Prairies Under Siege: New Threats to Ducks & Waterfowling

North America's Prairie Pothole Region is facing the greatest potential loss of habitat in decades

by Bruce Batt, former DU chief biologist

Wetland protection is at a critical juncture in North America. The United States and Canada have already lost 70 percent of their prairie wetlands. Despite the habitat conservation gains made with duck hunter investments over the past 60 years or more, new, unexpected forces and changes threaten much of the remaining waterfowl habitat. What's at risk? The most productive wetlands and grassland nesting areas still found in both countries, especially in their prairie regions.

In the United States, damaging changes have occurred as a result of a U.S. Supreme Court decision in January 2001 in the case of Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, commonly referred to as the SWANCC decision (details at http://www.ducks.org/conservation/404_report.asp). To summarize, the SWANCC decision disallowed the use of the so-called "migratory bird rule" to extend protection to many isolated wetlands that are important to waterfowl and other birds. Thus, federal protection was severely threatened for prairie potholes that have been under jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act (CWA) since 1972. Ducks Unlimited authored a technical analysis of the potential impact of the loss of CWA protection for isolated wetlands and concluded that most of the remaining wetlands in the Prairie Pothole Region (PPR) were at great risk.

With more than two-thirds of the prairie's wetlands already lost, the remaining basins are critical to future waterfowl production. The PPR produces 75 percent of the annual fall flight of some species of waterfowl. And the potential damage extended beyond the PPR, as there are isolated wetland systems in other regions of the country that are critical to waterfowl at other times of the year.

Sportsmen have anxiously awaited a decision from the Bush administration on how the Corps of Engineers and Environmental Protection Agency would implement the Supreme Court's decision. DU provided comprehensive comments and suggestions that entirely new rules were not needed and that that process could actually weaken current protection for wetlands in the United States (see http://www.ducks.org/news/DUcomments.PDF). In early November, draft materials were leaked indicating that possible rules were going to remove protection from most isolated wetlands as well as other waters throughout the United States. With this dark cloud on the horizon, DU was delighted when President Bush, on December 16, instructed the agencies to abandon new rule making. DU was also pleased that he reaffirmed his commitment to achieve a "no net loss of wetlands" under his administration.

"We applaud the administration's wetland-protection decision," said DU Executive Vice President Don Young. But we must remain vigilant. Since the SWANCC decision in 2001, regulatory authority guidance has allowed many wetland acres to be lost. Furthermore, there are still some outstanding issues, including pending cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, regarding isolated wetlands and the Clean Water Act. Therefore, DU will continue to devote time and attention to the topic in an effort to conserve and protect this country's critical wetland resources.

Farm Bill threats

The waterfowl conservation community was happy with the passage of the 2002 Farm Bill, as it contained several important provisions that promise great benefits for waterfowl and other wildlife. But, the devil is in the details.

The 2002 Farm Bill also contained commodity subsidies for grain producers. Those subsidies have prompted some speculators to purchase native prairie ranchlands (which contain grasslands vital to nesting waterfowl) and convert them to crops. New strains of wheat and soybeans can now be seeded directly into prairie soils at relatively low cost. This allows some new landowners to, in effect, "farm the Farm Bill," because these crops qualify for subsidies paid to growers based on acres planted and guaranteed base prices. Once converted to cropland, however, the former grasslands can never again be returned to their native state with the full complement of plants and wildlife species. Their loss is permanent.

Waterfowl biologists credit much of the last decade's duck population recovery to production on the U.S. portion of the prairies. Most people feel the driving force was the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which, since its inception, has returned more than 10 million acres of cropland to better nesting habitat. Where CRP covers the landscape, waterfowl nest success is much better than in areas where habitat is fragmented.

However, a second surprise in the 2002 Farm Bill is in the regulations that determine which landowners can receive CRP payments. CRP is the most important U.S. program affecting duck production on the prairies. Nonetheless, in the recent sign-up of new CRP contracts, almost none of the acres were awarded to the prairie pothole states. The bulk of the new contracts are going to provide habitat buffers along streams and the edges of fields outside the PPR. Habitat buffers are good environmental practices, but they don't benefit nesting prairie waterfowl. In 2003, the total new enrollment in the PPR dramatically decreased from annual levels over the past 15 years. (In fact, in 2003 only 57,000 acres were enrolled in CRP in North and South Dakota, compared to a peak enrollment of 2.8 million acres a few years ago.) Correcting this change by regulators will require diligence and another campaign by duck hunters and others who have an abiding interest in the prairies and all the wildlife that its wetlands and grasslands provide.

