Photo caption: U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack recently announced that DU received funding through the USDA's Conservation Innovation Grants for a large scale conservation project in the Prairie Potholes Region of North Dakota and South Dakota. (Photo courtesy Robert Whitney)

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service Chief Dave White recently announced that Ducks Unlimited received funding through the USDA's Conservation Innovation Grants for a large scale project in the Prairie Potholes Region of North Dakota and South Dakota that will initially help conserve 5,000 acres of ranchland in both states. However, if the program case study is successful, up to 25,000 acres of ranchland could be conserved.

The purpose of the project, known as Avoided Grassland Conversion Carbon Project, is to develop tools for grassland producers to help them monetize or determine a value for the carbon storage benefit of retaining rangeland that may otherwise be converted to cropland. DU has been awarded a $161,000 grant to carry out this project.

Conservation Innovation Grants help stimulate development and adoption of innovative conservation approaches and technologies. NRCS uses CIG to invest in innovative, on-the-ground conservation technologies and approaches with the goal of wide-scale adoption to address water quality and quantity, air quality, energy conservation and environmental markets, among other natural resource issues.

"The grant will allow us to pay grassland owners for carbon credits for protecting their grass from being converted to cropland, which through the act of cultivation would release the carbon stored over the years in the native prairie soils," said Randal Dell, DU regional biologist-environmental markets. "This pilot project will be the first time a methodology for avoiding grassland conversion will be certified by the Verified Carbon Standard, the world's leading voluntary carbon credit certification program. Crop producers and forest owners have had opportunities to sell carbon credits for some time, and now ranchers can be part of this market."

During a five-year period, more than 500,000 acres of native rangeland were converted to cropland in the Prairie Pothole Region of Montana, South Dakota and North Dakota.

Threats to convert productive native grassland to cropland are expected to grow even stronger as global food demands increase. In rangeland areas, soil accounts for more than 90 percent of the carbon storage. Converting native prairie to cropland results in an initial loss of 20 to 50 percent of the ground's carbon stocks.

DU has been developing the methodology for estimating how many grassland acres are likely to be converted for other uses. "The estimation of the likelihood of conversion on a specific parcel of grassland is central to the project," Dell said. "We must demonstrate that, without the project, the grass would be plowed under."

NRCS received 43 CIG proposals from 28 states. Ducks Unlimited's project was one of the nine projects that were approved. Grant recipients are required to provide matching funds-both cash and in-kind services.