by Dawn Browne

Prairie conservation could figure prominently in future government climate policies

Wetland-rich prairie landscapes provide essential breeding habitat for ducks and are vital to ensuring skies full of waterfowl. Unfortunately, the U.S. portion of the Prairie Pothole Region has already lost more than 70 percent of its native grassland, and most of the remaining 22 million acres are vulnerable to conversion. Ducks Unlimited and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are working to protect this vital waterfowl habitat by purchasing permanent easements from willing landowners. While hundreds of farmers and ranchers are interested in working with DU on easements, the primary limitation to seizing these opportunities continues to be funding.

Through the Rescue the Duck Factory campaign, DU is raising funds to protect 300,000 acres in the next few years. Progress has been steady, with 67,000 acres secured since September 2008, but we must increase our efforts to accomplish our near- and long-term conservation goals. In addition, DU is investigating ways in which landowners can receive financial incentives for protecting waterfowl habitat and carbon stores on their property. National policies are currently being considered to reduce carbon dioxide levels and other atmospheric emissions and help wildlife adapt to potential impacts of a changing climate. Since prairie wetlands and grasslands are known to provide these dual benefits, future government policies could provide significant new support for conserving these vital waterfowl breeding habitats.

Native prairie grasslands contain 27 to 38 metric tons of carbon per acre, carbon that remains in the soil unless the ground is plowed and converted to cropland. When native prairie is broken, much of this stored carbon is released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. Conserving native prairie ensures that stored carbon remains in the soil. Moreover, restoring grasslands on former croplands can remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it as carbon in vegetation and soil. Thus, prairie conservation is a viable solution for not only sustaining healthy waterfowl populations but also reducing carbon dioxide and other emissions in the atmosphere.

Encouragingly, prairie habitat conservation is gaining recognition in both the scientific and public policy communities as a win-win for landowners, wildlife, and the environment. But the mutual benefits of habitat conservation for waterfowl and for reducing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are not limited to the prairies. Conservation of boreal forest landscapes, bottomland hardwood forests, and coastal wetlands may also help reduce carbon dioxide levels in addition to providing vital habitat for waterfowl and other wildlife. And this could lead to even more support for waterfowl habitat conservation in the future.

While all the possible impacts of climate change are not known, a number of predicted scenarios would have far-reaching impacts on both waterfowl and hunters. By confronting the potential challenges climate change poses to waterfowl today, conservationists can help ensure a secure future for the birds and our waterfowling tradition.

Different Impacts in Different Landscapes

A changing climate could affect waterfowl and their habitats in a number of ways. Some of the most significant potential impacts include:
  • More frequent drought and increased demand for water in the Prairie Pothole Region could result in significant losses of key waterfowl breeding habitat.
  • Increasing temperatures in the western boreal forest could melt permafrost beneath many shallow wetland basins, potentially reducing wetland habitat in this important waterfowl breeding area.
  • Greater variability and increased intensity of seasonal rainfall could affect waterfowl food availability in key migration areas.
  • More frequent spring flooding in bottom- land hardwood systems could lead to significant losses of these important waterfowl wintering habitats.
  • Rising sea levels could claim vast acreages of coastal marsh and estuarine habitats vital to migrating and wintering waterfowl.

Dawn Browne is DU's manager of conservation programs in the state of Washington.