Delta News

The Great American Plowout Threatens Duck Production

BISMARCK, ND—It’s being called the “great American plowout”, and it threatens some of North America’s finest duck breeding habitat.

The habitat in question is located along the Missouri Coteau in South Dakota, a 10-county area where large blocks of native prairie and small wetlands exist in greater abundance than any other spot on the continent. In recent years huge tracts of this centuries-old grass have been plowed and put into crop production, and waterfowl management seems hamstrung to do anything about it.

“Duck hunters are justifiably proud of the investment they’ve made in waterfowl habitat conservation,” says Rob Olson, who heads up Delta Waterfowl’s US office here. “Right now the most pressing need for those dollars is to stop the carnage of these precious grasslands.

“Science has shown that breeding ducks need two basic ingredients to be successful,” explains Olson. “They need large blocks of grass nesting cover and an abundance of small wetlands. Across much of South Dakota’s Coteau, 40 to over 60 percent of the landscape is lush native prairie, and on wet years seasonal and temporary wetlands number 70 to as many as 100 for every square mile. For nesting ducks, it simply doesn’t any better than that.”

Stockmen in the region have fallen on hard times. Unlike farmers, livestock producers receive no government subsidies. After being buried by the relentless blizzards of 1996-97, the recent drought and low cattle prices, many ranchers have been forced to sell or lease their land to big farmers or land speculators looking to turn a profit by “farming the farm program.”

According to a Texas A&M study, South Dakota suffered a net loss of 1.1 million acres of native prairie between 1982 and 1997, and many observers feel the rate of conversion from rangeland to row crops has accelerated dramatically since 1997.

Land values have soared: A study conducted by South Dakota State University showed the price of an acre of native prairie jumped 22.2 percent between March of 2002 and June of 2003, while the cost for an acre of tame, improved pasture was up 42.9 percent during the same span.

The federal farm program is the engine driving rising land values. The SDSU study shows federal farm program payments in South Dakota soared from $268 million annually in 1997 to over $700 million in 2001.

“There were some wonderful conservation provisions in the last farm bill,” says Delta President Jonathan Scarth. “The Conservation Reserve Program, Wetlands Reserve Program and Swampbuster are all beneficial for wildlife. Unfortunately, the incentives to put land into crop production are so enticing that we’re actually losing native prairie faster than land is going into CRP grass

“What’s happening in South Dakota points up the need for waterfowl management in the US and Canada to do everything possible to shepherd wildlife-friendly farm policy through congress and parliament.”

Struggling ranchers have basically two options—sell or lease their land for crop production, or protect it through perpetual easements. But livestock producers signing up for easements with the Fish and Wildlife Service find themselves on a waiting list that numbers 150 other landowners, and the backlog of hopefuls isn’t likely to shrink any time soon.

The Fish and Wildlife Service in South Dakota has a limited annual budget of $3 million, enough to cover only a handful of big ranches. Ducks Unlimited is seeking another $1 million in North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA) funding to take grassland easements. Meanwhile, rural bankers are pressuring livestock producers to sell or lease their land for crop production.

Under-funded and under-staffed, Fish and Wildlife’s South Dakota real estate office can’t begin to meet the demand for easements from willing livestock producers.

A decision by Interior Secretary Gale Norton could exacerbate the problem. Earlier this year Norton announced a consolidation of the Department of Interior’s real estate office, in essence shifting real estate responsibilities from the prairies to Washington.

According to a report issued by the Fish and Wildlife Service last summer, this reorganization could reduce the Service’s effectiveness in the pothole region by 50 to as much as 80 percent.

Not all ranchers are willing to give perpetual easements, but many are. Brady and Wendi Rinehart of Highmore, SD, say the easement they gave Fish and Wildlife saved them from losing their 5,000-acre Pompadour Hills ranch. “We can still run our cattle and do everything we’ve always done,” says Wendi, who’s become an outspoken advocate of easements. But we can never break it.”

When asked why he didn’t follow the money into the farm program, Brady answered, “I’m a rancher. This is what I do. Ranching is a way of life—our way of life—and we love it.”

“This is a golden opportunity for waterfowl management,” says Olson. “Ducks and agriculture often come into conflict. What’s good for ducks isn’t always good for agriculture, and vice versa. But this is a win-win opportunity. We can save some of the best nesting habitat anywhere and help out ranchers at the same time.

“Sportsmen have contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to waterfowl habitat conservation over the years, and they have a right to expect those dollars are being put to work raising ducks. There isn’t a single place in the US or Canada where NAWCA dollars or any other pool of conservation money could be put to better use than taking easements on the native grasslands in the South Dakota Coteau.

“We could spend far more money developing habitat projects in other parts of the continent with little or no impact on duck recruitment,” Olson says, “or we can save habitat that has been producing ducks for centuries. Dollar-for-dollar, it’s a no-brainer.

“It’s time for waterfowl management to re-focus its priorities, concentrating on those areas that make the greatest contribution to duck production,” Olson says. “Dollars spent outside the pothole region are good for the environment, but if the ultimate goal is to put more ducks on the wing, the prairie pothole region is the best place to get the job done, and the most pressing need in the PPR is the South Dakota Coteau.”

“This is virgin prairie,” says Wendi Rinehart. “When it’s gone, it’s gone forever. No amount of money will ever bring it back.

“Brady and I very proud that this breathtakingly beautiful, virgin, sometimes demanding land—or at least our little portion of it—will be as it has always been since the glaciers pushed these rocks through this country.”

For more information, contact Rob Olson or John Devney at 888-987-3695 or 701-222-8857