Conservation: Gains and Losses

While progress has been made in conserving the nation's wetlands, these vital habitats continue to decline at an alarming rate

Drainage of wetlands, such as these shallow potholes in North Dakota, remains the greatest threat to healthy populations of waterfowl.

By Scott C. Yaich, Ph.D.

The status of the nation's wetlands at any particular time is just a snapshot of what is actually a dynamic state of affairs. Imagine all of the nation's wetlands represented by a bucket full of water. When the country was first settled, the bucket was full to the brim. Natural processes resulted in a few wetlands being gained (like water added to the top of the bucket) and a few being lost (through leaks in the bottom of the bucket). There were an estimated 221 million acres of wetlands in the lower 48 states in the 1780s, and gains and losses largely balanced out.

As settlement moved westward, however, things changed rapidly, and leaks sprang in the bottom of the bucket as more and more wetlands were drained. This was an era when great expanses of wetlands impeded travel, mosquito-borne illnesses were life threatening, and wetlands in many areas could be turned into productive farmland. In those days, wetland drainage was viewed as a good thing, and no one was interested in restoring wetlands. So our national bucket of wetlands lost considerable volume during the 19th century.

Fast-forward to the early 1900s. Declines in waterfowl populations noticed by duck hunters were among the first signs of trouble, and conservationists began to express alarm about the loss of wetlands.

President Theodore Roosevelt responded by initiating a system of national wildlife refuges to protect important wetland habitats for waterfowl and other birds. Management and restoration of some of these refuges were likely the first additions to the national wetlands bucket. But the bucket was still leaking much faster than it was being replenished.

By 1937 millions of acres of prairie wetlands had been drained. At the same time, drought gripped the nation, loose soil roiled into dust storms, and waterfowl populations plummeted. Against this backdrop, a few duck hunters and conservationists came together to address wetland loss and declining waterfowl populations, and they formed Ducks Unlimited. Throughout the past 75 years, DU has been dedicated to conserving wetlands, first in Canada and later in Mexico and the United States as well.

Unless we can slow ongoing wetland losses, we simply won't be able to restore wetlands fast enough to make up the difference, and waterfowl will suffer the consequences.

Appreciation of wetland values grew beyond hunters and conservationists during the environmental movement of the 1970s. Conservation science demonstrated that wetlands not only provide important habitat for fish and wildlife, but also enhance water quality, recharge aquifers that supply irrigation and municipal water, and reduce flooding. Based on this science, Congress in 1972 passed the Clean Water Act (CWA). This landmark legislation likely did more to protect wetlands than any other single action in the 20th century, demonstrating the vital importance of public policy to wetlands and waterfowl hunters (see sidebar on next page).

During this same era, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) conducted the first of five periodic studies on the "status and trends of wetlands in the conterminous United States." This first report, covering wetland trends from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s, clearly showed that Congress's action was warranted. About 113 million acres of wetlands had been lost since settlement. The national wetland bucket was now only about half full—and declining fast. Not counting manmade ponds, the loss of wetlands most important to waterfowl and other wildlife exceeded gains by more than 500,000 acres annually.

But as wetland protection policies of the CWA and other actions took hold, wetland losses slowed. Between the mid-1970s and mid-1980s, the national rate of net wetland loss was reduced by about one-third. In 1985, the Swampbuster provision of the Farm Bill, which protects wetlands by disqualifying farmers who convert wetlands to cropland from receiving some Farm Bill payments, added another critical layer of protection. At about the same time, DU initiated its wetlands conservation work in the United States. By 1997, with the addition of conservation programs such as the Farm Bill's Wetlands Reserve Program and the USFWS Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, the rate of wetland loss declined by 79 percent. By 2004, about 80,000 acres of wetlands important to waterfowl and other wildlife were being lost each year, a reduction of about 85 percent. Although the national wetland bucket was about 53 percent empty, many of the leaks in its bottom had been plugged.

Unfortunately, the latest USFWS wetland report issued for the period 2004−2009 contained bad news about the state of the nation's wetlands. For the first time in 50 years, the rate of net wetland loss had accelerated, increasing by a whopping 140 percent from the previous survey. The nation lost 45,000 more wetland acres per year during 2004−2009 than during the previous period. Even worse, wetland losses have recently accelerated in areas of particular importance to waterfowl, such as the Prairie Pothole Region.

DU is committed to doing the two things necessary to stem the loss of the nation's wetlands. First, we must conserve and restore more wetland habitat, and do it faster. Although the hard work and generous contributions of DU supporters have helped protect and restore over 3 million acres of wetlands across the United States since 1984, more than 26 million acres of wetlands have been converted to other uses since the 1950s. Clearly, we must do more to put wetlands back on the landscape, and we are committed to doing so.

Second, DU and its 1 million supporters must speak out in support of policies that protect wetlands. Unless we can slow ongoing wetland losses, we simply won't be able to restore wetlands fast enough to make up the difference, and waterfowl will suffer the consequences.

Fortunately, for 75 years, each generation of DU members has demonstrated the desire to do what is necessary to preserve our waterfowling traditions for future generations. That resolve is needed now more than ever if we are to keep our nation's wetland bucket full and our skies filled with waterfowl today, tomorrow, and forever.

Wetland Policy: The Key to the Future of Waterfowl Hunting Several policy shifts have contributed to increased wetland losses in recent years. Two U.S. Supreme Court cases were interpreted in ways that withdrew longstanding Clean Water Act (CWA) protections for many wetlands, resulting in greater losses of these habitats. At the same time, Congress has scaled back funding for programs such as the Wetlands Reserve Program and North American Wetlands Conservation Act, reducing efforts to restore wetlands.

Prairie potholes, the wetlands most important to waterfowl production, are among the habitats at greatest risk. More than two-thirds of these small prairie wetlands are already gone. With the loss of CWA protection, the last line of defense for prairie potholes is the Farm Bill's Swampbuster provision. Unfortunately, changes in regulations and rising commodity prices have significantly weakened this important disincentive to wetland drainage. As a result, wetland losses on the prairies have accelerated dramatically. One study estimates that if current trends continue, 1.4 million acres of prairie potholes could be lost. DU scientists recently modeled the potential effect of this loss on duck populations and hunting seasons and found that without these prairie wetlands we could have had more restrictive hunting regulations in five of the past 10 years.

Given that public policy can have a dramatic, irreversible impact on wetlands, waterfowl populations, and waterfowl hunting, DU members and all waterfowlers must make their voices heard in Congress, statehouses, and elsewhere if we are to protect our heritage. The ducks can't speak up, so we must speak for them. For more information on how you can take action on behalf of wetlands and waterfowl, visit the DU website at