By Andi Cooper
As waterfowl migrate across the interior of America each year, they pass over vast expanses of windswept mixed-grass and short-grass prairie. Along the way, the birds stop to rest and refuel on playa lakes and larger wetland complexes, which serve as oases for waterfowl in an otherwise dry and dusty landscape. Lying in the rain shadow of the Rocky Mountains, the area encompassed by Ducks Unlimited's Southern Prairies and Playas Initiative usually receives little rainfall. But during wet years, such as 2015, wetlands in this region provide an abundance of high-quality habitat for waterfowl and a host of other wildlife. Some 5 million ducks and geese pass through this area, which is a primary migration corridor for Central Flyway waterfowl. Sadly, limited water supplies and wetland degradation are putting waterfowl habitats in this important ecosystem at risk.
The same playa lakes that support waterfowl during migration provide crucial habitat for many threatened and endangered species, including the lesser prairie chicken and snowy plover. These wetlands also recharge groundwater in aquifers that provide clean, dependable water supplies for people. Additionally, expansive grasslands in this region hold topsoil in place, preventing the type of severe erosion witnessed during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.
DU's Southern Prairies and Playas Initiative is dedicated to protecting, restoring, and enhancing wetlands and grasslands in Texas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico. For more than 20 years, Ducks Unlimited has partnered with government agencies, foundations, corporations, and private landowners to conserve vital waterfowl habitats across this initiative area. In New Mexico, for example, DU recently teamed up with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to create the nation's newest urban wildlife refuge, the Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge (NWR). Located just south of Albuquerque along the Rio Grande River, Valle de Oro NWR was established to provide outdoor recreation and educational opportunities for urban residents who otherwise might not be able to experience the wonders of wetlands and waterfowl. Working with USFWS staff, DU provided engineering expertise and assisted in securing project funding through the North American Wetlands Conservation Act to help make this model urban refuge a reality.
Since the inception of the Oklahoma state duck stamp program in 1980, Ducks Unlimited has partnered with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation (ODWC) in a variety of wetland conservation projects. Through this partnership, DU has helped the ODWC acquire approximately 13,000 acres of historical wetland habitat and to restore or enhance more than 8,000 wetland acres on state-managed lands. Recently, DU worked with Alan Stacey, a retired waterfowl biologist with the ODWC, to strengthen this working relationship and seek new opportunities to enhance Oklahoma's wetlands.
DU's relationship with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) is among the strongest conservation partnerships in the country. In the Texas Panhandle, DU and the TPWD recently worked together to improve vital waterfowl habitat on the Playa Lakes and Gene Howe Wildlife Management Areas. Upcoming restoration work will add to these projects, making these popular public hunting areas even more productive for waterfowl and those who enjoy them.
The TPWD is also a strong supporter of the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies state contributions to Canada program, providing nearly $3 million to this partnership since 1985. Contributions from the TPWD are combined with funding from other states. These dollars are then matched by Ducks Unlimited and again by federal funding through the North American Wetlands Conservation Act and Canadian funding partners to protect, restore, and enhance crucial waterfowl breeding habitat in Canada's Prairie Pothole Region. By conserving wetlands and grasslands on the breeding grounds where many of the waterfowl that visit the Southern Great Plains are raised, this partnership is helping to secure a bright future for the region's rich waterfowling traditions.
Waterfowl need wetlands throughout the birds' vast continental range, but playas and other wetlands on the Southern Great Plains are especially important to ducks and geese in the Central Flyway. In partnership with state and federal agencies, foundations, corporations, and private landowners, Ducks Unlimited is working to ensure that waterfowl will always find high-quality habitat in the Southern Prairies and Playas Initiative area, where the birds can rest and refuel during their epic annual migrations. For more information on how you can support this and other DU initiatives, visit ducks.org/DUinitiatives.
Andi Cooper is a communications specialist in DU's Southern Region.