Quietly in the background, yet another battle over CRP in the prairies is being sorted out. This time, the issue is the frequency of allowable management by grazing, burning, or haying of the cover on CRP fields. One emerging formula allows management every three years, which is good for quail in some regions but results in lost waterfowl habitat every three years. Prairie grasses do not need to be managed that frequently, so DU and its partners are heavily engaged with the Farm Services Agency to help develop rules that allow a more beneficial management schedule on prairie CRP fields.

Ducks Unlimited, other conservation groups, and public agencies have focused their waterfowl conservation efforts in the PPR for more than 60 years. Many substantial accomplishments have resulted from those efforts. The most significant evidence of those accomplishment is the dramatic recovery of the birds during the mid- and late 1990s, when duck numbers increased by a remarkable 69 percent from their low in 1993.

That recovery was possible because, as changed as the prairies appear to the human eye, enough underlying productivity of the land remains to allow the birds to multiply when good water conditions return following dry periods. Ducks Unlimited's fundamental philosophy regarding these landscapes is to aggressively restore, manage, and protect the habitat, through wet and dry years, so that when water conditions allow, the birds will be highly productive once again.

The productive prairie

Duck hunters have been core supporters of DU and of federal programs benefiting the prairies. The federal duck stamp program, which was created in 1934, has resulted in more than 5.4 million acres of critical wetland habitat being conserved. The majority (approximately 55 percent) of these acres have been in Waterfowl Production Areas, 95 percent of which are in the prairie pothole states. The remainder of the habitat that has been conserved by the duck stamp program has been wetland and related upland habitat in national wildlife refuges in other parts of the country. This inventory and legacy of conservation continues to grow each year and clearly demonstrates what can be accomplished when well thought-out programs to protect habitat are maintained. On top of these accomplishments, Ducks Unlimited expanded its breeding grounds work from Canada into the U.S. prairie pothole states in 1984, and has since conserved more than 600,000 acres of wetland and upland habitat in these prairie states.

Canada and the United States share the largest undefended border between any two countries in the world. They also share the entire prairie pothole habitat on the continent. However, many of the similarities stop there as the history of resource use, government policy, farm practices, and rural economic development has matured under very different political and economic circumstances in each country.

Ducks Unlimited in Canada worked exclusively on the Canadian prairies for the first 30 years of its existence. To this day, DU's Canadian operations allocate nearly 70 percent of conservation expenditures to the Canadian Prairie Provinces. As a result, 5,500 DU projects on the prairies have conserved 3.5 million acres of waterfowl habitat in Canada. In some waterfowl-important regions of Canada's prairies, DU has protected most, or portions of, all the major wetlands. This is an enormous legacy to the millions of DU supporters and the 16,000 Canadian landowners who own the land that they have enrolled with DU. This is a large portion of the habitat infrastructure that has been secured for waterfowl in the prairies of Canada, inasmuch as there is no Canadian counterpart to the government-managed wildlife areas in the United States.

About 15 years ago, DU Canada hit a crossroads with the realization that the magnificent wetland legacy it had accumulated was not enough. Historically, wetland loss had posed the greatest threat to waterfowl populations in Canada. However, it had become clear that the new threat was loss of upland nesting cover and reductions in waterfowl nest success rates. DU refined its focus to include entire landscapes of habitat, not just the wetlands. Landscapes with the highest densities of wetlands and the highest production potential have been the focus of this work.

Despite the new focus and the near complete redirection of effort, much remains to be accomplished in prairie Canada for the long-term future of prairie ducks. And, a basic fact of life in prairie Canada is that it is mostly excellent farmland—and it will continue to be farmed. As such, waterfowl conservation must be directed towards farming practices that are beneficial to waterfowl and encourage agricultural policies that make it beneficial to landowners to remove some parts of the land from cultivation or to simply farm it differently. A CRP-type program that encourages farming practices that are more beneficial to waterfowl is needed in Canada.

