Stewards of the Prairie

Cattle ranchers manage much of this continent's most important waterfowl breeding habitat

by Dave Smith

Whenever I see cows, I see wetlands and ducks.

Kurt Forman has dedicated his career to conserving the grasslands and wetlands of the Prairie Pothole Region (PPR). He's one of the most knowledgeable and passionate advocates for conserving this region that produces many of North America's ducks each year. Yet the most concise description of the relationship between land use and waterfowl came not from him, but from an untrained observer on a flight over the Missouri Coteau in South Dakota.

"My guest looked down at the landscape and came to it on his own," says Forman, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's (USFWS) Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program coordinator in South Dakota. "Family-owned ranch land is the glue that is holding together much of the breeding grounds. Keeping ranching on the prairies is by far the best way to maintain a functional landscape."

The linkage between ranching, grasslands, wetlands, and waterfowl is strongly supported by research conducted over the past three decades by Ducks Unlimited, the USFWS, and others. In the PPR, environmental parameters such as annual wetland conditions greatly influence waterfowl production from year to year. But the magnitude of the booms in duck production that occur in wet years is influenced by landscape conditions, including the amount of grassland on the landscape. Moreover, wetlands embedded in grasslands are often more productive and support more breeding pairs and duck broods than do wetlands surrounded by a sea of cropland. 

The thread of ranching ties it all together. "We want to keep the table set with intact native prairie and wetland systems that allow ducks to respond to favorable environmental conditions," says Dr. Scott Stephens, DU Canada's director of regional operations for the PPR and formerly a scientist at DU's Great Plains office in Bismarck. "If ranching isn't profitable, we can't maintain grasslands at the required scale, and the capacity of the region to produce ducks at desired levels will be lost forever."

Sadly, grasslands in the PPR are being converted to cropland at an alarming rate. According to DU government affairs representative Scott McLeod, more than 500,000 acres of native prairie were lost from 2002 to 2007 in the PPR of South Dakota, North Dakota, and Montana. In some areas, the rate of grassland conversion approaches 2 percent a year. If losses continue at this rate, more than half of the remaining 23 million acres of native prairie in the U.S. PPR will be lost over the next 34 years. 

The development of more drought-resistant and faster-growing varieties of corn and soybeans are allowing row crops to be planted in areas of the PPR that were previously unsuitable for farming. Prices are also high because of a strong export market and federal mandates for the production of biofuels. But market prices are only part of the grassland conversion equation. Beef prices have also been strong during much of the same period. However, in many cases, the availability of commodity support, crop insurance, and disaster payments make cultivating marginal lands more profitable than raising cattle on them. This trend increases agricultural land values and reduces the availability of grazing land for cattle production. 


Prairie wetlands are also strongly influenced by land use trends. Wetlands are a valuable asset to ranchers because they provide water and high-quality forage for cattle in dry years. In contrast, these same wetlands, especially small and highly productive temporary and seasonal wetlands, are seen as a hindrance by farmers, because yields of wheat and other crops are reduced in close proximity to wetlands. 

Thus waterfowl conservation in the PPR comes down to maintaining and increasing the profitability of ranching. "Ranching is the economic reason that these habitats still exist," says Dr. Jim Ringelman, DU's director of conservation programs in the Dakotas and Montana. "We will never be able to protect enough land through direct habitat programs. We need ranchers on the landscape."

The tools available to help ranchers remain a fixture on the prairie landscape include grassland conservation easements, technical assistance, and cost-share funding for grazing management. Mentoring programs that help ranchers conserve natural resources and improve their profitability are also important.

Jason Riopel, DU

Many of North America's blue-winged teal and other ducks are raised on working cattle ranches. (photo by Jason Riopel, DU)
Grassland conservation easements offered by the USFWS in partnership with DU are popular among prairie ranchers, particularly in South Dakota, where landowners are currently waiting to protect thousands of acres of wetlands and grasslands with conservation easements. In addition, rancher-supported land trusts are making valuable contributions to the protection of grasslands and wetlands on intact working landscapes.

"Grassland easements are a great way to help landowners who are committed to grassland conservation," Forman says. "But it isn't the end of the relationship. We want the ranch to be profitable in terms of cash flow, so we provide ongoing cost-share and technical assistance related to grassland management."

Ranching may even play an important role in the future of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which has produced millions of additional ducks over the past two decades. CRP enrollment in the Dakotas has declined from roughly 4.9 million acres in 2006 to 3.8 million acres in 2010. These losses have prompted conservationists to seek new ways to make CRP more attractive to prairie landowners. Allowing ranchers to graze cattle on CRP land in return for longer contracts and reduced rental rates is one promising way to ensure the viability of the program. DU supports this cost-effective policy adjustment as a way to address declining CRP enrollment. 

Research in the PPR shows that duck nesting success is roughly the same in idle CRP and grazed native prairie.

"CRP is a voluntary conservation program. If landowners don't choose to sign up, the land will be going into corn and beans. But if landowners can get some additional benefits from CRP land, they will be more likely to keep it in the program," McLeod explains. 

Krista and Jay Reiser, a young couple building their own ranching operation on the edge of the wetland-rich Missouri Coteau in central North Dakota, are representative of the next generation of prairie ranchers. They worked with the North Dakota Grazing Land Coalition's Grazing Land Mentorship Network to develop a plan for their operation that emphasizes soil conservation and grassland sustainability. Their strategy includes later calving to match nutritional requirements with forage availability, intensive rotational grazing, winter bale grazing, and a host of other practices that reduce input costs and build soil health.

"We both grew up on ranches and we love the land, but we couldn't make it pencil out using traditional management practices," Krista Reiser says. "We're building our operation by taking care of the soil, working with nature, and reducing costs. It will give us the returns we need over the long haul to be profitable."

The relationship between grazing economics, grassland abundance, and duck production requires waterfowl conservationists to think in new ways. It's not about altering grazing management to change grass height or plant composition. It's about helping ranchers alter grazing management in a way that increases profitability and keeps grass "right side up" on a landscape level. 

The difference is subtle, but important. It's about keeping ranchers and grassland on the prairies, which will be vital to the future of waterfowl and waterfowl hunting

RANCHING FAMILY FOSTERS GRASSLAND CONSERVATION South Dakota rancher Jim Faulstich knows from 80 years of family history that conserving healthy grasslands is vital to sustaining the ranching economy. Faulstich has worked with Ducks Unlimited, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), Natural Resources Conservation Service, and others in efforts to conserve grasslands. He negotiated a conservation easement with the USFWS to protect grasslands and wetlands on his ranch forever, a decision that he says solidified his family's future in ranching.

"We were able to bring my daughter, Jacquie, and my son-in-law, Adam, into the operation due to the grassland easement program," Faulstich says. "It helped put another generation of grass managers out there, and probably another generation beyond that of folks who care about the land." 

The Faulstichs received a National Cattlemen's Beef Association Environmental Stewardship Award in recognition of their work to conserve and sustainably manage grasslands for cattle and wildlife.



Dave Smith is a freelance writer and biologist based in Missoula, Montana.