FWS Regional Office: More Money Needed in the Prairie Pothole Region
Erosion of Dollars Hurting Duck Production on Breeding Grounds
How much habitat will it take to sustain healthy duck populations for future generations of waterfowlers to enjoy?
What kind of habitat do we need, and where do we need it?
First the good news: Thanks to years of scientific research, Geographic Information System (GIS) technology and a lot of old-fashioned elbow grease, the Region 6 Refuge Division of the US Fish and Wildlife Service finally has the answer to those questions.
Now the bad news: The price tag to permanently protect the habitat necessary to sustain waterfowl production at its current level is a whopping $1.4 billion, and that just covers the prairie breeding grounds in the US. Canada is another story.
More bad news: At current funding levels, the Service estimates it will take 155 years to protect the wetlands and 406 years to lock up the grasslands necessary to guarantee duck production into the future.
Fortunately, Lloyd Jones and Ron Reynolds have no intention of waiting that long, and they hope duck hunters won’t either.
Jones and Reynolds were the driving force behind the Prairie Pothole Region Waterfowl Production Area Conservation Strategy, a science-based, no-nonsense evaluation of how much habitat is necessary to “ensure the long-term viability of waterfowl populations in the US Prairie Pothole Region (PPR).”
The results of that evaluation might shock hunters who have been lulled into believing that after 70 years of conserving waterfowl habitat, the job is nearly done.
“We need to permanently protect another 1.4 million acres of wetlands and 10.4 million acres of grasslands,” says Reynolds, who heads up FWS’ Habitat and Population Evaluation Team (HAPET). “That’s what it will take to maintain our current capability to attract and produce ducks on the US side of the pothole region.”
“We’ve permanently protected 1.5 million wetland acres and 1.2 million upland acres,” says Jones, refuge coordinator for Fish and Wildlife’s Region 6. “That’s enough habitat to accommodate 27 percent of the breeding-duck population that settles here.”
Jones and Reynolds believe securing the $1.4 billion to protect the remainder of the breeding stock will require a concerted effort by the only group with a vested interest in getting the job donewaterfowl hunters.
“Duck hunters can be proud of what their conservation dollars have accomplished,” says Reynolds. “Since 1958 their duck stamp dollars have permanently protected a lot of habitat across the breeding grounds.”
“Over 90 percent of the wetlands and grasslands already protected on the U.S. breeding grounds were secured with duck stamp dollars,” echoes Jones. “The rest is a combination of other public lands and habitat acquired by state agencies and conservation organizations.
“But we still have a ways to go, and we won’t get the job done without the help of duck hunters. I don’t see anyone else stepping up to do it.”
The evaluation not only identifies how much habitat is necessary, it’s very specific about what kind of habitat must be preserved. “We’ve targeted only quality habitat,” says Jones.
When it comes to breeding habitat, saving the best-of-the-best means small wetlands and big blocks of grass.
“The wetlands most critical for duck production are the small, shallow wetlands in crop fields,” says Reynolds, noting that 10 one-acre wetlands attract three times as many nesting pairs as one 10-acre wetland. “Those little temporary and seasonal wetlands are also the most at-risk. Currently the only protection these wetlands have is Swampbuster.”
Jones and Reynolds are particularly concerned about efforts to divert duck stamp dollars from their intended purpose.
“It has actually been suggested that we replace the duck on the duck stamp with a non-game bird,” says Reynolds. “Some bird-conservation initiatives that have not received much funding are looking to the duck stamp program as a source of money. We need to support other initiatives, but not at the expense of a program built by duck hunters.
“We have to protect the duck stampby the duck, of the duck and for the duck.”
Jones says the duck stamp is critical because it’s the only funding program ear-marked for ducks, and therefore is the most reliable source of dollars. He’d like to see hunters support an increase in the cost of duck stamps“We haven’t had an increase since 1991”.
But increasing the revenue stream from duck stamp sales is only part of the solution to a challenge likely to require a myriad of additional funding sources.
