Coming Year Full of Challenges
Rob Olson Examines Key Issues Facing Ducks, Duck Hunters
Delta Waterfowl President Rob Olson is urging ducks hunters to stay focused on four conservation issues with long-term implications for duck populations.
“As we look ahead to the coming year, it’s obvious these four issues are very important for the future of ducks and duck hunting,” Olson says. “The long-term productivity of the prairie breeding grounds could hang in the balance.”
The four issues he hopes will capture duck hunters’ attention are the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), the Emergency Wetland Loan Act, Alternate Land Use Services (ALUS) and the Clean Water Act (CWA). The fate of the first two rests with the US Congress, while the Canadian Parliament and the US Supreme Court will decide the others.
Olson encourages duck hunters to do everything they can to support a positive outcome for ducks by writing letters, attending meetings and sending emails as these programs are being decided. “I like to think hunters are in control of their own destiny on three of these issues,” he says. “I believe hunters can make a difference.”
Here is an overview on the issues in question:
Emergency Wetland Loan Act
Borrowing Against the Duck Stamp
The federal duck stamp is easily the most effective waterfowl habitat program on the US breeding grounds. The duck stamp has been responsible for 90 percent of the permanently protected waterfowl habitat on the US portion of the Prairie Pothole Region (PPR).
The duck stamp has been around since 1934, when Jay Norwood “Ding” Darling, the first director of the US Biological Survey, introduced the concept and designed the first stamp. Since then, duck stamps sales have raised more than $700 million that has been used to conserve more than 5 million acres of waterfowl habitat.
Across the “duck factory, some 2.7 million acres of wetlands and grasslands have been permanently protected at cost of about $137 million.
Unfortunately, while the cost of protecting breeding habitat has skyrocketed in recent years, duck stamp revenues have not. As a result, the list of landowners anxious to give easements exceeds the duck stamp dollars available to the US Fish and Wildlife Service to take those easements.
The Kennedy-Thompson Emergency Wetland Loan Act of 2005 would help change that. Introduced by Rep. Mark Kennedy, R-Minnesota, and Rep. Mike Thompson, D-California, HR4315 would authorize the US Fish and Wildlife Service to borrow up to $400 million dollars against future duck stamp sales over a 10-year period. That loan, coupled with existing revenues provided by the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund (MBCF) would provide $800 million dollars to secure waterfowl habitat.
“The bill already has a good base of non-partisan support in the House of Representatives,” said Joe Duggan of Pheasants Forever, whose work with Rep. Kennedy was critical in getting the bill introduced. At press time, Duggan said he believed there was a good chance the billwhich is patterned after the Wetlands Loan Act of 1961, which Congress later forgavewill pass in the current session of Congress.
Rep. Kennedy has asked Delta to encourage its members to contact their members of the House of Representatives and ask them to support H. R. 4315. As of press time, 77 members of the House had signed on as cosponsors of the bill.
Greatest Need on the Breeding Grounds
Yet to be determined is where the money will be spent if HR4315 is approved and signed into law. “There is no greater need than the prairie breeding grounds,” says Olson. “The Missouri Coteau is South Dakota is just one good example. The Coteau contains some of the finest native pintail habitat on the continent, but huge chunks of it are being broken and put into crop production in recent years. There’s a long waiting list of landowners anxious to give perpetual easements to the Fish and Wildlife Service, but the Service doesn’t have enough money to go around.
“Science tells us that 91 percent of the annual variation in mallard populations occurs because of factors that exist on the breeding grounds,” Olson says. “In other words, if we want our dollars to have a positive impact on duck populations, there’s no better place to spend those dollars than on the prairie breeding grounds.”
Ron Reynolds of Fish and Wildlife’s Habitat and Population Evaluation Team (HAPET) agrees. “For prairie-nesting ducks, all of the births and half of the deaths occur on the breeding grounds,” Reynolds says. “If we fail on this critical battleground, then we have lost the war.”
A CRP-Type Program for Canada
Alternate Land Use Services (Canadians call it “Alice”) is a habitat program developed and promoted jointly by Delta Waterfowl and Keystone Agriculture Producers (KAP) of Manitoba. The first ALUS pilot projects will be launched this spring, with additional projects in the planning stages across the country.
