—By Ryan Heiniger
The stars and stripes whipped in the southerly breeze, courting pintails performed impressive aerial maneuvers, and skeins of snow geese sailed northward against the prairie sky. The spectacle of the spring migration was in full display in Nebraska's Rainwater Basin. In addition to saying goodbye to winter, there was another reason to celebrate—a new Ducks Unlimited wetland restoration project was being dedicated.
Each DU project is its own unique success story. But before restoration plans are drafted and the first shovels of dirt are moved, DU's conservation work always begins with the hard work and generosity of its dedicated volunteers and members. Each year, DU volunteers organize and host more than 4,000 fundraising events, where legions of DU members "fill the halls" and generously contribute their hard-earned money to support conservation.
Many DU supporters go a step further in their commitment to the future of wetlands and waterfowl by becoming a Major Sponsor or making an estate gift through the Feather Society. While many donors give cash, securities, or stock, land and other assets can also be donated to DU in support of wetlands and waterfowl conservation. Membership dues, major gifts, proceeds from events, and donations and revenue from corporate partners and licensees compose the majority of DU's private funding. DU also leverages these funds many times over with grants and contracts from state and federal agencies and other partners.
All of DU's conservation work is guided by its strategic plan. Using the best available science, DU has identified the landscapes and habitats that are most important to the health of North America's waterfowl populations and ranked them according to priority. When evaluating proposed projects, DU considers their location and their potential contribution to the goals outlined in the strategic plan. In the Rainwater Basin, for example, DU focuses on providing high-quality foraging habitat during the spring migration, thereby allowing waterfowl to rest and refuel before continuing their journey to the Prairie Pothole Region, the western boreal forest, and points north.
After a proposed project has been approved by DU's conservation staff and leadership, the next step is to assemble a team of experts to deliver the work on the ground. For example, land protection specialists and attorneys typically take the lead in projects involving land acquisitions and conservation easements. In traditional wetland restoration and enhancement projects, an array of conservation professionals—including biologists, land surveyors, civil engineers, hydrologists, and construction managers—work together as a team.
Let's take a look at how our featured project in the Rainwater Basin became a reality. In the first phase of this project, a professional land surveyor conducted a topographic elevation survey of the project site using cutting-edge Global Positioning System (GPS) technology. Thousands of data points were collected and used to produce a detailed topographic map that served as a general blueprint for the project.
Restoring Rainwater Basin Wetlands Nebraska's Rainwater Basin is among North America's most important waterfowl staging areas. Each year an estimated 9 million waterfowl stop to rest and refuel in this region on their way north to their breeding grounds in the Prairie Pothole Region, western boreal forest, and Arctic. Unfortunately, the Rainwater Basin has lost 90 percent of its original wetlands, forcing staging waterfowl to crowd into impressive, yet dangerously large concentrations on the region's remaining wetlands.
Under the umbrella of the North American Waterfowl Management Plan and the Rainwater Basin Joint Venture, DU is working with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, Nebraska Environmental Trust, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Natural Resources Conservation Service, private landowners, and many other partners to restore vital spring staging wetlands in the Rainwater Basin. To date, DU and its partners have protected 7,700 acres of wetlands and adjacent uplands, and restored or enhanced 20,000 acres of wetlands in this region, with much more conservation work to come.