Conservation: Living Lakes Initiative

Conserving Minnesota and Iowa's wetlands and shallow lakes for breeding and migrating waterfowl

By Kristin Schrader

DU's Living Lakes Initiative is dedicated to restoring, enhancing, and protecting managed shallow lakes and wetlands from central Iowa through northern Minnesota to provide high-quality aquatic food and habitat resources for breeding and migrating waterfowl. Portions of this initiative area lie within the Prairie Pothole Region and are part of the Duck Factory, which produces many of the waterfowl that migrate across the continent in the fall. Sadly, nearly all the native grassland and more than 90 percent of the pothole wetlands that once existed in Minnesota and Iowa have been converted to other land uses. Today, large marshes and shallow lakes are the cornerstones of the region's waterfowl habitat. Ducks, geese, shorebirds, wading birds, and many other migratory birds rely heavily on these crucial stopover habitats to rest and refuel while migrating between their northern breeding grounds and southern wintering areas.

These wetlands also form the core of the region's remaining waterfowl breeding habitat.

Unfortunately, widespread habitat loss and degradation have taken a toll on waterfowl and other wildlife in this region. Of particular concern is the decline of continental scaup populations. Scientists have proposed several hypotheses to explain this decline, and some evidence suggests that scaup migrating north in the spring are unable to find the aquatic food resources necessary to increase or even maintain their body mass. This may cause some females to either delay or forgo nesting once they reach their primary breeding grounds in the Prairie Pothole Region and Western Boreal Forest. These same factors may also create problems for other diving duck species. In addition, data suggests that waterfowl numbers have declined during the fall migration in Minnesota and Iowa, and that duck hunter numbers have declined in these states as well.

In response to these issues, Ducks Unlimited is working with numerous public and private partners to restore, enhance, and protect key waterfowl habitats in the Living Lakes Initiative area. To accomplish the initiative's goals, DU focuses on six priority conservation strategies: (1) restoring drained shallow lakes and large wetlands; (2) enhancing and actively managing water levels in degraded shallow lakes to improve their waterfowl habitat value; (3) restoring small wetlands and prairie uplands around shallow lakes; (4) protecting shallow lakes with fee-title land acquisitions and conservation easements; (5) promoting sound public policy on key state and federal conservation issues; and (6) prioritizing and focusing limited financial resources through assessment, monitoring, and research.

State conservation agencies are among DU's greatest allies in Minnesota and Iowa. For example, DU partners with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) through its Shallow Lakes Program to restore and enhance crucial waterfowl habitats. On officially designated wildlife management lakes, DU works with the Minnesota DNR to rejuvenate wetland ecology and increase production of important waterfowl food resources, including invertebrates, submerged aquatic vegetation, and wild rice. This is often accomplished through the periodic drawdown of lake levels, which helps consolidate sediments, germinate plants, and control undesirable fish species.

In Iowa, Ducks Unlimited recently completed a four-year, $6.3 million partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service to deliver Wetlands Reserve Program habitat restoration projects on private lands in the north-central and western parts of the state. Through this agreement, DU helped restore or enhance 6,800 acres of wetlands and grasslands on 76 different easements, providing excellent breeding and brood-rearing habitat for waterfowl. These projects also complement neighboring shallow-lake restoration projects by increasing habitat diversity and serving as shoreline buffers.

In addition to its importance to breeding and migrating waterfowl, the Living Lakes Initiative area holds vast human, political, and philanthropic capital, accounting for nearly 10 percent of DU members nationwide. Waterfowling traditions are also strong in this region, which is home to 8 percent of America's waterfowl hunters. Accordingly, many residents recognize the value of shallow lakes and wetlands to waterfowl, other wildlife, and people.

Migratory waterfowl are a shared continental resource and know no borders. Thus, DU must work across North America to ensure a bright future for waterfowl and the people who enjoy them. By contributing to DU's Living Lakes Initiative, you will be supporting important waterfowl habitat conservation not only in this initiative area, but also on the priority breeding grounds of the Prairie Pothole Region and Western Boreal Forest, where the vast majority of the continent's waterfowl are raised. You can make a difference for waterfowl and future generations of wildlife and people by making your gift to DU's Living Lakes Initiative today.

For more information on how you can support this and other DU initiatives, visit