Decrease in Wildlife Habitat Threatens Ducks

Paul Smith

Journal Sentinel

Milwaukee Wisconsin

Water plus habitat equals ducks.

Among the vagaries of nature, it amounts to an iron-clad calculation.

After a couple of decades of sound conservation programs and a few years of very good precipitation, North America had the most ducks ever recorded in 2011 (45.6 million ducks) and 2012 (48.6 million).

The numbers, from the annual breeding ducks survey in spring, prompted some wise wildlife managers to urge hunters and wildlife viewers to savor the sight of large flocks because “these are the good old days.”

Weather may well allow record or near-record duck numbers again this year.

But the long-term trend is cause for great concern.

A dramatic change to the habitat half of the equation is setting the stage for drops in duck and other wildlife populations.

In America‘s market economy — at least the way it’s currently structured — wildlife habitat can’t compete with other land uses.

The number of acres enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program has dropped 26% — or 9.7 million acres — in the last five years.

The land, among the most productive wildlife grassland on earth, is rapidly changing from prairie to corn.

Concerned by the trend, conservation leaders held a Prairie Summit on Monday and Tuesday, June 3 and 4, in BismarckN.D.

“We’re seeing rapid, widespread changes in the prairie landscape driven by demand for commodities,” said Steve Adair, director of the Ducks Unlimited office in Bismarck.

The meeting was organized by Ducks Unlimited with assistance from other conservation organizations, including Pheasants Forever, Delta Waterfowl, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and The Nature Conservancy.

It also included representatives of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Natural Resources Conservation Service and North and South Dakota state officials.

The meeting was timed so members of the Wildlife and Hunting Heritage Conservation Council, which had a meeting scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday in Bismarck, could also attend.

Christine Thomas, dean of the College of Natural Resources at UW-Stevens Point, is a member of the council and attended both meetings.

“The scale of these changes is unlike anything I’ve seen,” Thomas said in a phone interview Wednesday following a tour of the area.

The Conservation Reserve Program is credited as a major force in recent record duck numbers as well as high populations of pheasants and other upland birds and non-game species in the Prairie Pothole region.

The program was established in 1985. It pays landowners a subsidy to keep land out of agricultural production. It was typically recommended on marginal farming land.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture touts the program’s benefits, including reducing soil erosion, protecting surface waters, sequestering carbon dioxide and providing wildlife habitat.

But the program is in dire straights against market forces.

Adair said a presentation at Monday’s meeting showed the average net income on North Dakotaground planted in corn is $400 an acre, while the net income to farmers on land enrolled in the reserve program was $12 per acre.

Farmers get their payments in the program but still have to pay taxes, control weeds and other costs on the land.

Recent subsidies to farmers to grow corn for ethanol, as well as international demand for corn and soybeans, triggered a significant drop in reserve program acres in the Prairie Pothole region.

National enrollment is at a 25-year low.

With corn prices spiking, most farmers can’t justify keeping acres in the program, even if it’s poor agricultural land.

Duck and pheasant hunters visiting the Dakotas last fall and winter commonly saw cattail marshes being burned to allow planting this spring.

Activity to produce two other commodities — oil and gas in the Bakken formation — is causing additional loss to wildlife habitat in the region.

“There is the actual footprint of the wells and processing sites, then there is the effect of fragmentation of habitat,” Adair said. “It all adds up to less for wildlife.”

The meeting’s agenda included discussion of possible improvements to the reserve program through the Farm Bill, as well as increased federal funding for wildlife programs in the Prairie Pothole region. The notion of an increase in the price of the federal duck stamp — which buys and leases wildlife habitat — was also discussed.

The state agencies, too, offered ideas to help reduce losses.

But the odds of reversing the tide of habitat loss are very long. The economic benefits from increased corn production are too great.

“Everyone knows that this development is going to happen,” Thomas said. “The job of the conservation community, agencies and hopefully the oil industry is to make the impact on the environment as small as possible and retain as much habitat for wildlife as possible.”

A new, landmark conservation solution, such as the Pittman-Robertson excise tax or the duck stamp, both dating to the 1930s, is nowhere in sight.

“There’s no silver bullet,” Adair said.

Tuesday’s schedule included site visits to farms, ranches and fossil fuel production facilities.

It rained most of the day, limiting travel to paved roads, Adair said. North Dakota has had nearly twice its normal precipitation this year.

Perhaps 40% of the acreage in the area has yet to be planted because of the wet conditions.

At least as long as the rains fall, ducks will have essential water. The other necessary ingredient for wildlife production, though, isn’t controlled by Mother Nature.

And once it’s gone, it’s gone.