“For one thing, we need to tap into NAWCA,” Jones says. NAWCA stands for the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, and it’s a Congressional appropriation intended to support the goals of the North American Waterfowl Management Plan.
Unfortunately NAWCA grants must be matched 50-50 by non-government dollars, and non-federal match is harder to find in the sparsely populated PPR than in some other areas of the country.
“We need duck hunters across the country to support their state agencies’ contributions to waterfowl conservation on the breeding grounds, where it will do the most good,” says Jones.
“More and more NAWCA has become an all-bird funding program,” says Reynolds. “People have forgotten Congress’ original intent, which was a funding mechanism for the North American Plan and its priority conservation areas.”
(Editor’s Note: To date, less than 15 percent of NAWCA dollars spent in the US have come to the PPR, and less than nine percent have gone to the Dakotas and Montana, the states responsible for over half the ducks produced in this country.)
If $1.4 billion sounds like a lot of money, it is. But Jones believes it would be money well spent.
“Waterfowl hunting generates $1.4 billion in economic activity each year,” says Jones. “When you think about it, a one-time investment of $1.4 billion to permanently protect the habitat necessary to support a $1.4 billion industry is a pretty good investment.”
Unfortunately, the meter is running.
“That $1.4 billion figure is today’s dollars,” Jones emphasizes. “It doesn’t take into account increases in land values driven by farm subsidies.”
Indeed, land values have skyrocketed across the Missouri Coteau in South Dakota, and as a result the cost for taking grass easements there has in some cases doubled.
The current price tag also doesn’t factor in possible losses in Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) lands. “For every acre of CRP we lose down the road, we have to add another acre to the grasslands we’ll need to protect,” says Reynolds.
Reynolds and Jones recognize that any effort to allocate more money for the breeding grounds is likely to meet with resistance from waterfowl and wildlife managersand even some duck huntersin other parts of the country.
“We don’t want less money going to other regions,” says Reynolds, “but we need more money coming here. We’ve documented that if you don’t do it on the breeding grounds, you’re not going to do it. We need to get that message across to duck hunters so they can help us find ways to get more money to the pothole region.”
Jones and Reynolds make a compelling case for spending duck hunters’ dollars on the prairie breeding grounds.
“If you look at the factors that influence change in mid-continent mallard populations, you’ll see that 91 percent of those factors exist on the prairie breeding grounds,” says Jones, citing research published by Steven Hoekman. “In other words, if we want to increase the mallard population there’s only one place to get the job done, and that’s on the prairie breeding grounds.”
Jones says that while the US portion of the PPR accounts for just seven percent of the traditional survey area, it attracts 21 percent of the nesting ducks. Also significant is a production index showing that the US produces more broods relative to the number of breeding ducks than does Canada.
“The US pothole region has always held its own when it comes to duck production,” says Reynolds, noting that the gap in the production index widened in the 1990s, partly because of wet conditions in the US, partly because of CRP and partly because of more intensive agricultural practices north of the border.
The Region 6 office didn’t set out to identify population and habitat objectives; the original goal of the exercise was to advocate increasing the amount of federal duck stamp dollars coming to the prairies.
“At one point Region 3 and Region 6 were only getting 44 percent of the duck stamp dollars,” says Jones. “We wanted to make a scientific case for 70 percent of duck stamp dollars coming to the Prairie Pothole Region, where the ducks are produced.”
The PPR did get a welcome increase recently when Fish and Wildlife Director Steve Williams announced that 50 percent of the duck stamp dollars would be directed to the pothole region.
In the meantime, Jones and Reynolds decided to take their research one step further. “We realized the issue was bigger than accessing more money,” says Jones. “We recognized a need to identify wider, broader objectives. We decided to set our habitat objectives based on population goals.”
That job is now complete. All that’s left is raise the money to meet those objectives.
And that brings us full circle to the group that has provided that source of funding since the migratory bird conservation stamp was authorized 70 years agoduck hunters.