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U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports loss of wetlands

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released a report this month that documented a loss of about 74,340 acres of wetlands in the U.S. share of the Prairie Pothole Region.

The Prairie Pothole Region includes 118 million acres stretching from the Canadian border through northeast Montana, most of North Dakota, eastern South Dakota and north-central Iowa. The U.S. side makes up only one-third of the total region, with the remainder in southeast Alberta, southern Saskatchewan and southwest Manitoba.

The Canadian Wildlife Service said long-term studies have shown a decline in wetlands in Canada as well.

The U.S. side of the region supports more than 300 species of migrating and resident birds and has been called “America’s Duck Factory.” In addition to providing bird, animal and plant habitat, the wetlands in the region also help disperse floodwaters, refill groundwater supplies, provide water and forage for livestock and other animals, and support biodiversity, according to the report.

“Extreme weather patterns, rising agricultural commodity prices and oil and gas development are threatening millions of acres of prairie wetlands, putting further pressure on the most valuable breeding area for ducks in the Americas,” said Dan Ashe, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service director, in a release that accompanied the report. “This report highlights the need for continued vigilance in monitoring and protecting the Prairie Pothole Region to ensure it remains healthy for waterfowl for generations to come.”

The report, “Status and Trends of Wetlands in the Prairie Pothole Region,” measured trends in 755 randomly selected 4-square-mile sample plots throughout the region from 1997 to 2009. North Dakota has more land in the region than any other state and had 269 plots studied, with 190 in South Dakota, 156 in Minnesota, 85 in Montana and 55 in Iowa. Every state in the region saw wetland losses with the exception of Montana, which saw a gain of less than 1 percent.

Mike Szymanski, North Dakota Game and Fish Department waterfowl biologist, said Iowa suffered the worst losses due to drainage for agriculture, and the damage done there may be irreparable.

“Just about all the wetlands are destroyed in Iowa,” Szymanski said. “It’s really hard to get the hydrology back functioning correctly for a wetland, and land is a lot more expensive, too.”

In North Dakota, 1,550,497 wetland basins were counted in 1997 and 51,781 basins were lost over the 12-year period, which contributed to an overall loss of 110,718 basins lost throughout the five states.

“When you talk about the decline in wetlands, it’s about more permanent basin destruction versus ebb and flow and what you count during a survey,” Szymanski said. “When we go out and count wetlands during surveys, we’re counting wetlands with water, so if it’s during a real wet cycle, that can mask the trend of how many wetlands are being drained. You could still have a drainage ditch or something with water in it that still gets counted, but it’s not the same as a normal, functioning wetland.”

A spokesperson for the Canadian Wildlife Service was unavailable to comment on the U.S. report, but Maja Stefanovska, communications officer with Environment Canada, was able to answer some questions on the wetland losses in Canada via email. Stefanovska said conservation efforts along with high levels of precipitation have benefited some migratory bird populations, but wetlands continue to decrease from drainage, infilling and a variety of other land use activities.

“Much of the Canadian Prairie has been wet in recent years resulting in improved habitat conditions for many duck species, which are currently at long-term high population levels,” Stefanovska said. “Despite recent water conditions, long-term wetland habitat monitoring documents a continued loss of wetland basins in many regions of the Canadian Prairie. In addition, several species of ducks such as the northern pintail, American widgeon and scaup remain low.”

In 2012, the U.S. and Canada developed the North American Waterfowl Management Plan to conserve migratory birds throughout the continent. In addition, Canada launched its own National Conservation Plan, a $252 million plan, which set aside $50 million for wetland conservation projects.

“Status and Trends of Wetlands in the Prairie Pothole Region” can be viewed online at www.fws.gov/wetlands/index.html.

Sun reporter David Luessen can be reached at 701-952-8455 or by email at dluessen@jamestownsun.com

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