres, thanks to contributions from more than a million supporters across the continent. Guided by science and dedicated to program efficiency, DU works toward the vision of wetlands sufficient to fill the skies with waterfowl today, tomorrow and forever. Visit the DU website, www.ducks.org, for more information.

Tom Fulgham

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