Crisis for Americas Wetlands

Our nation’s wetlands face their greatest risk in 35 years, and federal legislation that would protect them needs your support

By Scott Yaich, Ph.D.

In late January, the president of the United States will summarize his views of how the nation is doing in his annual State of the Union address. He’ll also present some ideas for actions that he thinks could improve things. But he won’t be covering everything that’s important to everyone in one short speech. So, Ducks Unlimited thought it would be useful to the nation’s duck hunters and others interested in wetland conservation to provide a short “State of the Wetlands” report.

In summary, the good news is that, at least until recently, the overall state of the nation’s wetlands had been improving. The bad news, however, is that every year we are still losing more than 80,000 acres of wetlands that are important to waterfowl and wildlife. The really bad news is that wetland loss has likely accelerated, and we are on the verge of having to watch wetlands disappear from the landscape much more rapidly unless we act now. Let’s take a closer look at what’s going on with the nation’s wetlands.

The State of America's Wetlands

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has published four periodic reports covering the status and trends of wetlands in the United States over the last 50 years. When small, mostly artificial ponds are discounted, these reports document ongoing and sometimes alarming wetland loss. Between the 1950s and 1970s, for example, more than a half-million acres of wetlands were being lost every year. By the mid-1980s, the nation had lost over half its original wetlands.

Fortunately for ducks, the rate of net wetland loss across the nation slowed significantly over the last 30 years. Important factors in reducing wetland losses included passage of the Clean Water Act (CWA) in 1972, voluntary conservation programs such as the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) and other Farm Bill conservation programs since 1985, and the North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA) in 1989. The 1970s also heralded a greater awareness of the importance of conservation to everyone’s day-to-day interests, helping DU and other conservation organizations grow and conserve wetlands at a faster rate.

The most recent USFWS report covering 1998 to 2004 showed that wetland loss had slowed, but the nation was still losing over 80,000 acres annually. This is equivalent to losing a football field of wetlands every nine minutes. In total, the United States has lost approximately 16.8 million acres of wetlands since the mid-1950s and more than 2 million acres of vegetated wetlands just since 1986.

What Wetland Loss Means for Ducks

Although everyone ought to be concerned about wetland loss, duck hunters should be particularly concerned about the nation’s wetland trends, because small vegetated marshes and wetlands that are most important to waterfowl, such as prairie potholes, have long suffered disproportionate losses. The latest USFWS report highlighted prairie potholes, stating, “Eighty-five percent of all freshwater wetland losses were wetlands less than 5.0 acres. Fifty-two percent were wetlands less than 1.0 acre.” This means that well over 50,000 pothole-size wetlands were lost every year from 1998 to 2004. Duck populations cannot afford these continued losses, especially since about two-thirds of the approximately 20 million potholes that once existed are already gone.

About half the average total annual production of ducks comes from the Prairie Pothole Region (PPR). One USFWS analysis suggested that duck production in the PPR of the United States would decline by 70 percent if all wetlands less than one acre in size were lost. However, wetland losses far less than this would affect duck numbers and could reduce waterfowl hunting seasons.

Wetland loss in already hard-hit migration and wintering areas has     also continued. For example, the U.S. Geological Survey reports that over 25 square miles of Louisiana’s coast, among the most important waterfowl wintering habitat in North America, are lost annually. The Rainwater Basin region of Nebraska is a key migration area, particularly in the spring, at times supporting 50 percent of midcontinent mallards and 90 percent of midcontinent white-fronted geese. But, there are fewer than 400 basins remaining, less than 5 percent of those once present.

An Unexpected Threat to Wetlands

Although by the turn of the 21st century the nation had not halted the loss of wetlands most important to wildlife, the rate of loss had slowed substantially. Steady progress was being made, and there was a sense that, with continued support for programs such as WRP and NAWCA, we might finally turn the corner and begin to add wetlands to the nation’s inventory. Then, in 2001, the U.S. Supreme Court delivered the first of two unexpected blows to the CWA, the foundation of the nation’s system of wetland protection since 1972. They made matters even worse with a second decision in 2006.

To summarize two confusing, split decisions, the Court essentially said: (1) exercising federal Clean Water Act jurisdiction over a wetland required more than showing that migratory birds used the wetland, and (2) there needed to be some significant ecological or hydrological connection, direct or indirect, between wetlands and navigable waters to establish jurisdiction. The decisions created many more questions than they answered and confused the agencies responsible for administration of wetlands protection (Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) about which wetlands and other waters should be protected by the CWA. The two agencies subsequently spent many months after the second ruling trying to interpret the meaning of the Court’s decisions and working on new operating guidelines for their staffs and for people needing permits for work that affected wetlands.

There was a glimmer of hope in that five of the justices supported a position that would continue to offer strong wetland protection, as Congress originally intended in 1972, as long as there was a solid, scientific foundation for doing so. Unfortunately, they did so in three separate rulings that contributed to the confusion and challenges stemming from the rulings.  Nevertheless, understanding that virtually all wetlands and tributaries collectively have a significant effect on downstream waters and the people who use them or live near them, DU and other conservation groups remained hopeful that the guidance being developed by the agencies could restore some protections that were removed in the 2001 Supreme Court ruling.

However, the guidance that was finally released in mid-2007 went the other direction. The agencies interpreted the Court’s decisions in a way that removed many millions of acres of wetlands from CWA jurisdiction, leaving them unprotected from being drained and filled. Ironically, the process they established not only significantly weakened wetland protections but also created huge delays and backlogs in the permitting process. This has created serious problems for landowners and developers who applied for permits for projects involving filling of wetlands. The result was that no one was happy, and wetlands left unprotected began disappearing from the landscape, along with places for ducks to nest, migrate, and winter—and places for duck hunters to hunt.

A More Secure Future for Wetlands 

The federal agencies’ interpretation of the Supreme Court rulings has made it clear that passing legislation will be the only way to remedy the confusion and delays and restore protection to the nation’s wetlands before many more thousands of acres are irretrievably lost. The CWA is the “safety net” for the nation’s wetlands, and restoring decades-old wetland protections that the federal agencies have chosen to withdraw is essential to securing the future of waterfowl and waterfowl hunting.

The nation must also continue to provide strong support for important wetland- and waterfowl-friendly, science-based programs that farmers and other landowners use to voluntarily protect and restore wetlands across the landscape. WRP and NAWCA are two examples of programs that conserve thousands of acres of wetlands every year and replace a portion of those that are lost. If the nation is ever to begin gaining wetlands, programs such as these will be pivotal.

Finally, the central element of Ducks Unlimited’s 70-year-old conservation mission is to continue to work with farmers, landowners, state and federal agencies, and countless other partners to protect and restore habitats important to waterfowl across North America. The nation’s hunters and other waterfowl enthusiasts expect this of us, and we take the responsibility seriously. But we know that this is a huge task, and powerful forces have priorities that conflict with those of sportsmen and women. We also know that providing a more secure future for the nation’s wetlands and North America’s waterfowl populations requires hunters, anglers, wildlife watchers, and many others with a stake in these resources to get actively involved. Just as the nation’s wetlands are all linked in one way or another, so too is everyone who cares about the ducks, other wildlife, fish, and the many other societal benefits that the nation’s wetlands provide to us all.

Dr. Scott Yaich is director of conservation operations at DU national headquarters in Memphis.