Spanning the U.S. and Canadian border, the Prairie Pothole Region forms the core of what was formerly the largest expanse of grassland in the world. Glaciers receding at the end of the last Ice Age left behind millions of shallow wetlands-so-called prairie potholes-speckled in an endless sea of grass. Shallow wetlands teeming with aquatic plant and animal life are juxtaposed with grasslands communities lying atop deep, nutrient-rich soils. An impressive array of bird species is dependent on the productive and highly-diverse nature of the prairie.
Waterfowl are uniquely adapted to take advantage of all aspects the prairie-gorging on abundant, protein-rich aquatic invertebrates in the spring, nesting in expansive fields of prairie grasses, and finally returning with newly-hatched broods back to wetlands to prepare for fall migration. Additionally, prairie wetlands provide crucial food resources for young and adult waterfowl alike, and provide sanctuary for ducks during molt.
When it comes to breeding waterfowl, surrounding grasslands are equally as important as the prairie potholes themselves. North America's upland-nesting duck species (i.e. northern pintail, mallard, blue-winged teal, gadwall, etc.) will successfully nest up to several miles away from wetlands provided adequate grassland habitat exists. Nests and hens incubating nests are extremely vulnerable to predators. Even in intact prairie systems, duck populations can lose two out of three attempted nests to predators. Nesting success is a scientific measure of how many nests that were started actually hatch at least one duckling. As the abundance of grassland increases in a landscape, nesting success also rises. After years of research Ducks Unlimited and the rest of the conservation community now recognize with certainty that inadequate grassland habitat is responsible for low nesting success. This knowledge is the cornerstone of Ducks Unlimited Grasslands for Tomorrow Initiative. Protecting and restoring grasslands is paramount to ensuring healthy waterfowl populations.
A whole suite of other bird species is also dependent upon the unique character of the prairies: marbled godwit, bobolink, short-eared owls, Wilson's phalarope, Baird's sparrow, Sprague's pipit, chestnut-collared longspur, grasshopper sparrow. Although their life strategies might differ; shorebirds, wading birds, passerines, hawks, owls, and ducks are inextricably tied to the fate of the prairies. Grasslands for Tomorrow is dedicated to protecting 2 million acres of the disappearing prairie-the prairies need your help and support.
All is not well on the prairies. Over 70% of the wetlands in the Prairie Pothole Region have been drained or severely degraded, and the destruction continues. Wetland communities are less diverse and fewer in number, reducing the capacity of the land to sustain species' populations. Grasslands crucial to waterfowl populations have been decimated-less than one-fourth remains and the prairies continue to be converted to cropland at an alarming rate. These losses have had dire effects on waterfowl and all prairie-dependent species. Northern pintail and lesser scaup populations are undergoing a long-term decline. And the habitat base continues to be lost.
Threats to the prairie abound. In the United States, the federal farm program subsidizes wheat, corn, soybeans and several other crops under a complex system that pays growers based on acres planted and prevailing market prices. The current subsidy system is designed to bolster low commodity prices, which are often caused by over-supply. These subsidies not only fuel more overproduction but also prompt speculators to purchase native prairie and convert it to new cropland. Because these newly broken acres tend to be in drought- and disaster-prone areas, federal disaster relief payments per cropland acre have tended to be several-fold greater than in areas better suited for growing crops. Along with the U.S. taxpayer, breeding waterfowl, godwits and grasshopper sparrows suffer the consequences.
But the threat to native prairie grasslands does not stop with subsidies. Drought-hardy, cold-resistant, and herbicide-tolerant varieties of soybeans, wheat and corn are allowing these crops to expand into native grassland. Land once incompatible with row-crop agriculture -- but which provided a living to ranching families and habitat for prairie wildlife -- is being converted to row crops. Compared to grassland, cropland provides few or no resources for breeding birds. These new cropping technologies, in combination with other factors such as the current subsidy programs, are accelerating the destruction of our native prairie
The Northern Great Plains is quickly becoming a highly fragmented landscape in which remnant patches of grassland are interspersed within large, monotypic crop fields. This mix of land uses provides poor habitat for prairie wildlife, and skews the composition of the mammalian predator community to favor species that are particularly harmful to ground-nesting birds and fragments the landscape in a manner that enhances the nest-searching efficiency of these predators. Consequently, nesting success of waterfowl, shorebirds and songbirds plummets, and their populations decline. The solution is to work with ranchers and others who own prairie grasslands to secure the habitat through conservation easements. Protecting our remaining native prairie remains the highest priority of Ducks Unlimited.
