The Great Lakes Initiative

Conserving key habitats for waterfowl and other wildlife throughout this vast watershed

By Kristin Schrader

Clear cold water, abundant wetlands, and a deep appreciation for the outdoors are three things that come to mind when you consider the Great Lakes and the people who call this region home. The five Great Lakes hold approximately 20 percent of the world's fresh water and have a coastline exceeding 10,900 miles. Ducks Unlimited's Great Lakes Initiative endeavors to preserve these natural resources and honor the values of this region's residents by providing abundant wetland habitat for breeding, migrating, and wintering waterfowl as well as for a host of other wildlife.

The Great Lakes Initiative area encompasses all of Michigan and portions of Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, and Ontario, Canada. This diverse region boasts a variety of important waterfowl habitats, including prairie potholes, shrub-scrub and forested wetlands, shallow lakes, coastal estuaries, and river systems. More than 30 species of waterfowl depend on Great Lakes habitats at some point in their life cycle. Of particular importance to waterfowl are Saginaw Bay and the lower Great Lakes, which have been designated areas of continental significance by the North American Waterfowl Management Plan. Great Lakes wetlands provide vital feeding and resting habitat for 3 to 5 million ducks and geese that migrate through this region annually. Studies indicate that scaup and many other waterfowl species acquire important fat reserves for egg production during migration stopovers in this region. Great Lakes wetlands also support significant populations of breeding waterfowl, including mallards, black ducks, wood ducks, and Canada geese.

Sadly, the Great Lakes region has lost more than 60 percent of its original wetlands to urban sprawl and agricultural and industrial development. In addition, invasive species have degraded many remaining habitats, and receding lake levels have become a serious concern in recent years. Habitat loss in the Great Lakes region has inevitably resulted in declining numbers not only of waterfowl but also of waterfowl hunters, potentially threatening a grand tradition and vital support for habitat conservation. 

CROSS-BORDER CONSERVATION The Great Lakes states and neighboring Canadian provinces are closely connected culturally and geographically, and Ducks Unlimited and DU Canada have worked together for decades to conserve the region's waterfowl habitat on both sides of the international border. A key funding source for DU's work throughout the Great Lakes region is the North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA). This voluntary, nonregulatory program is a bargain for taxpayers, as every federal dollar allocated through NAWCA must be matched with at least one dollar from nonfederal funds. As a result, NAWCA grants are often tripled or quadrupled with contributions from DU and other partners in the United States and Canada.

Another vital source of conservation funding for DU's work in the Great Lakes region comes from the states via a program administered by the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (AFWA). This program's precursor was established by DU in 1965 as a vehicle for states to fund conservation work in Canada. In 2013, 36 states donated $3.2 million to match NAWCA funds allocated for Canadian waterfowl habitat conservation projects. AFWA's goal for state contributions is $10 million, and the organization recommends that all states take steps to reach that goal within the next five years to help maintain NAWCA funding and to work toward habitat conservation goals in Canada as well as in their states.

The objective of DU's Great Lakes Initiative is to improve the health of the landscape for waterfowl populations by restoring, enhancing, and protecting large marshes, shallow lakes, and other important wetland habitats. DU has pioneered many methods of restoring these degraded wetland systems using state-of-the-art engineering and cutting-edge technology. DU's engineers are among the best in the world at designing wetland restoration projects that are efficient and inexpensive to build and can be easily maintained for decades.

DU also relies on waterfowl research to guide its conservation work in the Great Lakes region. In Michigan, for example, breeding mallard numbers have declined by approximately 50 percent during the past decade. Studies indicate that mallard population growth in the Great Lakes region is largely limited by brood survival. Consequently, DU focuses much of its work in this region on restoring wetland complexes with a combination of open water and emergent vegetation that provides more secure habitat for hens and broods.

In addition to its natural wealth, the Great Lakes region holds vast human, political, and philanthropic capital. The seven U.S. states in this initiative area account for more than 25 percent of the country's population and almost the same percentage of DU members nationwide. And while hunter numbers have declined in recent years, the waterfowling tradition remains strong in the Great Lakes region, which is home to nearly 30 percent of the nation's active waterfowl hunters as well as a quarter of DU's keystone Major Sponsors.

The residents of the Great Lakes region have a strong sense of connection to their home—to the lakes themselves and to the associated wetlands and other wildlife habitats. The region's economy depends on healthy lakes, and waterfowl depend on us to provide them with the resources they need to raise their broods and rest and refuel during their grand passage. Through the Great Lakes Initiative, DU is working hard to provide the best habitat possible for waterfowl, which also helps to ensure a healthy future for the region's other wildlife and for people. For more information about how you can support the Great Lakes Initiative, visit the DU website at

Kristin Schrader is a regional communications manager in DU's Great Lakes/Atlantic Region.

ADDRESSING THE THREAT OF INVASIVE SPECIES The vast interconnected watershed of the Great Lakes is especially vulnerable to the spread of nonnative species, which have become a serious threat to the region's wetlands and waterfowl. For example, phragmites, or the common reed, has become a scourge in many of this region's wetlands and waterways. First introduced as an ornamental grass, this perennial wetland plant is extremely invasive and fast growing. Without active control, phragmites can rapidly choke wetlands with impenetrable vegetation, reducing habitat diversity and displacing native flora and fauna.

Dense stands of phragmites can also restrict access for hunters and anglers to more productive habitats and even impact commercial shipping. In response, Ducks Unlimited and its partners are using a variety of methods to control phragmites and restore productive habitat for waterfowl and other wildlife. These management techniques include herbicide application, water-level manipulation, mowing, and controlled burns.

More recently, Asian carp have emerged as another serious threat to Great Lakes wetlands and waterfowl. Four species of Asian carp have made their way up the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers into parts of the Great Lakes watershed, adversely affecting many native aquatic species. Grass carp, for example, can consume huge quantities of submerged aquatic vegetation, which is an important food source for diving ducks such as canvasbacks, scaup, and redheads. Consequently, Ducks Unlimited is actively supporting efforts to control and limit the spread of Asian carp and other nonnative species throughout the Great Lakes watershed.