Where It All Began

85 years later, DU continues to make progress in conserving these crucial waterfowl habitats in innovative ways

By T. Edward Nickens // Photography by Tom Fowlks

I keep my head down, face pushed against the front wall of the blind, and watch the geese cross the field. Behind the blind’s thatched walls, the birds disappear, then reappear, and disappear again. “Little short-necked guys,” Darin Placsko whispers, as he takes a quick break from the goose call. “Keep your eyes on them.”

Which is a challenge, because there’s a second flock of geese arrowing in over the willows behind us, and a dozen mallards circling low toward the east, and a quartet of pintails straight overhead. The Saskatchewan sky is full of waterfowl, and it’s anybody’s guess as to which birds will drop into the decoys first. 

Then a dozen honkers put their big black paddles down and begin a long, slow glide toward our spread. As the geese loom over the decoys, we come up shooting from the A-frame blind, and four birds fall with our opening volley. Moments later Placsko’s black Lab, Fletch, is streaking across the barley stubble to retrieve the geese. 

“That’s one way to do it!” I shout. “Now can we do it again?”

“All day long,” Placsko grins.

We settle back into the blind, keenly aware that what we just experienced is far more than happenstance. For starters, Placsko spent the last 24 hours scouting for our hunt. He’s a co-owner of Saskatchewan’s Bucket List Lodge, and while he has access to vast hunting grounds across the province, he’s a fanatic about hunting exactly where ducks and geese want to be. 

But there’s more to making this hunt a success than Placsko’s windshield time. The geese cooling behind the blind are a harvest of nearly 85 years of wetlands conservation in the province, and it’s that history that’s brought me to Saskatchewan.  

“Let me show you something,” says Gerry Letain, seated next to me in the blind. He pulls a mapping app up on his smartphone that displays a satellite image of our location. Red and blue polygons drizzle the screen, overlain on lakes and ponds and blocks of pasture and prairie. Letain is a biologist with Ducks Unlimited Canada, and he points out that each colored block marks a DU project. 

“We manage the marsh behind us and another project just over the hill,” Letain says. Within a five-mile radius, he explains, there are six different DU projects, all managed independently to maximize their values as waterfowl habitat.

For Placsko, whose clientele is nearly 100 percent American, the red polygons on the smartphone screen aren’t an abstraction, but a concrete example of the interwoven relationships between American and Canadian hunters and the cross-border wetlands and waterfowl conservation and management they support. Ducks Unlimited was founded with the specific purpose of conserving the breeding grounds of Canada. As DU’s work has evolved in size, scale, and geographic area, so too has its approach to wetlands and waterfowl conservation. The story of how DU has pushed the conservation envelope in the lauded Prairie Pothole Region is a tale that inspires hope for the next century. And it’s a story best told in two places: one of DU’s first conservation projects, called Waterhen Marsh, and a pothole-rich swath of the Saskatchewan prairie known as the Allan Hills.

A few hours after we’d picked up the decoys and packed out of that Saskatchewan barley field, Letain and I take a slow walk down a nearly mile-long earthen dam that fingers ruler-straight through pasture and grasslands. Snow geese lift from the water in frantic masses. Sandhill cranes call overhead. In a typical year, the dike at Waterhen Marsh now holds back about 4,000 acres of water. In spring and summer, the marsh hosts scores of waterfowl and other wetland birds. Canvasbacks and redheads nest in the cattails. Mallards and blue-winged teal hunker down on the pasture fringe. For waterfowlers aware of its legacy, Waterhen Marsh is hallowed ground.

Shortly after the birth of Ducks Unlimited Inc. in the United States, its organizers chartered a separate sister organization, Ducks Unlimited Canada, which would deliver habitat conservation projects on the prairies north of the border. This work would complement habitat conservation work being delivered in the United States with funding from the sale of federal duck stamps. In its early days, DU’s strategy was straightforward—put water back on the prairie landscape that had been devastated by persistent drought. In 1938, the very first year of DU Canada’s operations, the goal was to restore and manage 100,000 acres of Canadian wetlands. To hit those marks, expansive water projects were sought, one in each of the three prairie provinces of Canada. Big Grass Marsh, northwest of Winnipeg, Manitoba, was the first crucial wetland restored by DU. Next came Waterhen Marsh, located south of Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, followed by Many Island Lake northeast of Medicine Hat, Alberta.

