A New Vision for Waterfowl

To sustain healthy waterfowl populations in the future, DU must adapt to emerging challenges and increase the scope of its conservation work

By Matt Young

Ducks Unlimited is guided by one clear vision: filling the skies with waterfowl today, tomorrow, and forever. During the past 71 years, DU has made significant progress toward fulfilling this vision, having conserved more than 12 million acres of wetlands and associated waterfowl habitat across North America. Despite all that has been accomplished by DU and its partners, powerful forces now threaten decades of conservation progress. Surging global demand for energy and commodities, new technology, climate change, and other trends now pose grave threats to waterfowl habitat across the continent. In addition, declining participation in outdoor recreation—including hunting—is causing a growing disconnect between the public and nature, which could undermine future support for conservation policies and programs.    

Throughout its history, DU has never been satisfied with past accomplishments and, as in the past, is moving decisively to meet these new threats head on. Following a comprehensive review of all its conservation activities, DU has concluded that it will not accomplish its mission by continuing to pursue only the successful conservation programs and strategies of the past. To provide a secure future for North America’s waterfowl, DU must increase its power to influence public policy, expand its on-the-ground conservation work in key places, and strengthen its scientific capacity and capability supporting its conservation programs. DU must also continue to improve its ability to assess risks and emerging threats so it can act quickly and proactively to meet challenges and seize opportunities. 

“DU will only achieve our vision of abundant and sustainable waterfowl populations if future conservation accomplishments exceed habitat losses in the places most important to waterfowl,” says DU Executive Vice President Don Young. “We must move beyond our traditional measures of success, from how many acres we conserve and dollars we raise to how successful we are in conserving the landscapes that sustain waterfowl. DU must invest our resources in doing the right things in the right places. And we must plan and implement the appropriate mix of science, direct conservation programs, and public policy to maximize our conservation impact on the most important landscapes for waterfowl.”

A Strategic Approach to Conservation

Ducks Unlimited is guided by its International Conservation Plan, which clearly defines DU’s vision and how best to achieve it through carefully targeted habitat conservation efforts in high-priority regions (see pages 90-91). Recently revised by DU’s senior scientists, this document includes priority rankings for the geographic areas across North America of greatest importance to sustaining healthy waterfowl populations. These rankings were established to help DU invest limited resources where they will do the most good for waterfowl.

DU’s highest priority ranking, Level 1A, has been given to North America’s two most important waterfowl breeding areas, the Prairie Pothole Region and western boreal forest. “An understanding of what limits waterfowl populations is crucial to targeting DU’s conservation work,” says DU Canada Executive Vice President Jeff Nelson. “Recent research on mallards and pintails strongly suggests that populations of these two species are affected mostly by events on the breeding grounds, and it’s likely that most other ducks are also limited by events that occur during the breeding period.”   

DU’s next highest priority conservation regions, those ranked Level 1B, include North America’s three most important waterfowl wintering grounds: the Central Valley of California, Mississippi Alluvial Valley (MAV), and Gulf Coast. While these areas also support significant breeding populations of some waterfowl species (wood ducks in the MAV, mottled ducks on the Gulf Coast, and mallards in the Central Valley), DU’s primary objective in these regions is conserving wintering habitat.

DU’s Level 2A priority areas include the Great Lakes/St. Lawrence region of Canada and the Great Basin and Great Lakes regions of the United States. DU’s conservation work in these areas focuses on protecting and restoring wetlands and associated upland habitats for breeding, staging, and migrating waterfowl. DU’s Level 2B priority areas are the Mid-Atlantic Coast, Pacific Northwest, and southern Great Plains of the United States and the Pacific Coast of Canada. DU’s conservation objectives in these areas include restoring and protecting wetlands and upland feeding habitat for migrating and wintering waterfowl.

Elsewhere, in Level 3 and 4 priority regions, DU’s conservation work is generally restricted to specific habitat projects with high value to waterfowl populations. Good examples of these priority areas include Missouri’s Confluence Floodplain, Alaska’s Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, Mexico’s Pacific Coast, and key estuaries and watersheds in the Atlantic Flyway. While DU will invest most of its resources in these high priority areas, DU will continue to actively conserve waterfowl habitat in all states and provinces across the United States, Canada, and Mexico.

Science and Public Policy

Science provides the foundation for all of Ducks Unlimited’s conservation work and is ultimately the basis for DU’s credibility as the world leader in wetlands and waterfowl conservation. Extensive research has helped DU refine its conservation work on the prairies and in many other priority areas, ensuring that DU’s resources are being used effectively and efficiently. Given the scope and complexity of the challenges facing waterfowl and their habitats, however, DU recognizes that it must increase both its scientific capacity (staffing and funding) and capability (technology and expertise) now to support and direct its conservation work in the future.

“Achieving our vision will require going beyond our traditional focus on waterfowl and wetland science, agricultural science, and other fields traditionally linked to waterfowl habitat conservation,” says Dr. Alan Wentz, DU’s senior group manager of conservation and communications. “The threats and risks to waterfowl habitat and populations are increasingly complex and diverse, and our response must be to gather, analyze, and understand information that enables us to counter the threats and risks with effective conservation policy and direct programs. Although progress is being made, greater investment in science is necessary if DU is to have the tools and information needed to guide waterfowl conservation at a continental level.”

