Rescuing the Duck Factory

Ducks Unlimited needs your help now to save vital waterfowl breeding habitat on the prairies

by Matt Young

Ten years ago, I joined John Solberg, a pilot-biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), while he was flying part of the May Waterfowl Breeding Population Survey in North Dakota. After several consecutive wet years on the prairies, duck populations were booming, and there was so much water—and so many breeding ducks—that Solberg and fellow biologist Mike Oliver had a hard time counting all the birds from the low-flying Cessna. Having endured the grim duck depression of the late 1980s and early 1990s, when many waterfowl hunters feared prairie duck populations would never recover, I almost couldn't believe my eyes. Seeing the fabled "Duck Factory" in full production was like a dream come true.

During a morning flight over the Missouri Coteau, I had a bird's-eye view of North America's best waterfowl breeding habitat. Stretching mile upon mile below us were rolling green hills of native prairie dimpled with innumerable "pothole" wetlands of various sizes, depths, and shapes. Occasionally we passed over rectangular quarter sections (160 acres) of former croplands that farmers had enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and planted with mixes of legumes and warm-season grasses. The dense nesting cover afforded by CRP fields surrounded by larger blocks of native prairie provided abundant nesting cover for waterfowl that settled on the numerous wetlands dotting the landscape. In especially wetland-rich areas, more than 100 breeding pairs of ducks could be found on a single square-mile section of prairie. In 1999, a year after I flew with Solberg and Oliver, duck populations reached the highest level since waterfowl surveys began in 1955.

Much has changed on the northern plains since my flight a decade ago. Surging global demand for food, federal mandates for corn-based ethanol production, and other policies are encouraging cultivation of every available acre, including native prairie and land formerly enrolled in CRP.

"Driving across the Dakotas this fall, you didn't have to go very far to see big tracts of grassland that were being burned or plowed under," says Dr. Scott Stephens, director of conservation planning at DU's Great Plains office in Bismarck, North Dakota. "In many areas, upland nesting cover is being lost on a landscape level, which our research shows is devastating to breeding waterfowl and other wildlife."

The situation is dire, but with your help, Ducks Unlimited can save the most productive waterfowl breeding habitat on the prairies. Right now, more than 650 landowners in North and South Dakota have offered to sell DU and the USFWS perpetual easements that would permanently protect more than 300,000 acres of wetland-rich native prairie. Landowner demand for easements currently exceeds available funding, but DU is dedicated to closing the funding gap and protecting this vital waterfowl habitat forever. 

Through its new Rescue the Duck Factory campaign, DU is working to raise $40 million in new private gifts to secure easement funding for all the landowners on the waiting list. "The Missouri Coteau and similar prairie landscapes are much more suitable for cattle grazing than cultivating row crops because their light, rocky soils and hilly terrain are highly erodible and drought and disaster prone," Stephens says. "Despite strong incentives to convert native prairie to marginal cropland, many ranchers are determined to be good stewards of the grasslands. Easements provide extra income that helps them protect their land and their way of life."

Among the hundreds of conservation-minded landowners who have partnered with DU and the USFWS to conserve key waterfowl habitat are Delbert and Donna Eszlinger. They run a successful Angus beef cattle operation in McIntosh County, North Dakota, in the heart of the Missouri Coteau. Delbert's father started the ranch in 1940 with 160 acres, and the couple lives in the same house where Delbert was born and raised. The Eszlinger's ranch consists entirely of grassland and wetlands, and they have protected nearly 1,300 acres of prime waterfowl habitat with grassland easements.

"We feel that grassland easements are needed to protect North Dakota's native grasses," Delbert says. "Once they are plowed up, they will never come back. Wildlife that thrives on these native grasses is very much at home alongside our cattle, horses, and sheep. If we don't protect our natural resources, they will be gone forever. This is a great program and should be used by anyone who cares about our natural resources."

Every dollar contributed to DU's Rescue the Duck Factory campaign will be leveraged at least three times with matching funds from corporations, federal duck stamps, the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, and other sources. At current land values, grassland easements can be purchased from cooperating ranchers at an average cost of $360 an acre. These easements are permanent and prevent grasslands from being plowed and wetlands from being drained regardless of future ownership.

But time is not on our side. The U.S. portion of the Prairie Pothole Region has already lost more than 70 percent of its original grassland, and most of the remaining 22 million acres of native prairie in the region are vulnerable to conversion. DU research has documented that duck nesting success declines as the proportion of grassland decreases on the landscape, especially when extensive tracts of grass become highly fragmented. If grassland losses continue at current rates, duck production will undoubtedly decline, with serious consequences for waterfowl populations. The highest breeding densities of several duck species including mallards, pintails, blue-winged teal, and gadwalls occur on the prairies.

"The large tracts of remaining native prairie in the Missouri Coteau represent the 'best of the best' waterfowl breeding habitat in the United States," says Dr. Steve Adair, director of DU's Great Plains Regional Office. "Acre for acre, this habitat raises more ducks than anywhere else, and duck production on these landscapes is vital to sustaining waterfowl populations at healthy levels. If we lose these landscapes, the ability of duck populations to surge when the prairies get wet will certainly diminish."

The impact reduced duck populations would have on waterfowl hunting would be dramatic. Currently, the USFWS bases waterfowl season lengths and daily bag limits largely on the population of breeding mallards as well as the number of ponds counted in Prairie Canada. Reductions in midcontinent mallard populations of 25 to 30 percent would result in shorter seasons and smaller daily bag limits in the Mississippi and Central flyways. Greater declines in populations of mallards and other prairie-nesting species could result in closed hunting seasons during some years.

DU is working hard to help ensure that never happens. Using wetland and waterfowl survey data collected by the USFWS along with cutting-edge land cover mapping technology, DU has identified the most productive landscapes for breeding waterfowl in the U.S. portion of the Prairie Pothole Region. DU has also located the tracts of remaining native prairie that are at greatest risk of conversion to cropland (see map on page 72). This information helps DU carefully target its conservation work in the most important places and ensures that every dollar contributed to DU provides the greatest return on the investment.

"By supporting DU's Rescue the Duck Factory campaign, you can make a real difference for the ducks and the future of our sport," says DU Executive Vice President Don Young. "It's imperative that we act now because powerful forces are converging against the ducks and their habitats. DU stands ready to meet this challenge, but we need your help. With your support, we can rescue the Duck Factory and fulfill DU's vision of filling the skies with waterfowl today, tomorrow, and forever."

To make a gift to DU's Rescue the Duck Factory campaign, please contribute online at ducks.org/helptoday.