Conservation: From the Ground Up

Agricultural practices that help farmers and ranchers improve the land are the centerpiece of new efforts to save threatened prairie wetlands

By Becky Jones Mahlum and Jonas Davis

The Prairie Pothole Region is where Ducks Unlimited's vision of skies filled with waterfowl begins. Achieving that vision sometimes means adapting DU's conservation programs in response to the latest science and the interests of farmers and ranchers, who own 90 percent of the land in the region. While maintaining its successful efforts to protect intact prairie grasslands and wetlands, DU has developed innovative and flexible new programs that help improve the profitability of producers while also conserving wetlands and providing habitat for waterfowl. 

A New Focus on the Prairies

Decades of research conducted by DU and its partners has confirmed that small, shallow wetlands, many of which are located in cropland, are the most important habitats for breeding waterfowl on the prairies. "Our research has revealed that if wetlands remain on the landscape, ducks can often find a way to nest successfully, even in areas with limited upland cover," says Dr. Johann Walker, DU's director of conservation programs in North DakotaSouth Dakota, and Montana and a past leader of DU research programs on the prairies. "Consequently, we are expanding our conservation delivery on cultivated lands while also continuing to protect native prairie and other grasslands." 

DU's successful partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to purchase conservation easements from private landowners has permanently protected 1.5 million acres of the "best of the best" waterfowl habitat in the U.S. portion of the Prairie Pothole Region. However, each year an estimated 50,000 acres of prairie grasslands are converted to cropland and large numbers of small wetlands are drained. Conservation easements remain highly popular among prairie landowners, but as federal funding has decreased, there simply isn't enough money to meet the demand. Today, more than 1,000 landowners are waiting for easement funding.

Wetlands located in grasslands that are managed for cattle grazing often serve as valuable water sources for livestock, so landowners have an incentive to protect them. Wetlands embedded in cropland, however, are often considered a nuisance by landowners who must farm around them. Consequently, as grassland is converted to cropland, wetlands become more vulnerable to drainage. In addition, as crop prices have improved and the use of drainage tiles has expanded across the prairies, so has the push to drain wetlands. As a result, tens of thousands of these small, shallow wetlands, which provide crucial breeding habitat for mallards, northern pintails, and other ducks, are currently at risk.

A Holistic Approach to Conservation

Ducks Unlimited has long partnered with farmers and ranchers on working agricultural lands to deliver conservation programs tailored to address landowners' needs while also benefiting the resource. However, to effectively conserve wetlands in croplands, a new, more holistic approach was needed. "We had to find additional ways to include the interests and values of people in our conservation efforts while still meeting our objectives," says Jonas Davis, DU's manager of conservation programs in North Dakota. "We focused on listening and working closely with farmers and ranchers as we developed new programs that will benefit them and conserve crucial habitat." 

There is currently great interest among producers for incentive-based programs with short commitment periods that will help make their operations more resilient in these challenging times. Landowners also want assistance with some of the upfront costs associated with trying new agricultural practices. DU has responded by developing a suite of new conservation programs that help protect wetlands embedded in croplands, while also improving the profitability and sustainability of agriculture on the prairies. One of the most promising new programs is aimed at improving the health of soils in the Prairie Pothole Region. 


Ducks in nest

In areas with abundant small, shallow wetlands, like those found across the Prairie Pothole Region, ducks can nest successfully in grasslands and croplands.


A Revolution in Agriculture

Soil-health practices are gaining support among producers because of the many long-term benefits they provide for the land and people. These practices increase nutrients in the soil, making croplands more productive. Healthy soils also reduce flooding by absorbing and storing excess water and help keep water clean by filtering out nutrients and pollutants. Conserving wetlands is a key component in improving soil health and water quality and reducing flooding across the region. 

Brad Schmidt, a DU agronomist in South Dakota, says farmers worldwide are switching to a "regenerative model," which focuses on enriching the soil, increasing biodiversity, reducing artificial inputs, and improving watersheds. "This is a revolution sweeping across the planet," Schmidt says. "When you walk into a regenerative agriculture conference, you see producers who are eager to learn and ready to make things better for their families and the future."

DU agronomists and biologists help farmers and ranchers adopt a variety of soil-health practices that are beneficial to their bottom line. These practices include converting marginal cropland to pasture, planting cover crops, developing grazing infrastructure on croplands, restoring wetlands and water resources for livestock, and implementing rotational grazing plans. 


Group of cows in the grass

To improve waterfowl habitat and soil health on the prairies, DU is helping ranchers develop rotational grazing plans and water resources for cattle.


"Initial cost-sharing provided by DU can assume some of the upfront risks for producers who integrate these new soil and water health practices in their operations," Davis says. "These programs are proving to be very popular as enrollment and implementation are exceeding our staff's capacity and available funding." 

The Regional Conservation Partnership Program, which is administered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, has provided more than $5 million to support soil-health programs across North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, and Minnesota. In North Dakota, the Outdoor Heritage Fund has provided funds to help new producers plant cover crops and integrate livestock grazing into their operations. DU is the only organization in the state that provides cost-share assistance to producers for cross-fencing and water development on farmland where cover crops are planted for livestock forage. Crucial support for these programs is also provided by the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, Millborn Seeds, and private donations from DU supporters who are passionate about soil health and the future of waterfowl. 

Becky Jones Mahlum and Jonas Davis are both managers of conservation programs in DU's Great Plains Region.

The Five Principles of Soil Health

DU's soil-health programs rely on five principles: limiting soil disturbance, keeping living roots in the soil, diversifying crop rotations, leaving crop residue on the soil surface, and integrating livestock into farming operations. The more soil-health principles producers adopt, the faster the economic and environmental benefits can be achieved. "Once people understand how valuable the soil is, the value of their operations starts to increase," says DU agronomist Brad Schmidt. "Producers like the fact that DU is willing to work with them and share the cost of adopting some of these practices."