As demand for land, water, and other natural resources increases, the future of waterfowl will depend more than ever on people who support conservation of the birds’ habitat. “DU is greatly increasing its investment in sociological research to better understand the attitudes and expectations of DU members, landowners, other partners, and the public,” Wentz says. “We must be sure that we have broad support for the kinds of conservation programs that will be effective.”

Increasing DU’s scientific horsepower will also help DU promote public policies of vital importance to waterfowl. Some of DU’s biggest successes have resulted from influencing policymakers and conservation partners with solid science. This includes data on wetland and waterfowl ecology; the economic benefits of conservation policies; and the demographics, attitudes, and behavior of sportsmen and other constituencies.

DU has achieved significant results with both incentive-based and regulatory-based policy. For example, DU has been a leader in supporting appropriations and reauthorization for the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, which has generated hundreds of millions of dollars for waterfowl habitat conservation across the continent. DU has also been a key backer of conservation provisions in the U.S. Farm Bill and Canada’s Agricultural Policy Framework, which have provided billions of dollars to farmers, ranchers, and other landowners to conserve millions of acres of prime waterfowl habitat.

In other cases, governmental regulations provide a vital safety net for many of the habitats that are most important to waterfowl. The Clean Water Act (CWA) is the primary federal protection for wetlands in the United States. DU’s objective analysis of wetland science, economic data, public attitudes, and related policy information has helped positively influence CWA administration, and DU is working hard in the United States to promote new legislation that will restore CWA protections weakened by recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions.

“Public policy decisions can have far-reaching impacts, both positive and negative, on the landscapes that support waterfowl populations,” says Dr. Scott Yaich, director of conservation operations at DU national headquarters. “Habitat loss in most of our priority regions has largely resulted from policies that provided incentives to landowners to convert wetlands and grasslands to cropland or that failed to protect these habitats. In other cases, conservation programs like the Wetlands Reserve Program have been instrumental in reversing some of these habitat losses.” 

Direct Conservation and Extension Programs

Ducks Unlimited’s traditional conservation programs, which directly restore, manage, and protect wetlands and other key waterfowl habitats, have always been DU’s most visible product. These efforts provide a reliable habitat base for waterfowl populations in key places, lend credibility to DU’s policy work, and help strengthen and expand DU’s partnerships with government agencies, foundations, corporations, and individuals.

“On-the-ground conservation work is what DU is most recognized for, and it is ultimately what energizes and motivates our members, volunteers, conservation partners, and donors to support our efforts,” says DU Chief Biologist Dale Humburg. “Direct habitat conservation programs remain vital to DU’s ability to accomplish its vision, and we hope to expand these efforts on high priority landscapes in the future.”

Nevertheless, only a small portion of the landscapes necessary to support waterfowl populations has been permanently protected thus far, and unacceptable rates of habitat loss continue across the continent. The inescapable fact is that wetlands and grasslands continue to be lost faster than DU and its partners can protect and restore these habitats through direct conservation programs alone. Extension programs, where DU provides technical assistance to farmers and ranchers to adopt wildlife-friendly agricultural practices, can help close the gap by enhancing waterfowl habitat across broad landscapes.

The majority of the most important waterfowl habitat on the prairies and in other key areas is privately owned and managed primarily to raise crops and cattle rather than waterfowl. As a result, DU’s extension programs are designed to be profitable for landowners, while also providing improved habitat for waterfowl. DU’s winter wheat program is an excellent example of a formal, strategic extension program that has already had significant positive impacts on important waterfowl landscapes. In Canada, DU helped develop hardier winter wheat varieties, and DU is now working with farmers in wetland-rich areas across the prairies to demonstrate the economic benefits of growing these crops. Just last fall, 1.5 million acres of winter wheat were planted in Prairie Canada on intensively farmed landscapes where permanent upland cover is in short supply. While not as valuable to ducks as native grassland or other permanent cover, winter wheat has the potential to provide millions of additional acres of upland nesting habitat on agricultural landscapes and significantly improve breeding success for pintails and other waterfowl on the prairies. 

Moving Forward

The next 25 years will be a crucial time for North America’s waterfowl. The threats facing the birds and their habitats are large and complex. Risks to wetlands and other habitats are increasing and losses have been dramatic and continue at alarming rates across the continent. Following thoughtful analysis by its senior conservation staff, DU has concluded that it can achieve its conservation vision, particularly on the prairies and in the boreal forest, only through large-scale conservation efforts. DU’s traditional focus on waterfowl biology and wetland management will remain essential, but DU will also have to develop effective strategies to address new threats such as climate change, alternative energy, and unplanned urban development.   

“To fulfill our vision, Ducks Unlimited must continue to find ways to accelerate habitat conservation and decrease the rate of habitat loss in all our high priority regions,” Nelson says. “And more resources must be generated, and improved science-based policies developed and implemented, to reverse continuing declines of important waterfowl habitats.”

“Ducks Unlimited must continue to grow into a larger organization with more members, greater financial strength, and significantly more influence at the national and international levels,” Young adds. “With the strong support of our dedicated volunteers, members, and partners, I’m confident that we can meet these ambitious goals and continue to make major progress in our mission to provide a secure future for North America’s waterfowl and our waterfowl hunting traditions.”