“For many years, restoring and protecting large marshes was how waterfowl conservation was done,” Letain explains. “DU often built dikes and water-control structures that allowed managers to manipulate water levels, which stimulated the emergent vegetation that made the projects more productive for waterfowl.” These large wetland projects also served as valuable water sources for farmers, ranchers, and local communities. 

The timing couldn’t have been more fortuitous for the Waterhen Marsh project. The sprawling basin had been drained in 1920 but soon proved unsuitable for farming. Overgrown with sow thistle and underlain with a dense layer of peat, the dried-out marsh and a large connecting lake bed actually caught fire in 1937. Smoke was so thick that locals were warned to stay indoors. Peat fires are notoriously difficult to extinguish, and the fire burned for more than a year. It eventually grew to nearly 10 miles wide, prompting local officials to plan for the construction of a dam to flood the basin, the only sure way to put out the fire. 

DU Canada stepped in to head up the project. 

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DROUGHT BUSTERS Many of DU Canada's earliest projects restored water to large wetland basins that had been drained.
In 1938, local farmers helped complete the dirt work on DU's Waterhen Marsh project in Saskatchewan after the dry peat soil caught fire.

Photo © DU Canada

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Photo © DU Canada

 

“My father told me all about it,” says Russell Proctor, with a proud smile. Proctor grew up on the family farm that lies adjacent to Waterhen Marsh, and he recalls his dad talking about the fire. “They were telling us to get out, that we were going to smother in the smoke or burn to death,” he laughs. He’s a gregarious fellow, stout and gray-headed, in a Carharrt sweatshirt and DU cap commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Waterhen project. Proctor’s father worked a four-horse team to move dirt for the dam, which was outfitted with a stop-log water-control system. “They got paid six dollars a day,” Proctor recalls. Many of the workers bunked at his grandparents’ house.

Perhaps because of that legacy of early conservation work, the Proctors have a long history of balancing agriculture with conservation. “I come from a duck-loving family,” Proctor declares. “But that’s not popular with everybody around here. They see a slough, and they have to drain it. But I’m like my dad—he loved birds, and he loved all the water out here.” Such challenges have always been part of the conservation effort in Saskatchewan. In 1948, a reporter wrote that the Waterhen project was “a curious example of the constant conflict between the people who want to organize more wheat acres and those who like a little open water at their elbows.”

Thankfully, DU has found ways to shift conversations from conflict to common ground. And that’s how Waterhen’s open water, with its carefully planned nesting islands, its preserved adjacent uplands, and its decades of use as a waterfowl research site, has paid dividends for waterfowl and people. Ducks, geese, cranes, swans, raptors, and shorebirds all pour south from Waterhen Marsh in fall. And perhaps just as important, those early large-scale projects in the prairie provinces spawned a new era of cooperation between the United States and Canada. It was a radical idea, rooted in this remote corner of Saskatchewan: Hunters from thousands of miles distant stepped up to support wetlands conservation on a scale never before seen. 

Eighty-five years later, the work hasn’t stopped, although it has changed. With the launch of the North American Waterfowl Management Plan in 1986, DU and a broad coalition of partners, including state, federal, and provincial agencies in the United States and Canada, refocused their conservation efforts on the uplands and smaller wetlands where many ducks are raised. Still, legacy projects such as Waterhen Marsh helped build a foundation of understanding, which has ushered in more modern approaches of keeping water and waterfowl—and agricultural producers—on the land. 

