New report puts an economic value of $3.5 billion to rice lands as waterfowl habitat

Waterfowlers have long known that ducks like working rice lands and a recently release report shows just how important they really are as habitat. The report, authored by Ducks Unlimited scientists for The Rice Foundation, found that if we needed to replace current rice lands with natural wetlands to maintain habitat capacity it would cost more than $3.5 billion.

The report was announced last week at a press conference at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in which Natural Resources Conservation Service Chief Jason Weller participated.

“The bottom line is, without the presence of working rice lands, there would be significantly less waterfowl habitat to speak of in several critical regions of the U.S.,” said Dr. Mark Petrie, DU director for conservation planning and lead scientist on the report.

All three rice-growing regions of the United States – the Mississippi Alluvial Valley (MAV), Gulf Coast and California’s Central Valley– overlap directly with the continent’s most important waterfowl wintering grounds. According to the study, more than 40 percent of the food resources available to wintering dabbling ducks along the Central Valley and Gulf Coast derive from flooded rice fields. The values for geese are higher because of dry-land feeding.

“Thanks to this research, we get a three and a half billion dollar perspective about what it would take to replace this habitat if rice acreage continues to dwindle,” said John Owen a Rayville, Louisiana rice farmer and chairman of the USA Rice Producers’ Group. “This gives producers a powerful message to bring to their neighbors, to conservationists, to hunters, and to government, to build support for incentive-based conservation policies and programs.”

Unfortunately for waterfowl and rice farmers alike, all three regions face challenges as it relates to keeping rice on the land. Water supplies for rice production are under increasing pressure in all areas, and many producers may be forced to adopt practices that provide far fewer benefits for waterfowl.

Long-term declines in rice acreage on the Gulf Coast are especially worrisome with the simultaneous dramatic loss of coastal prairie and marsh habitats. Halting this decline and flooding a greater percentage of rice acreage will be necessary to meet the needs of Gulf Coast waterfowl in the future.

“Rice production and farming are important components to ensuring we meet the population goals set forth in the North American Waterfowl Management Plan,” said DU CEO Dale Hall. “This study is an excellent tool we can utilize to show policymakers and waterfowl managers just how critical rice lands are to waterfowl populations.”

The USA Rice-DU Stewardship Partnership was formed in 2013 to advocate for sound agriculture- and conservation-related policies and to promote the important ecosystem benefits of rice agriculture.