By Darin Blunck
The Prairie Pothole Region was formed roughly 10,000 years ago as Pleistocene glacial ice sheets retreated northward. The prairie-breeding waterfowl species that exist today are uniquely adapted to take advantage of the post−Ice Age climate and prairie ecosystems. For thousands of years, prairie wetlands have hosted spring courtship flights of ducks, provided food and sanctuary in summer months for ducklings waiting to fledge, and supported spectacular concentrations of staging waterfowl preparing for migration.
Sadly, the habitats that have sustained waterfowl for millennia are now vanishing before our eyes. In recent years, a combination of factors including increased global demand for commodities, historically low interest rates, and eroding legal protections for wetlands have resulted in widespread habitat loss on the prairies, especially in the Dakotas. The going rate for rangeland is substantially lower than the price of existing cropland, so buying and subsequently plowing a tract of native prairie is relatively cheap. When grasslands are converted to row crop production, seasonal and temporary wetlands that are so important to breeding ducks are often drained and plowed as well. Every pothole that is ditched and every acre of grassland that is plowed under reduces the prairie's historical capacity to support healthy populations of waterfowl. Even wetlands that remain intact often decline in productivity as eroded sediment from adjacent fields accumulates in their basins.
In response to these grave threats to waterfowl and their habitats, Ducks Unlimited and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) are working hard to stem the tide of habitat loss on the prairies by heavily investing in conservation easements that prevent the destruction of grasslands and wetlands. A conservation easement is a legally binding agreement assigned to the title of the land. The terms of the easement restrict land-use activities that would degrade the property's value to waterfowl and other wildlife. The protections that easements provide remain in effect for perpetuity—forever—even if the& property is transferred to other family members or sold to an unrelated buyer.
On the prairies, conservation easements typically prohibit the plowing of grassland, drainage of wetlands, and haying before July 15 to protect nesting hens and their clutches. Cattle grazing, which has a much lighter impact on breeding waterfowl and other wildlife habitat than row crop production, is permitted. Conservation easements therefore not only secure habitat for waterfowl and other wildlife, but also maintain a land base necessary for cattle ranching, preserving the economic vitality of rural communities.
Across much of the United States, landowners donate conservation easements to Ducks Unlimited, and many take advantage of federal tax incentives that allow the appraised value of conservation easements to be deducted from federal income taxes. But ranchers in the Dakotas are often land rich and cash poor, and donated easements offer little tax advantage to them. As a result, DU and its partners must purchase conservation easements from many ranchers and other willing landowners on the prairies. In simple terms, the price paid for an easement is the difference in land value between prevailing cropland prices and prevailing grassland prices. The payment for the easement, in essence, "buys out" the right of the landowner to convert grassland and wetlands to cropland.
With the support of DU members and donors, lasting progress is being achieved on the prairies through the purchase of conservation easements. In 2012, DU and the USFWS surpassed the 1 million-acre milestone for grasslands and wetlands permanently protected in the Dakotas. Despite this remarkable accomplishment, we continue to lose wetlands and grasslands much faster than we can protect them. DU and the USFWS have determined that at least 4 million acres of grassland and 1.5 million acres of wetlands must be permanently protected in the Dakotas and Montana to provide a sufficient habitat base to support healthy waterfowl populations in the future.
Achieving our conservation objectives on the prairies will require a long-term commitment from a broad coalition of partners. In addition, the continued advocacy of DU supporters for strong wetland protections and wildlife-friendly public policies, including Farm Bill conservation programs such as the Wetlands Reserve Program, Conservation Reserve Program, and Sodsaver, will be essential to the future of waterfowl populations.
While the challenges ahead are great, DU supporters are united in their resolve to conserve wetlands and grasslands for waterfowl and other wildlife. Just as DU's founders responded to threats to the prairie breeding grounds, now it's our turn to do what's required to conserve this unique ecosystem for present and future generations.
Darin Blunck is director of conservation programs at DU national headquarters in Memphis.