With your support Ducks Unlimited is facing this daunting challenge head on. Through the Grassland for Tomorrow Initiative, Ducks Unlimited has pledged to perpetually protect 2,000,000 acres of native prairie for future generations to experience and enjoy. Two million acres is one of the most ambitions conservation initiatives ever undertaken-the goals are high, because the stakes are high. Failure to save these prairie acres is to usher the in demise of diverse plant and animal life dependent upon this unique ecoregion. This is not pessimism, but a call to action before it is too late.
Perpetual protection of native prairie is achieved through perpetual grassland & wetland easements, land purchases, and donated conservation easements. These approaches are always directed at willing landowners.
In cases where property is not for sale or the landowner is not in a position to donate a conservation easement, opportunities to sell perpetual grassland easements will be offered. In exchange for a one-time payment equating to approximately one-fourth of the land's value, landowners enter into legal agreements that prevent grasslands being placed under easement from ever being plowed. Grassland easements are compatible with livestock production and allow the land to remain in private ownership. Terms of the grassland easements allow grazing, but limit the timing of haying to protect birds during the nesting season. An important side benefit of grassland easements is that little incentive exists to drain or alter wetlands within the area covered by the grassland easement because of wetlands' value to livestock. Nonetheless, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will also purchase permanent easements on all wetlands encompassed by the grassland easements to ensure the protection of the entire prairie complex.
Grassland easements are bought with money donated to Ducks Unlimited, but the easements are monitored and enforced by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Ranchers view grassland easements positively because easements offer financial relief at a time of low economic return in the ranching industry. For the conservationist, grassland easements offer the most cost-effective way to secure the last remaining Prairie Pothole Region habitat in North America.
In locations where wildlife habitat has been degraded and the land is for sale, Ducks Unlimited will seek to acquire land. Once purchased, grasslands and wetlands on the property will be restored and conservation easements will be placed on land to perpetually protect important resource values. Once restoration is complete and protections are in place, the land will be sold to a wildlife agency or to a private individual who shares DU's interest in protecting the prairie's natural values. This will include ranchers who are willing to work with DU to maintain sustainable, grassland-based ranching operations, as well as individuals who want the land primarily for its conservation or recreational values. Funds recovered through the subsequent sale of land will be re-directed to new purchases. The Grasslands for Tomorrow goal is to hold approximately 7,500 acres of property at any one time. Restored lands would be sold within three to four years.
Donated conservation easements provide unique opportunities to protect private lands when the landowner is in a financial position to donate property rights and cover costs associated with annual monitoring. Ducks Unlimited accepts easements in perpetuity and agrees to annually monitor the property to ensure the terms of the easement are followed and the conservation values of the land are maintained.
As part of the donated easement partnership, landowners receive technical assistance from Ducks Unlimited on how to perform conservation-friendly land management. Additionally, the landowner donating an easement often recognizes substantial tax advantages as a result of the donation.
In locations where valuable, intact habitat is at imminent risk but the landowner is not willing to consider an easement, Ducks Unlimited may seek to acquire the property . Once purchased, grasslands and wetlands are restored and conservation easements placed on the land so as to perpetually protect important resource values. During the period of DU’s ownership, the public is welcome to hunt and enjoy the properties. When restoration is complete and easements are in place, the land is re-sold to a wildlife agency or a private individual who shares DU's interest in protecting the prairie's natural values. Previous buyers have included agencies who wanted the land for a state or federal wildlife area, ranchers who needed pasture and were willing to abide by the terms of the easement, and individuals who were interested in the land primarily for its conservation or recreational values. Funds recovered through the subsequent sale of land are deposited in a revolving fund, which can be tapped for new acquisitions. Using this approach, 150,000 acres will be secured as part of Grasslands for Tomorrow.
