Program would add acres for ‘duck factory’In what will be a series of public meetings throughout the region, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials are working to convince landowners to preserve habitat for the “duck factory.” The Prairie Pothole Region, which is primarily east of the Missouri River and west of the Red River Valley in North Dakota, is often referred to as a duck factory. The 2.6 million acres of protected grasslands and wetlands are home to nesting migratory birds.
In what will be a series of public meetings throughout the region, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials are working to convince landowners to preserve habitat for the “duck factory.”
The Prairie Pothole Region, which is primarily east of the Missouri River and west of the Red River Valley in North Dakota, is often referred to as a duck factory. The 2.6 million acres of protected grasslands and wetlands are home to nesting migratory birds.
The problem, Lloyd Jones, Audubon National Wildlife Refuge manager, told a small group of landowners and other interested parties at a public input meeting here Wednesday, is both are disappearing. And that means a decline in the number of birds. Jones said to sustain the migratory bird population, the proposed Dakota Grassland Conservation project wants to conserve an additional 240,000 acres of wetlands and 1.7 million acres of grasslands.
In 1965, U.S. Fish and Wildlife began purchasing wetland easements for conservation in the Small Wetlands Acquisition Program. But SWAP has moved too slowly to keep up with the conversion of grassland and wetlands for other uses, officials say.
“At the rate we’ve been going it would take 150 years to have enough grasslands and wetlands easements to sustain the migratory bird population,” said Kim Hanson, project leader for the Arrowwood National Wildlife Refuge Complex, after the meeting.
With time running out, the proposed Dakota Grassland project adds grasslands and funding to SWAP in the purchase of easements by U.S. Fish and Wildlife. Grassland in the pothole region is primarily native prairie.
“At the present conservation rate half of the native prairie will be gone within 34 years,” Jones said. “Once it’s gone, it’s gone.”
The Fish and Wildlife Service is looking at an eventual need for 10 million acres of conserved grassland to sustain migratory birds. The Dakota Grassland project is therefore only the beginning.
Birder and Chase Lake Foundation Board member Dan Buchanan attended the public meeting. He said later he hadn’t realized how important the grasslands were as habitat.
“Waterfowl nest in the uplands,” he said. “That’s why a farmer can’t hay on an easement until after July 15 when the nesting season is over.”
That would be the only real restriction if a landowner allows Fish and Wildlife to purchase an easement. The grassland can still be hayed or grazed.
“The easement program is meant to be a complement to traditional farming and ranching practices,” Jones said.
Wetland easements also allow farming in dry years. However, Hanson said, at no time does the easement allow draining, filling, burning or leveling the wetland. Other than that it can be farmed.
“The wetland can be just a low spot in the field. It may be a wetland for only four, five weeks in the spring,” he said. “The easement does not interfere with normal farming operations.”
U.S. Fish and Wildlife would purchase conservation easements with funds from the Land and Water Conservation Fun Act of 1965. These funds are primarily derived from oil and gas leases on the outer continental shelf, excess motorboat fuel tax revenues and sale of surplus federal property. Officials estimate the cost of the accelerated purchasing program at $588 million.
In answer to questions of jurisdiction and restrictions by landowners, Jones said “we only control the wetland.” He added the Fish and Wildlife Service has worked effectively with wind tower companies, oil pipelines and utilities in the past.
“The easement has only limited rights and is subject to any outstanding rights,” he said.
Hanson said there’s a backlog of landowners interested in easements, but Fish and Wildlife doesn’t have the funding. He said there were 500 landowners in South Dakota and about 200 in North Dakota.
“The use of grasslands won’t change with this,” Buchanan said of SWAP and the Dakota Grasslands easement proposal. “And wetlands aren’t useful land anyway.”
The “duck factory” accounts for millions of dollars in the economic impact of hunting and eco-tourism throughout the pothole region.
“We want to sell our ecosystem and hang on to our heritage,” Buchanan said. “This sounds like a reasonable plan and can be a win-win for farmers and birds.”
For more information, visit www.fws.gov/audubon/dakotagrassland.html or contact Jones at 701-442-5474, ext. 111.
Sun reporter Toni Pirkl can be reached at (701) 952-8453 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org