Olson says the future of ALUS looks even brighter after it was endorsed recently by both the Liberal and the Conservative parties in Canada.
The hope is that ALUS will eventually have a CRP-like impact on ducks across prairie Canada, where production the last two decades has been staggered by the ongoing loss of nesting habitat.
US duck hunters can help rally support for ALUS, Olson says. “Tennessee and Mississippi have committed dollars for ALUS pilot projects, and we hope other states will follow suit. ALUS is our best hope for putting much-needed habitat on the Canadian landscape.
“A lot of people assume the Canadian breeding grounds are already protected,” Olson says. “In reality, all waterfowl interests combined, working in Canada since 1937, primarily using duck hunters’ dollars, have permanently protected just 300,000 acres of habitat. As a result, duck production on the Canadian prairie has fallen steadily and dramatically for 25 years.”
“That’s why ALUS is so important,” says Olson. “Historically, most of the ducks produced in the Prairie Pothole Region (PPR) came from Canada, but during the wet cycle of the 1990s the US side of the region actually produced more ducks than Canada.”
The big question, Olson says, is whether long-overdue gains on the Canadian side of the border will be offset by habitat losses in the US. The rate of loss in the US would be slowed dramatically if Congress approves the second issue on Olson’s watch list, the Emergency Wetland Loan Act.
The Farm Bill
CRP and Swampbuster
Many scientists say most of the credit for the increase in duck populations during the 1990s belongs to Congress and Mother NatureCongress for providing millions of acres of grass nesting cover across the breeding grounds and Mother Nature for adding the water.
There were other factors, of course, but CRP’s contribution is undeniable. A study conducted by Reynolds showed the large blocks of undisturbed nesting cover provided by CRP resulted in an additional 2 million ducks annually between 1992 and 1997.
When the current farm bill expires in 2007, some 2.2 million acres of CRP contracts in North and South Dakota are set to expire with it, and no one is quite certain how Congress will treat CRP in the new farm bill.
Even if CRP is re-authorized at the promised levels, waterfowl interests worry that the breeding grounds won’t be a high priority, or that payment levels will be too low to attract farmers at a time when subsidy payments are so lucrative.
“It’s critical that CRP be re-authorized as part of the next farm bill,” says Olson, “and that CRP payments are competitive with subsidies. We can’t afford to lose CRP. I hope duck hunters will contact their lawmakers and urge them to support CRP on the breeding grounds.”
The Swampbuster provisions of the next farm bill also bear watching, says Olson. Under Swampbuster rules, farmers who drain wetlands are not eligible for crop subsidies. In the past, there have been Congressional attempts to weaken Swampbuster, one of the last lines of defense for the small wetlands critical for duck production, but those attempts have been turned back by conservationists, most notably the National Wildlife Federation.
Upholding the Clean Water Act
Supreme Court Hears Case
The US Supreme Court is hearing a case that conservationists say could end three decades of Clean Water Act (CWA) wetland protection, leaving half of the country’s remaining wetlands vulnerable to pollution and destruction.
The case combines two cases from the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, which determined that the Clean Water Act protects wetlands that flow into larger bodies of water. If the Supreme Court over-rules the lower court opinion, the Army Corps of Engineers estimates that half the remaining wetlands and streams in the US might lose protection under CWA.
The National Wildlife Federation (NWF) has filed an amicus brief. (An amicus curiae brief is a “friend of the court” brief filed with the court by someone who is not party to the litigation but who believes the court’s decision may affect its interest.)
“Congress passed the Clean Water Act to ensure that future generations of Americans would not inherit lakes that are dead and rivers that can’t support fish or wildlife,” says Jim Murphy, NWF wetlands counsel, who represents the groups.
“There’s nothing sportsmen can do to influence the outcome of this decision,” says Olson. “We’ll just have to keep our fingers crossed.”
Joining NWF in filing the brief are Ducks Unlimited, Pheasants Forever, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, The Wildlife Society, the Izaak Walton League of America and others.
Rep. John Dingell, D-Michigan, one of the authors of the Clean Water Act, also has filed an amicus brief with the high court.
‘The future of ALUS looks even brighter after it was endorsed by both the Liberal and the Conservative parties in Canada.’