Wetland restoration has always been an important program in Ducks Unlimited, and it remains a vital part of Grasslands for Tomorrow. DU engineers are among the best in the world at restoring the functions and values of wetlands, which include not only waterfowl habitat but also floodwater retention, groundwater recharge, water purification, and other ecological goods and services. DU strategically restores wetlands in landscapes where nesting cover is adequate to ensure good nesting success. Most large restoration projects incorporate water control capabilities that enable landowners or agency personnel to enhance the productivity of the wetland through water level manipulation. Smaller projects may entail simple procedures such as ditch plugs. Because aquatic seeds may persist in wetland soils for years or even decades, the aquatic system rebounds quickly once hydrology is restored.
Ducks Unlimited also assists with re-establishment of grasslands on former crop fields. Plantings may include easy-to-establish, cool season exotic grasses that are attractive to nesting ducks, or more difficult-to-establish native plant species. When grasslands will be permanently protected, native species are preferred because they are more attractive to a variety of birds and mammals, and require less maintenance in the long term.
In rare instances, DU projects may involve intensive management techniques such as nesting islands, predator exclusion fences, nesting structures, or other techniques. In the current environment where habitat is being lost quickly but can be protected relatively inexpensively, expenditures on expensive “intensive management” techniques are made very selectively. Typically, such investments may be made where several partners want to cost-share the expense, and implementing intensive management will result in a significant, incremental return on a new of existing investment.
Public policy shapes the face of the prairie landscape. Consequently, DU is actively involved on committees and with organizations that deal in policy issues. Within the U.S. Farm Bill, the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) has had an enormous impact on duck populations. First implemented in 1985, CRP has, over time, restored 7.8 million acres of grasslands within the Prairie Pothole Region. Scientists estimate that 2.2 million additional ducks per year are added to the fall population as a result of CRP. A companion conservation program in the Farm Bill -- the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) -- pays landowners for easements to protect previously-cropped wetlands, and cost-shares the restoration of wetlands impacted by agriculture. Also of critical importance are provisions in the Farm Bill know as “Swampbuster” and “Sodbuster”, which protect wetlands and grasslands by providing a disincentive that discourages destruction of these critical habitats.
Much of the funding for easements and restoration originates from grants under the North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA). This important program promotes partnerships and leverage of financial resources and expertise, and has been a tremendous asset to conservation efforts in the Prairie Pothole Region. Maintaining the viability of NAWCA is a high priority public policy objective of Ducks Unlimited.
Most waterfowl habitat in the Prairie Pothole Region is on private land. Consequently, Ducks Unlimited has several programs that work with landowners to help them improve and protect waterfowl habitat while at the same time maintaining or enhancing the viability of their ranching or farming operation.
In the Prairie Pothole Region, ranchers and ducks are dependent on the same resources: water and grass. This common need opens many opportunities for DU to work with livestock producers. Grassland and wetland easements are attractive to many ranchers because they provide a payment for maintaining resources they already have. Ranchers have used easement payments for many purposes, including retiring debt, expanding their operation, and sending kids to college. In addition, many ranchers have a deep respect for the land, and often enter into an easement agreement out of a strong belief that their rangeland should never be plowed. In addition to easements, DU works with ranchers to establish rotational grazing systems that increase the profitability of their operations while enhancing range quality, and may also cost-share new watering facilities including stock ponds and tanks.
While most cropland is of little value to breeding ducks, winter wheat affords a duck-friendly alternative that provides relatively secure nesting habitat. It’s value lies in the fact that winter wheat is planted in the fall, most typically into stubble left over from the previous crop. The stubble traps winter snows, thereby insulating the winter wheat sprouts during frigid temperatures. In the spring, the stubble and short, green wheat is attractive to some nesting ducks, particularly northern pintail. Because winter wheat (unlike spring-seeded crops) remains undisturbed during spring, duck nests are not destroyed by farm machinery. In addition, since wheat fields are not very profitable foraging habitats for mammalian predators, nests are relatively secure and have hatch rates several-fold higher than those nests located in spring-seeded crops.
br>In the U.S., Ducks Unlimited employs two full-time agronomists, who deliver the winter wheat program. They offer incentives and technical support to landowners to entice them to try winter wheat and ensure their success. In addition, DU supports several variety trials in which new breeds of winter wheat are tested and evaluated under field conditions. Results of field experiments on variety, rotation, fertilization, and pesticide/herbicide application are published periodically in DU’s winter cereals newsletter. This information, combined with incentive payments, one-on-one crop consulting, and extension efforts, has substantially increased winter wheat acreage in the Dakotas.
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