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Conservation groups, wildlife officials converge to explore options for stemming the loss of wetland, grassland habitat

Submitted Photo by Ducks Unlimited Wetlands and surrounding grasslands such as this site on the Missouri Coteau in North Dakota provide essential nesting and brood-rearing habitat for waterfowl and other ground-nesting birds.

BISMARCK -- Paul Schmidt had a prairie encounter he won't soon forget last November during a four-day waterfowl hunt near Brookings, S.D.

The first morning, Schmidt and his hunting partner drove by a small wetland on the way to their hunting area.

"I didn't think much of it," said Schmidt, who spent more than 20 years with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service before joining Ducks Unlimited as the group's chief conservation officer in January 2011. "It was just one of the little potholes as we were heading to our hunting field."

The next day, drain tile had been put down in the marsh, which had attracted 200 canvasbacks during the spring breeding season, Schmidt said.

The day after that, the wetland was burned. By the fourth and final day of their hunt, the marsh was plowed under, never to be a marsh again.

"We saw it happen before our eyes," Schmidt said.

That experience, Schmidt said, helped set the stage for a two-day Prairie Summit that Ducks Unlimited hosted last week in Bismarck. The event drew more than 80 leaders from conservation groups including DU and Pheasants Forever, federal agencies such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Natural Resources Conservation Service and others with an interest in the prairies.

The goal, Schmidt said, was to offer a firsthand look at the crisis facing the Prairie Pothole Region -- North America's "duck factory" -- in the wake of rising crop and farmland prices and a burgeoning energy industry, and explore options for working with landowners, farmers and policymakers to slow the trend.

"You can talk about this all you want, but until you actually see what we're talking about, it's very hard to get connected to what's going on," Schmidt said. "That was my vision for the whole conference -- we need to get people up here to see what's happening."

The first day of the summit featured a series of panel discussions on why the prairies are under siege. The second day, summit participants loaded into two buses for a tour of the energy boom occurring in northwest North Dakota's Oil Patch and to hear from farmers who've succeeded in finding a balance between agriculture and conservation.

No disincentives

The Prairie Pothole Region, which extends from Iowa northwest into Alberta, is losing grassland habitat at a rate not seen since the Dust Bowl. Nationwide, more than 70 percent of grasslands and 50 percent of wetlands have disappeared, statistics show.

"The reality that's facing us here is we are asking a lot of that landscape," said Dan Ashe, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "It's pretty clear that it can't provide everything to everybody. It provides food and fiber, now energy for the United States and continues to provide the bounty of waterfowl and wildlife that it has provided for thousands of years.

"If that's going to continue, we're going to have to make responsible choices."

Jim Ringelman, director of conservation programs for DU's Great Plains Regional Office in Bismarck, said economic "drivers" will continue to favor crops over grass. It's hard to argue otherwise when corn produces a net profit of more than $400 an acre compared with $11.69 an acre for land enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve Program.

In that context, conservation programs can't keep pace with habitat loss.

"Disincentives are going to be essential," Ringelman said. "Linking environmental stewardship to subsidized programs is the best strategy."

The farm bill that passed last week in the U.S. Senate does that by tying conservation compliance with federal crop insurance.

In other words, farmers who convert marginal lands into cropland wouldn't qualify for crop insurance subsidies.

Whether this "re-coupling" of conservation compliance and subsidies, which was part of the farm bill until 1996, makes it through the House and into the final version of the legislation remains to be seen.

Easement options

Easements are another option for keeping wildlife habitat on the landscape, but they're not always popular in North Dakota. Mick Erickson, manager of the Fish and Wildlife Service's Kulm Wetland Management District, said the agency recently launched a campaign to see if landowners were interested in perpetual wetland easements that offer a one-time payment.

After hundreds of letters and thousands of phone calls, Erickson said, the service made easement offers to 138 landowners; 43 signed and 95 declined. The two main reasons for declining, he said, were better offers from farmers to rent the property and a desire to install tile drainage to improve the land's production capacity.

The challenge for farmers, then, is finding a balance.

Don and Edith Bauman have managed to accomplish that, despite high commodity prices and demand for products. Through a partnership between DU and Bayer CropScience known as "Winter Cereals: Sustainability in Action," the Baumans have worked winter wheat into their crop rotation.

Blake Vander Vorst, a DU agronomist, said research has shown winter wheat produces 24 times as many duck nests as spring wheat, which in turn helps reduce the impact of CRP loss.

The DU program provides technical assistance and other incentives for producers who incorporate winter wheat into their seeding plans.

Bauman, who farms northwest of Garrison, said the program works well from both a conservation and bottom-line standpoint.

"With winter wheat, no (duck) nests are destroyed," he said. "We're losing CRP so we need to replace nesting habitat."

If winter wheat wasn't profitable, Bauman said, he couldn't participate.

"We are wildlife-oriented farmers, but we have to make a living," he said.

Bauman talked about his farming practices during a bus-tour stop in the Garrison high school gym. Heavy rain more conducive to ducks than humans prevented tour participants from getting a firsthand look at Bauman's farming operation.

According to Bauman, not all producers see the value of wetlands. But at the same time, he said, not all favor full-scale drainage, either, and would accept farm bill provisions tying conservation compliance with subsidy payments.

Wetlands can be a nuisance, he conceded, but they also have benefits, including reduced flooding and improved water quality.

"We've dealt with (wetlands) for generations," Bauman said. "It's a convenience issue, and efficiency is very important.

"Perhaps I'm in the minority for getting up on a soapbox and saying wetlands are valuable. But I also feel we have to realize how important they are. Once they're drained, they're not going to be easily converted back to wetlands, so the opportunity is now."

Crisis, not panic

Dale Hall, CEO of Ducks Unlimited and Ashe's predecessor as director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said sharing that message and the experience of producers such as the Baumans will be essential to reversing the prairie crisis.

It will take partnerships, he said, people working together -- both in the conservation and farming community.

Ashe said he will continue to work to ensure that 70 percent of federal duck stamp dollars go toward conservation incentives for landowners in the Prairie Pothole Region.

"There is a crisis on the prairies, and this is the most important investment we can make with hunters' dollars," Ashe said.

Hall said nothing will happen without partners on the ground.

"Crisis is a reasonable word as long as we don't carry over and call it panic," Hall said. "We've got challenges, but we're going to meet them. If we decide we're going to be one voice for conservation, we will make reverberations in the halls of Congress."

A level playing field is important, Hall said, and that's why coupling conservation compliance and farm subsidies needs to happen.

"We are going to lose this land today if we don't do something for the landowner who wants to do the right thing," Hall said.