The good news is, large tracts of the Canadian landscape are still in native grasslands, and these are typically good areas for waterfowl production. Fortunately, because of a collection of economic and political forces in the last few years, a significant number of Canadian farmers have switched to cattle production and have converted land back into pasture and forage. This is a positive turn of events, as it is driven by market factors that are widespread and are more sustainable. However, an unexpected problem has emerged. Last spring, a single cow in Alberta was diagnosed with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), also known as Mad Cow Disease. The outbreak was quickly dealt with and confined to the single animal. Nevertheless, Canada's beef was immediately banned from many world markets, most importantly the United States and Japan, and it is still banned as this is written. This change threatens the progress being made towards increasing the more duck-friendly acreages of pastureland in western Canada as, with severely reduced movement of cattle across international borders, farmers have much less incentive to switch from raising crops to raising cattle.

Progress in Canada

Despite the BSE crisis, significant and positive progress is being made with agricultural policy in Canada. The Canadian federal government's new Agriculture Policy Framework (APF) is set up to allow producers to safeguard the environment by improving grassland management practices, thus protecting water quality and wildlife habitat while supporting their own farm interests. A key component of the APF is Greencover Canada. This is the first year of a five-year $110 million program to convert environmentally sensitive land to perennial grass cover. Other components of Greencover Canada focus on shelterbelts and technical assistance. The Canadian government consulted organizations such as Ducks Unlimited during its development.

This is a momentous first step towards assuring that as much of the Canadian prairie as possible will be sustained in permanent cover that is the most beneficial for nesting waterfowl and other wildlife.

"This program has the potential to improve wildlife habitat on more than two and a half million acres of land in the next five years. If it is well received by producers, we are hopeful that an even bigger program will be developed to follow this one," says Dr. Brian Gray, DU's director of conservation programs in Canada.

One of the most significant shifts in prairie agriculture in the United States and Canada occurred in the 1980s when farmers greatly reduced the amount of land tillage to conserve soil and water resources and to reduce the costs of cultivation. This resulted in millions of acres of unplowed stubble persisting on the land each spring. This stubble is a preferred nesting cover for pintails and is used by some other ducks. Unfortunately, new crops and cultivation systems have also moved most prairie farmers to continuous cropping, so most of this stubble cover is seeded most springs before the early nests have a chance to hatch. As a result, cultivation machinery destroys tens of thousands of nests every year. This is especially detrimental to pintails, as they are the earliest nesters. This factor alone is thought to be the driving force behind the record low numbers of pintails over the past few years.

DU has conducted research that confirms this stubble cover can be very productive for nesting waterfowl if it is seeded in the previous fall under a zero-tillage scheme. DU-supported research at the University of Saskatchewan has helped develop better strains of winter wheat for fall seeding, but there are major challenges in getting wider use of fall-seeded cereals on the prairies. In Canada, DU has adopted a goal of having winter wheat replace a majority of the 16 million acres of spring wheat that is currently planted each year. DU has developed expertise in agriculture, specifically in winter wheat production, and in developing strategies to accomplish landscape-level change. There are many hurdles, but few agricultural practices hold more promise for the future improvement of prairie agriculture for both wildlife and producers.

The future

Waterfowl conservation on the prairies must take place in a complex matrix of farmland, ranches, and protected areas. DU is centrally involved in resolving these issues and in directing its conservation programs to the wildlife management and agricultural practices that have long-term promise for breeding waterfowl. DU is fully engaged with provincial, state, and federal governments in developing water- and land-use policies that will sustain the agricultural community while, at the same time, providing for the long-term needs of waterfowl and other wildlife. By helping to resolve these issues through the development of forward-thinking programs such as the APF in Canada and Farm Bill regulations in the United States, DU is part of a landscape-altering movement that will provide lasting environmental, economic, and societal benefits to waterfowl, wildlife, wetlands, and people for generations to come.

The challenges and the landscapes are still enormous. If the long-term future of prairie ducks is to be secured, much remains to be accomplished on the prairies. DU has a top priority goal of protecting an additional 4.5 million acres of critical duck nesting habitat in the prairies. This work is well under way as members, foundations, agencies, and others are supporting DU's plan.

Despite the accomplishments of the past, the prairies remain under siege from many directions. We must quicken the pace and expand our habitat conservation efforts to assure the long-term health of prairie pothole landscapes if we are to continue to repeat the great story of waterfowl recovery following the inevitable dry periods of the future.

This article is part two in a four-part series, "Prairies Under Siege." Read part three here or go back to part one.