Some call the Prairie Pothole Region (PPR) of the United States and Canada the "Duck Factory" of North America.
Henry and Eleanor Carlson just call it home.
By helping Ducks Unlimited conserve native grasslands and pothole wetlands in the Prairie Pothole Region, the Carlsons are not only securing the future of North America's waterfowl—they're preserving their family's history and heritage.
As the second of three generations of Carlsons in South Dakota, Henry Carlson, Jr. remembers when native prairies thrived on land that now grows wheat, corn, and soybeans.
In fact, for Henry, memories are all that's left of many of the grasslands he knew as a boy.
"I was fortunate in that my father had a ranch in South Dakota. As a teenager, I spent my summers there in the late '30s and '40s, so I got to see how people who lived there preserved the land," Henry said. "My father sold it in 1946, right after World War II, to a gal who promptly broke the land and converted it to wheat."
Later that year, the Army Corps of Engineers condemned the property and built the Oahe Dam where Henry had spent his childhood playing in the vast prairie grasslands. Since then, the Carlsons have seen countless acres of native prairie converted to cropland in the Prairie Pothole Region. Now, they're determined to help DU conserve what's left.
"The reason Eleanor and I have given to Ducks Unlimited and other conservation groups is that, while living in South Dakota, I have always appreciated the open prairie," Henry said. "It is disappearing. Ground is being plowed that should never have been plowed. We would like to see that land protected for future generations."
Unfortunately, it's too late for 97 percent of the native prairie already lost in the United States. In addition, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that an additional 1.4 million potholes are at high risk of drainage in the eastern Dakotas. If these wetlands are lost, biologists predict that breeding duck numbers could decline by an estimated 2.9 million birds.
Once native prairie is plowed, it's nearly impossible to restore. "This landscape was created more than 10,000 years ago, when receding glaciers left wetlands—like potholes—across the prairies of North America. When you destroy habitat created by the last ice age, you can't bring it back with modern science," said Dr. Jim Ringelman, director of conservation programs in DU's Great Plains Region.
Still, habitat loss continues to rise in the PPR. With commodity prices nearing an all-time high and crop insurance covering the risk, the financial incentives to put every possible acre into production are all but irresistible. Even if it means the landowner must pay penalties for plowing prairies and draining wetlands enrolled in federal conservation programs, he can still profit more with the plow than with protection.
But there are other options. As part of a long-standing partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, DU is working closely with the ranching community to protect large tracts of native prairie through conservation easements that allow ranchers to preserve their way of life and conserve prairie habitat while also turning a profit. In addition, DU helps prairie landowners restore wetlands and grasslands on former cropland through conservation programs such as the Conservation Reserve Program and Wetlands Reserve Program, and by partnering with agribusiness providers. Ducks Unlimited also offers agricultural extension assistance to help farmers grow winter wheat on intensively cultivated prairie landscapes, which provides more secure habitat for nesting ducks.
The Carlsons spent five days touring conservation project sites on the prairies and learning more about Ducks Unlimited's work.
Eleanor said the experience showed her that DU isn't just about hunters seeking a harvest. "It was surprising to see how much conservation work they do," she explained.
"If more people could see DU's work on the prairies—like how rotating and grazing various pastures works for ranchers and waterfowl—I think they'd find it very useful," Henry said.
For their part, the Carlson family will continue making habitat conservation a major part of the legacy they're building in South Dakota.