I’d been intrigued with what I might find in the Allan Hills ever since Letain described the region during our second morning of goose hunting. “You’re going to be in the heart not only of the most productive waterfowl breeding habitat in Saskatchewan,” he said, “but in all of North America.” Part of the Missouri Coteau, a hummocky expanse of grassland that rests atop thick glacial sediments, the Allan Hills is pocked with pothole wetlands of various sizes, shapes, and depths. In the spring, counting 100 pairs of breeding ducks per square mile here isn’t uncommon. “The land is so hilly and rolling that pothole density is very high,” Letain explained. “That also makes it difficult to farm.”

That doesn’t mean folks don’t try. Early one morning I meet up with Bradley Bergen, a conservation programs specialist and DU Canada’s lead of habitat securement in Saskatchewan. We drive 60 miles southeast of Saskatoon, climbing hills of pastureland veined with gullies clad in aspen and willow. We pass scores of prairie potholes, most of which are chalk dry. It is a sobering reminder of the severe drought of 2021, but also a compelling testimony that this is not the time to ease off on conservation.

In fact, taking the long view marks the work of DU here, and definitely underscores the vision of its landowner partners. On the crest of a soaring ridge of tawny grass we meet a couple who embody the promise that a new approach to landscape-level conservation holds for the next century.

Dressed in a black cowboy hat and quilted jacket, Jerrod Woodcock turns a collar up against a rising wind. His wife, Marley, keeps an eye on Rosie, a cattle dog whose attention is divided between the nearest cows and Bergen’s and my unfamiliar faces. The land here feels rich and fertile in a primeval sort of way. It rolls and rumples and folds—old unbroken ground, grassland, old stones, and numerous potholes, including a few that are still hanging on to their water.

DU’s leading-edge approach to wetlands conservation is as plain as the tall wheatgrass and milk vetch leaning over in the wind. Working with DU, the Woodcocks have placed much of their property under conservation easements, which protect their land’s natural state in perpetuity. Draining or filling wetlands and breaking up prairie are prohibited. The Woodcocks’ rolling pastures have been planted with a DU-specified grassland mix that is as attractive to grazing cattle as it is to nesting ducks looking for protective cover. It’s part of an approach that seeks to restore the land by turning the clock back in some respects—and stopping it in others.

To help meet its conservation goals, DU Canada relies on a full quiver of programs for farmers and ranchers: traditional conservation easement purchases, a revolving land program in which DU buys land with the intention of selling it after habitat has been restored and conservation easements have been secured, and a number of forage-based programs designed to keep grass on the landscape for grazing and wildlife. Implementing these practices allows cattle producers like the Woodcocks to expand their ranching footprint. And that’s a good thing for waterfowl, since ducks and cows all need healthy grass and water.

By taking advantage of DU programs, the Woodcocks have grown their cattle herd as well as their land base. Since the first project was completed on their property 11 years ago, they’ve converted nearly nine quarter sections of former cropland, encompassing some 1,500 acres, to pastures and grasslands seeded with wheatgrasses, bromegrasses, alfalfa, sainfoin, and other beneficial plant species.

“The approach is to set the table,” Bergen explains. “We can’t guarantee that there will always be water, but if we can save the grass, the embedded wetlands will stay intact so when the water does return, these places will support a lot of ducks.”

Conserving entire landscapes is a different approach than pouring resources into restoring large marshes. It’s a paradigm shift from the big-water emphasis evident in first-generation DU projects, but helping landowners’ bottom lines and helping them plan for the long term—for their crops, cattle, and conservation goals—is the linchpin of DU’s work on the prairies today. This approach also provides a host of other benefits, including improved water quality, cleaner air, and reduced flooding. 

Partnering on conservation easements and other wildlife-friendly projects “is like being in a second marriage, except the grass doesn’t talk back,” laughs Marley Woodcock. She looks out over the potholes and tall grasses, the cattle feeding in the lowlands trellised with snowberry and willow. “But we all leave a footprint, and this is a nice one to leave.”

Her husband nods in agreement. “This will be here longer than we will,” he says, looking out toward a horizon of rolling grass. “And I like that.”