A Duck's-Eye-View

Federal conservation programs are helping DU create healthier landscapes for waterfowl in the Great Lakes region

by Gildo Tori

Waterfowl winging their way across North America have a unique perspective that is hard to image—unless you're a small aircraft pilot. Flying at several hundred—or thousand—feet high, waterfowl can easily identify and evaluate the landscape below as they seek food resources and safe resting areas. Ducks Unlimited biologists keep this perspective in mind as they plan and implement conservation projects for waterfowl, knowing that ducks, geese, and swans need a mix of habitat types in fairly close proximity to meet their biological needs.

Over the past decade or so the term "landscape," or "ecosystem," conservation has been in vogue. The idea is to ensure that sufficient waterfowl habitat is protected, restored, or enhanced in a large enough area to support breeding, migrating, and wintering waterfowl at desired population levels. DU has long been guided by this principle, which its conservation staff applies on the landscape in top-priority conservation areas across North America.

As our continent's human population grows and expands, wetlands and other natural areas continue to be lost and degraded, threatening waterfowl and other wildlife. Often natural landscapes suffer a "death by a thousand cuts," as we have seen in the long-term drainage of small wetlands in the Prairie Pothole Region and other areas. DU is working diligently to reverse these habitat losses, one wetland at a time. In addition, public policy work complements and advances DU's traditional on-the-ground conservation projects, which have long been the hallmark of the organization. The North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA) and Farm Bill conservation programs, in particular, conserve waterfowl habitat across broad landscapes important to DU's mission.

Another prime example of federal legislation that is creating healthier landscapes for waterfowl and other wildlife is the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI). This year, Congress appropriated $475 million for this new initiative, including more than $120 million for on-the-ground habitat restoration work. The GLRI, along with NAWCA and Farm Bill conservation programs, provides vital funding for conservation work in the Great Lakes watershed, which DU has designated as a high-priority conservation area. Each year, this region supports 2 to 3 million breeding waterfowl and approximately 5 to 7 million migrating and wintering ducks and geese. Sadly, the Great Lakes region has already lost more than 50 percent of its historical wetlands, with many important coastal wetland systems having lost closer to 90 percent.

Immediately after the GLRI was signed into law, DU staff at the Great Lakes/Atlantic Regional Office (GLARO) in Ann Arbor, Michigan, went to work assembling partners in Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and New York to submit proposals for GLRI funding to restore waterfowl habitat, improve water quality (through special Farm Bill funding), manage invasive species, and conduct other conservation work. The results were impressive. Working with 28 partners, DU was awarded 19 grants totaling more than $10 million.

A report by the Brookings Institution estimates that every dollar invested in Great Lakes restoration projects generates two dollars of economic growth.

So what will this infusion of money mean from a landscape perspective? Let's focus on western Lake Erie, often referred to as the crossroads of the Atlantic and Mississippi flyways. Waterfowl produced in Canada from the Prairie Pothole Region all the way to the Maritimes stage in this region before migrating farther south to wintering areas like Chesapeake Bay, the Mississippi Alluvial Valley, and the Gulf Coast. Six major DU projects are currently under way in the western Lake Erie watershed. When completed, this new habitat will help provide a much more hospitable landscape for waterfowl. Several additional projects are being delivered in this region by DU partners such as the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment, and the Ohio Division of Wildlife.

DU and its partners are protecting, restoring, and enhancing waterfowl habitat on both private and public land in this region. Along the Michigan shore of Lake Erie, 258 acres of coastal marsh are being restored at the Erie Marsh Preserve and 91 acres are being restored at the Point Aux Peaux State Wildlife Area. In addition, 64 acres of waterfowl habitat are being restored on the newly acquired Dusseau Tract at Erie State Game Area, including small, shallow wetlands, rare lake-plain prairie, and coastal wetlands. These habitats will not only support breeding and migrating waterfowl but also filter runoff from neighboring agricultural fields. DU and partners will also secure conservation easements adjacent to these protected conservation lands, which will serve as buffers for this habitat in perpetuity.

On the Ohio side of Lake Erie, DU will be working with the Ohio Division of Wildlife to enhance a 392-acre coastal wetland at the Magee Marsh Wildlife Area, which provides some of the best public duck hunting in the region. Another DU project, the Middle Harbor Restoration, will restore a severely degraded coastal marsh, which is currently devoid of vegetation and filled with invasive common carp. When completed, this restored marsh will provide high-quality wetland habitat for waterfowl, fish, and other species.

And in both Michigan and Ohio, the NRCS is directing its GLRI/Farm Bill funding toward conservation practices that will improve water quality and provide habitat for wildlife. Farm Bill conservation programs such as the Environmental Quality Incentive Program, Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program, and Emergency Watershed Protection Program will help restore wetland and wildlife habitat on a landscape level and improve water quality in Lake Erie.

"In so many areas of this country, waterfowl are faced with diminishing quality and quantity of habitat. The GLRI, funding for habitat and Farm Bill conservation programs, is truly transforming many areas of the Great Lakes, especially western Lake Erie," said Becky Humphries, director of DU's GLARO. "Black ducks, mallards, canvasbacks, scaup, Canada geese, and many other waterfowl species will find a much more welcoming landscape when they migrate to and through the Great Lakes region."

Looking ahead, securing funding for the GLRI, Farm Bill conservation programs, NAWCA, and other important programs for waterfowl will be a challenge, given the current budget environment in Congress. One key selling point for these programs—beyond their immediate habitat benefits—is that they provide recreational opportunities and support jobs associated with hunting, fishing, bird-watching, other outdoor sports, and on-the-ground restoration work. A report by the Brookings Institution estimates that every dollar invested in Great Lakes restoration projects generates two dollars of economic growth.

With policy work currently under way on the 2012 Farm Bill, now is the time for DU members to inform their congressional representatives about how important these conservation programs are to wetlands, other wildlife, and people. To make your voice heard in support of waterfowl conservation and our hunting heritage, visit the DU website at www.ducks.org/publicpolicy.

Gildo Tori is director of public policy at DU's Great Lakes/Atlantic Regional Office in Ann Arbor, Michigan.