Saving North American Priority Waterfowl Breeding Habitat
The Prairie Pothole Region (PPR) is the undisputed priority landscape for breeding waterfowl in North America. According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, North Dakota alone is responsible for 8% of the continental duck population and supports nearly one-half of the breeding population of ducks in the lower 48 states. High priority waterfowl species such as mallards, northern pintail and lesser scaup all breed in this region, while greater scaup are regular migrants that will benefit from the wetlands and grasslands protected and conserved in this project. In addition numerous other waterfowl species and wetland-dependent and -associated wildlife will benefit from this conservation work.
DU and partners will work with willing landowners to secure grassland and wetland easements on priority tracts. Every easement acquired will be held in perpetuity and enforced by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Once secured these vital habitats will be available forever to wetland-dependent wildlife and grassland-nesting waterfowl, shorebirds and passerines. There are at least two endangered/threatened species (piping plover and whooping crane) and two candidate species (Dakota skipper and Sprague’s pipits) that will benefit from our conservation efforts.
Approximately 690 acres in this proposal will be held in public trust and managed as a Waterfowl Production Area by the USFWS. These acres will be open for public enjoyment including bird watching, hunting, trapping, photography, hiking and other outdoor pursuits. The remainder of the lands will provide ecosystem services benefits of flood control, water quality maintenance, erosion control and economic diversity. The one-time payment to ranchers means the lands can never be converted to cropland, but may provide a financial benefit that helps the rancher maintain his livelihood while also benefitting numerous wildlife species.
Full Project Scope
Up to 70% of North America’s waterfowl population breeds in the Prairie Pothole Region (PPR). This waterfowl paradise was created more than 10,000 years ago when the glaciers retreated from the landscape leaving productive and diverse “pothole” wetland communities often exceeding 100 basins per square mile. These wetlands habitats were intricately linked and provided nesting, brood rearing, loafing and foraging habitats for wetland-dependent waterfowl, shorebirds, wading birds, gulls and passerines and also supported many mammals, amphibians and aquatic insects. The surrounding uplands were composed of vast expanses of native prairie which provided important nesting, brood-rearing and foraging habitats for a wide array of waterfowl, shorebirds, raptors and grassland-associated passerines and also supported many mammals, amphibians, reptiles and insects. The most productive waterfowl landscapes in the Prairie Pothole Region are found in the Missouri Coteau, a narrow ribbon of habitat that encompasses 7.7 million acres in the heart of the PPR.
Since European settlement, over 60% of the prairie pothole wetlands in North Dakota have been drained, filled or degraded, largely from agricultural practices. The most recent reports by the USFWS indicate that wetlands in the U. S. continue to be destroyed at a rate of 58,000 acres per year. Likewise, over 3.7 million of the 7.7 million acres of native prairie and wetlands in the Missouri Coteau have been converted to cropland or hayland. These habitat losses have resulted in declines of many grassland and wetland-dependent birds that depend upon the coteau for breeding and migratory habitat. Several species of grassland and wetland-dependent birds as well as plants and insects in the region are now listed as federally or state endangered, threatened, proposed, candidate or watch species because of habitat loss.
There is no time to waste. Ducks Unlimited has studied the conversion rates in the Missouri Coteau region from 1984 to 2003. Annual loss rates have been relatively low, but over the long-term, these conversion rates are devastating! For example, at the 2% loss rate observed in the study locations, half of the remaining native grassland will be lost in only 34 years. In addition, studies by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service show that there will be 25,000 fewer ducks in the fall flight for every 1% decline in priority grasslands. This is a “chronic problem” needing a long-term solution.
With a grant from SportDOG, Ducks Unlimited, working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, will conserve 5,463 acres of wetland and wetland-associated grassland habitat using purchased perpetual easements along with fee-title (outright) purchase of important landscapes. The easements are so popular with landowners that a waiting list of 196 individuals exists within North Dakota. These 196 landowners have 36,667 acres up for protection.
Of the 3 million acres of native grassland in the region, only about 350,000 acres are currently protected. Under this proposal, 4,708 acres of native grassland and 755 acres of wetland habitat will be secured by fee title acquisition and perpetual easements. In some portions of the MCHCP area with high wetland densities, which attract large waterfowl breeding populations (> 100 pairs/sq. mile), waterfowl nest success is below levels necessary to maintain populations. It has been determined that in order to maintain breeding waterfowl populations, between 30 to 40% of the landscape must be in perennial grass cover suitable for successful nesting. The native grasslands of the Missouri Coteau are essential to the recovery of grassland songbirds. Over 900,000 acres inside the project boundary are designated as Bird Conservation Areas. The Bird Conservation Areas (BCA) within the MCHCP boundary make up 62% of the BCAs for the state of North Dakota. The protection of the wetland-upland complex that will be accomplished by this project will have significant benefits for grassland songbirds.
Activities in this grant proposal are part of an overall landscape approach and will use the latest Geographical Information Systems (GIS) technology to target and prioritize project sites towards the highest density wetland and waterfowl areas, in the Missouri Coteau. This GIS technology combines land cover, National Wetland Inventory data and waterfowl breeding pair regression models, probability of presence and Grassland Bird Conservation Area Cores. Monitoring of grassland nesting birds continues to show the validity and value of protecting this native grassland and wetland ecosystem for the further conservation of all birds.