Prairie Pothole Region losing wetlands

Published 10:26 am Thursday, July 24, 2014

BISMARCK, N.D. — Federal officials and conservationists say a recent report detailing wetland losses in the five-state Prairie Pothole Region over the past decade highlights the need for increased protection for the region that provides breeding and nesting habitat for the majority of the nation’s migratory waterfowl.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released its Status and Trends of Prairie Wetlands report earlier this month that shows that the wetlands in the Prairie Pothole Region declined by an estimated 74,000 acres between 1997 and 2009 — an average net loss of 6,200 acres per year — and some conservationists say the trend hasn’t slowed.

Prairie potholes are shallow depressions that are wetlands and are commonly found in North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa and Montana. The region provides important breeding and nesting habitat for more than 60 percent of the nation’s migratory waterfowl. The Dakotas are hotbeds for pheasant and duck hunting.

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Conservationists and wildlife officials say more emphasis needs to be put on conservation easements and incentive-based programs that protect wetlands on farmland in the region while reimbursing farmers for lost income.

Compared to the entire region, the wetland loss since the late ’90s is fairly small, but Jonathan Phinney, who leads the branch of environmental contaminants for the Wildlife Service, said any wetland loss to the critical habit is concerning.

“It’s disturbing for the Service because this is the duck production area,” Phinney said. “Even though the numbers are small, our trust resources are constantly being imperiled.”

Flooding and agricultural development on land with pockets of wetlands have been the primary reasons for wetland loss in the region, and Harris Hoistad, the refuge manager at Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge in South Dakota, said increasing agricultural commodity prices won’t help to reverse the trend.

Hoistad said the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Reserve Program began in the 1980s when commodity prices were low. And now that they’re increasing, landowners who depend on farming are less likely to set aside a portion of their land for wetlands and grasslands.

Johann Walker, the director of conservation programs for Ducks Unlimited in the Dakotas and Montana, said his organization has seen rapid increases in commodity production and farmland prices.

“Which would cause me to predict, if anything, that rate (of pothole loss) has been greater (since 2009), but I have no reason to believe that it’s slowed,” he said.

Walker said Ducks Unlimited is working on proposals with several organizations to slow the loss of wetlands or stop it entirely by offering to pay private landowners so they can bring in income while keeping their wetlands intact.

Walker said partnerships between conservation groups and private landowners are “one of the biggest solutions” to reversing the trend. Conservation easements through the Fish and Wildlife Service can also help keep wetlands intact, he said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has announced several funding initiatives in the last six months aimed at conserving wetlands.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced up to $50 million earlier this month in Moorhead that will provide financial incentives to landowners, ranchers and farmers who make conservation efforts, such as restoring and protecting wetlands and grasslands in the Red River Valley, which is part of the Prairie Pothole Region.