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Ducks on the Move

My husband Lou and I headed out West on vacation this past summer. Driving across North Dakota, we noticed two things we don't usually see: everyone following the speed limit (75 mph) and wetlands popping up every few miles among rolling grasslands.

North Dakota has thousands of natural basins, or prairie potholes, created by receding and melting glaciers. Since European settlement, North Dakota has held onto about 51 percent of its wetlands. By contrast, Minnesota's prairie pothole counties have retained less than 10 percent. And the prairie itself has all but disappeared. This has happened despite the fact that Minnesota has among the most stringent state wetland regulations in the country.

For the past decade, our wetland-rich neighbor has been attracting more ducks than our state has. As this issue's "Retooling Minnesota's Duck Factory" tells, the wetland-grassland complexes of North and South Dakota produce about half of the prairie pothole region's ducks. However, as the climate shifts and landscapes change, the epicenter for duck production could move to western Minnesota -- if Minnesotans rally around actions to restore wetland-grassland habitat.

Not only duck hunters have an interest in healthy wetlands. Directly or indirectly, all of us benefit from the natural flood and erosion control furnished by wetlands, which filter and store rain- and melt-water runoff. How then might we help restore prairie potholes?

The federal farm bill has several conservation programs to help owners of private land protect and restore wetland ecosystems. The 2003 Natural Resources Inventory showed Minnesota farmers had 1.4 million acres enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program, which sets aside marginal farmland, including acreage too wet to farm. North Dakotans enrolled 3.2 million acres in CRP. A 2006 article in North Dakota Outdoors said, "Research in North Dakota has shown that duck nests in CRP grasslands are more likely to escape predation than nests in smaller, isolated parcels of grass."

With CRP contracts, the government essentially rents land for wildlife habitat. The cost of renting is based on land values. Because of the economics of crop production, North Dakota has lower land values and less potential income for landowners. As a result, landowners there have put more land into CRP, as well as grazing land, which also provides nesting habitat if properly managed.

Now CRP acreage will diminish everywhere because the 2008 farm bill downsized the program from a cap of 39 million acres to 32 million nationwide. And as landowners weigh the economics of production versus conservation, they may decide not to renew or enroll in CRP contracts. Over the next five years, Minnesota could lose about 700,000 CRP acres, says Kevin Lines, conservation easement program coordinator with the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources.

Arguably the most immediate and long-lasting way to protect wetlands is to control drainage. A graphic example of the impact of drainage ditches appears on page 15 of this issue: A map of the Heron Lake watershed in 1892 is blanketed with blue dots representing water basins, and it contrasts sharply with today's map of tan dots depicting the area's drained basins.

Restoring a wetland is not as simple as blocking a drainage ditch and allowing water to back up in a field. For instance, exotic species, such as reed canary grass, must be controlled. Geographic location and legal issues can also add complexity to a project, says Lines. For example, a landowner must ensure that water doesn't go onto a neighbor's property.

The cost of altering physical features to restore a wetland can be quite reasonable. But restoration calculations should also take into account the loss of agricultural income. That's where the federal Wetlands Reserve Program comes in. As our story tells, WRP works with the Reinvest in Minnesota Reserve to create permanent conservation easements for restored wetland complexes. Like CRP, the program reimburses landowners based on a percentage of land value.

One of the oldest funding sources for conserving wetlands began with the federal duck stamp, featured in our story "Have Fun Painting Ducks." The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service uses stamp-sales revenue to purchase wetlands and easements for waterfowl production areas. Duck hunters must buy the $15 stamp along with a license, but birders and other conservationists can buy duck stamps too. Minnesota's wildlife stamps also provide dollars for habitat.

On our summer road trip, Lou and I saw all kinds of habitat. Crossing the Great Plains and big sky country of Montana, the Rocky Mountains of Wyoming, the sagebrush buttes of Idaho, and the high desert of Oregon, we heard Woody Guthrie's anthem resounding, a call to freedom and stewardship, "This land is your land, this land is my land . . . This land was made for you and me."

Kathleen Weflen, editor

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