Vanishing act on the prairie for duck nesting habitat

Across the Upper Midwest, duck hunters are gearing up for a record fall flight of ducks, as predicted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Bag limits are liberal -- again. Minnesota duck hunters are coming off a 2011 season that showed increase...

Planting near pothole
A farmer plants land adjacent to a North Dakota pothole during the spring of 2012. Many farmers are converting land that was formerly planted with grasses into cropland to take advantage of high commodity prices. Conservation groups are concerned that the conversion of grasslands will be detrimental to populations of wildlife such as ducks and pheasants. (Photo by Michael Furtman)

Across the Upper Midwest, duck hunters are gearing up for a record fall flight of ducks, as predicted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Bag limits are liberal -- again. Minnesota duck hunters are coming off a 2011 season that showed increases in hunter numbers and duck harvest.

But the landscape is changing rapidly where many of the continent's ducks are raised, in the prairie pothole region of the Dakotas and western Minnesota. Grasslands, including native prairies, are disappearing at alarming rates, and wetlands are disappearing, too. With commodity prices at or near all-time highs, and federal crop insurance coverage that buffers the risk of planting marginal lands, farmers are plowing under native prairie and grasslands that once were enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve Program.

Waterfowl hunters and conservationists are concerned that today's predictions of excellent duck numbers might soon be a thing of the past.

"Photographing in North Dakota and western Minnesota this spring, I saw CRP being plowed up at incredible rates," said Duluth wildlife photographer and author Michael Furtman. "What's even harder to watch is to see native prairie being plowed up. It's happening all across the Dakotas and what little we have left in western Minnesota."

Dave Nomsen, director of governmental affairs for the conservation group Pheasants Forever, said he is seeing the same thing.


"I've been traveling in this country my entire career," Nomsen said. "I've never seen the pressure on the landscape that's happening right now."

In their recent report "Plowed Under," the Environmental Working Group and Defenders of Wildlife said that between 2008 and 2011, about 37,000 square miles of grasslands, wetlands and shrublands were converted into cropland across the country. The greatest losses have occurred in the Upper Midwest and the Great Plains.

"Frankly, we don't fault some producers (farmers) because of the economics driving this issue," said Eric Lindstrom, government affairs representative for Ducks Unlimited in Bismarck, N.D.

But Ducks Unlimited wants federal farm bill policy, now under consideration in Congress, to ensure that basic conservation measures accompany provisions such as crop insurance assistance. The Senate has passed such provisions, called "conservation compliance" measures, in its version of the new five-year farm bill, set to replace existing legislation that expires this year. But the full House has yet to act on the farm bill and has been unwilling to include those measures.

"We think it's important they maintain these basic levels of conservation compliance to keep (farmers) from farming highly erodible areas and draining wetlands. It's been a tough battle in Congress," Lindstrom said.

Why ducks need grass

Most people associate ducks with water because that's where they're most visible. But ducks, like pheasants, need large expanses of grassland for nesting. Only after broods are hatched do mother ducks take their young to the water-filled prairie potholes. Without broad areas of grasslands, studies have shown that duck nesting success is very low.

The prairie pothole region of the Dakotas is dappled with thousands of small ponds that traditionally have been surrounded by vast grasslands. Some of it was native prairie, never before broken by the plow. Some of it was in programs such as CRP, where farmers were paid by the federal government to plant grasses on marginal or highly erodible land. But as those CRP contracts end, many farmers are opting out and plowing those grasses under to grow corn, wheat or soybeans.


"Duck hunters are going to be surprised in a few years," said Furtman, who recently wrote a history of Ducks Unlimited. "We've had this record-breaking fall flight forecast, and we've had liberal duck seasons for a few years. A lot of young duck hunters will think that's the way duck hunting always will be. They're going to be surprised because we've lost so much nesting cover. That can't last. It won't last."

He said the conversion of grasslands this past spring was stark.

"I saw CRP on a 40-degree slope that never should have been plowed in the first place being put into crops," Furtman said. "Windrows of trees that farmers had planted were being torn out so they could get in a couple more rows of corn. In the Madison and Appleton (Minn.) areas, I literally saw farmers planting corn in their yards, right up to their driveways. I didn't see a blade of grass anywhere that was not on public land."

