The Hole in the Bucket
Agriculture policy change threatens to drain wetlands
A lot of coverage in this magazine and elsewhere has been devoted to the loss of Conservation Reserve Program nesting cover and native grasslands. And rightly so, because we know duck populations are largely driven by nest success, which is driven by the abundance of nesting cover.
While the loss of nesting cover and its consequences on duck production are clear, another issue in the waterfowl world demands equal, if not greater, attention right now.
A pending change in U.S. agriculture policy threatens to remove wetland protections and set the stage for massive drainage of duck-producing potholes.
A loss of wetlands reduces the most basic element that sustains duck populations. Destroying a wetland creates permanent drought. And unlike natural drought, ducks simply can't bounce back from widespread wetland drainage on the breeding grounds. Strong duck populations like those of recent years won't exist in the future without an ample wetland habitat base.
For the past several years, wetland abundance has not been limiting duck populations on the U.S. prairies. Conservation programming and compliance has been safeguarding our wetland habitat base.
Today, we are entering a new era of pressure on wetlands. Surging grain prices, a long string of wet years and new agricultural support programs has created a triple threat on waterfowl habitat.
Swampbuster, a U.S. wetland conservation program that ensures landowners benefitting from of federal farm programs can't drain or impact wetlands, has been the critical element protecting wetlands — especially small potholes in cropland that are most vulnerable.
According to Chuck Loesch of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Habitat and Population Evaluation Team office in Bismarck, N.D., Swampbuster is the sole protection for 69.2 percent of high-risk wetlands in key areas of the U.S. Prairie Pothole Region. Those wetlands support approximately 60 percent of the breeding pairs in this area.
Many of the traditional agriculture support programs — such as crop subsidies — might be sacrificed for a move toward risk management protection, also known as crop insurance programming. While a crop insurance system might be good for politicians and even some farmers, it leaves a gap in wetlands protection.
Right now, Swampbuster is only applied to traditional support programs — not to crop insurance. If crop insurance becomes the default farm safety net, Swampbuster protection will no longer be in place for wetlands. This seemingly minor change could open the door for wetland losses on an unprecedented scale in recent history.
Simply put, the long waterfowl seasons and liberal bag limits we have enjoyed for more than a decade could vanish if Swampbuster's protection is rendered null and void.
To ensure we don't see permanent drought occur across large swaths of the breeding grounds, Swampbuster protection must be applied to any and all types of agricultural support programs in the United States. At the same time, we need to make sure farmers have a robust menu of voluntary, incentive-based programs that will pay them a market rate to conserve wetlands either via CRP or similar programming in the United States or through an operational Alternative Land Use Services program in Canada.
Congress sets farm policy in the United States. Let your voice be heard: Contact your U.S. representative and senators and urge them to link Swampbuster protection with all agricultural support programs.
As I look out my North Dakota office window on a mild February day, I don't see any snow, likely signaling the start of another prairie drought. Let's work together to ensure the drought is simply one provided by a lack of kindness from Mother Nature, not one brought on because we didn't find the means to work hand in hand with farmers to conserve wetlands — the lifeblood of our waterfowl flocks.
John L. Devney is senior director of U.S. policy for Delta Waterfowl.