Potholes in Peril

New threats to prairie wetlands could mean big trouble for duck populations
By Jim Ringelman, Ph.D. 

In the Prairie Pothole Region, small glacially formed wetlands, known as "potholes," make a duck's world go round. These shallow, highly productive wetlands provide the invertebrate food resources hens need to produce eggs and determine how many breeding ducks the landscape can support. As a result, public policies and market forces that affect prairie potholes have huge implications for duck populations and duck hunters. 

Sadly, prairie wetlands are threatened more than ever. An unfortunate series of events has set the stage for massive wetland drainage in the heart of North America's "Duck Factory." Persistent wet weather over the past several years has created a pent-up demand for drainage. Inexpensive plastic drain tiles provide an easy way to move water off the land. Commodity prices, which are at or near all-time highs, provide a strong financial incentive to bring every acre into production. In the past, the wetland compliance provision of the Farm Bill, commonly known as Swampbuster, effectively deterred wetland drainage. 

But that deterrent is now weakening.

Landowners who drain wetlands in violation of Swampbuster risk losing Farm Bill commodity payments. But these payments are either being phased out or have become irrelevant because of high commodity prices. 

Other Farm Bill programs that were once linked to wetland protection, such as crop insurance, are no longer coupled with conservation compliance provisions. Among waterfowl managers, concern over weakened wetland protections has leapfrogged ahead of all other issues. 

On the Canadian side of the Prairie Pothole Region, wetland drainage continues to be the greatest threat to healthy fall flights of ducks. In Canada, the jurisdiction for wetland protection resides at the provincial level. Unfortunately, the three prairie provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta don't have conservation policies that provide strong protection for wetlands. The result is that thousands of prairie potholes continue to be drained each year, impacting not only ducks but also other wildlife and people. This issue is a high priority for DU Canada, which is working with provincial governments and other partners to develop policies to protect prairie wetlands. 

In this country, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that 1.4 million small wetlands are at high risk of drainage in the eastern Dakotas, an especially important waterfowl breeding area. If these wetlands are lost, biologists predict that breeding duck numbers in this region could decline by an estimated 2.9 million birds (37 percent). Included in these calculations is a potential loss of more than 700,000 breeding mallards a year. 

Biologists have looked at what this could mean for duck hunters and have concluded that the continued loss of small wetlands in the Dakotas and Prairie Canada, and subsequent mallard population declines, could result in a greater frequency of more restrictive waterfowl harvest regulations in the future. Put simply, widespread wetland drainage would create the equivalent of a permanent drought in the Duck Factory, suppressing duck populations below the levels we've enjoyed for nearly two decades.

The solution is to maintain strong public policies that discourage wetland drainage and to continue to fund wetland restoration programs in both the United States and Canada. Duck hunters and other conservationists should be aware of the stakes and let their elected officials know that effective wetland protections must be included in the next Farm Bill, and that wetland restoration programs like the North American Wetlands Conservation Act must be funded at effective levels. 

In addition, DU and its partners must accelerate the acquisition of perpetual wetland and grassland easements on the prairies. Once under easement, wetlands are protected regardless of market forces and public policies, ensuring vital habitat for breeding waterfowl and many other wildlife species in perpetuity. By renewing your DU membership and volunteering for and attending DU fundraising events, you are helping to ensure a secure future for prairie wetlands and other key waterfowl habitats across North America. 

For more information on how you can make your voice heard in support of wetlands and waterfowl, visit www.ducks.org/publicpolicy

Dr. Jim Ringelman is director of conservation programs at DU's Great Plains office in Bismarck, North Dakota.