Chris Radatz, public policy director at the Minnesota Farm Bureau Federation, said that land coming out of CRP enrollment varies.

"In its beginning, CRP was a program to take land out of production," Radatz said. "It wasn't necessarily the most highly sensitive land. Then, over the years, it became focused more on environmentally sensitive land. The way we look at it, there's land out there that could come back into farmland that would make sense and probably some that shouldn't come back to row-crop."

"It's really a question of balance," said Pheasant Forever's Nomsen. "It's short-term economic gains with high commodity prices versus long-term resource decisions. That's at the heart of it."

Shaping the Farm Bill

As the new farm bill has evolved in Congress, it has moved away from so-called "direct" commodity payments to more emphasis on bolstering crop insurance for farmers.


A decade ago, according to the Environmental Working Group report, taxpayers paid about 30 percent, on average, of the cost of crop insurance premiums. Today, that figure is about 60 percent on average, said DU's Lindstrom. The EG report claims that heavily subsidized crop insurance encourages farmers to plow up environmentally sensitive wetlands and grasslands.

"A lot of those conservation requirements are being eliminated," Lindstrom said of the House version of the bill. "The biggest program out there is crop insurance. DU and others are strong supporters of crop insurance. We think farmers need protection against catastrophic weather. We also think it's important they maintain these basic levels of conservation compliance. ... We think it's a compact between American taxpayers and producers."

One example of conservation compliance is the Sodsaver program, Lindstrom says. It would limit crop insurance premium assistance for four years for crops planted on native sod that doesn't have a previous cropping history.

"It makes the landowner take the risk," Lindstrom said. "It doesn't use crop insurance to incentivize the conversion of prairies."

"The Sodsaver provisions are good," says Pheasants Forever's Nomsen. "That's one of the reasons we really need this farm bill now. It's really frustrating that the House is just not taking action."

In the House, the farm bill has passed the Agriculture Committee but has not been heard on the House floor. Farm organizations also are eager to see a farm bill passed.

"The big push for Farm Bureau is to get a farm bill passed," said Farm Bureau's Chris Radatz. "And the conservation part of the farm bill is important to Farm Bureau: Are they going to cut back on the number of CRP acres and the funding for that? If we had a farm bill that was passed, we'd know."

The long view


Longtime Duluth conservationist David Zentner views the current conversion of wetlands and grasslands as the most recent in a cycle the country has seen going back to the 1930s Dust Bowl era. Good land policies followed the Dust Bowl era, he said. Later, the federal Soil Bank programs of the 1950s and 1960s paid farmers to not farm some lands. But that program was discontinued in the 1960s so the country could help offset trade deficits by shipping commodities overseas.

"We tossed out Soil Bank and moved into fencerow-to-fencerow farming," Zentner said.

Then in the drought years of the 1980s, the Conservation Reserve Program was born from a land philosophy to "farm the best and buffer the rest." That program put millions of acres into grasslands that benefited ducks, pheasants, prairie songbirds and other wildlife.

"Now, here we go again," Zentner said. "We just don't live long enough to escape self-infliction. ... It's just greed and the excess of our culture. Each time we come back from it, we spend new billions and have less."

As commodity prices have increased, as crop insurance has become more affordable and as new technologies have created more drought-resistant crops, many farmers have abandoned CRP in favor of planting crops.

The federal government's fiscal year ends Sept. 30. Whether Congress will hammer out a new farm bill by then is uncertain. And whether a new bill would include strong conservation-compliance requirements also is up in the air.

Meanwhile, millions of ducks rest on potholes across the Upper Midwest. When temperatures drop this fall and the northwest winds blow, they'll gather in great flocks and make their migration across the heart of the country.

Whether they will find sufficient grasslands to sustain their current numbers when they make their return to the north next spring remains unclear.


Aerial view
Wetlands such as these in the prairie pothole region of North Dakota were once surrounded by grasslands, which provide excellent nesting cover for ducks. Now the potholes are surrounded by croplands, as many farmers convert grasslands to row crops such as corn or soybeans. (Photo by Michael Furtman)

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