BISMARCK, N.D. - Those of us who have purchased one or more federal duck stamps during the past 50 years deserve a bit of recognition on this, the 50-year anniversary of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Small Wetlands Program.
Created in 1958, the Small Wetlands Program began as an amendment to the Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act of 1934. Since then, the amendment has allowed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to use money generated by the sale of federal duck stamps to permanently protect almost 3 million acres of wetlands and grasslands as Waterfowl Production Areas (WPAs), mostly in the Prairie Pothole Region of Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana.
Historically, federal duck stamps were sold primarily to waterfowl hunters and are required for waterfowlers 16 and older. But birders and other nature enthusiasts have also recognized the benefits to wildlife -- and ultimately us -- that a duck stamp purchase provides.
Late last month, on a clear and calm morning, I got a duck's-eye view from 1,200 feet above the prairie of a few of those WPAs and wetland and grassland easements northeast of Bismarck, N.D. From the back seat of a USFWS Cessna 206, I viewed some of the most productive duck-nesting habitat in North America, the quality due in part to the proliferation of WPAs, in addition to the thousands of acres of easements in the region, and national wildlife refuges.
It is important to understand the Prairie Pothole Region with its many WPAs provides habitat for more than just ducks. The mix of shallow wetlands and grasslands is home to hundreds of species of resident and migratory birds, mammals and plants. In addition, those nutrient-rich wetlands act as giant sponges, soaking up rain and snowmelt, which helps control flooding and filters groundwater.
Minnesota and Iowa have lost more than 90 percent of their shallow wetlands because of drainage. This is distressing news if you are a duck, or any of the other hundreds of species of critters dependent on wetlands. It's even more distressing if you are one who watched your home crumble and drift downstream on muddy water during recent 100-year floods that, oddly, are happening far more often than that.
Even North Dakota and South Dakota have lost an estimated 50 percent of their shallow wetlands because of drainage. But, as I pressed my face to the window of the Cessna, that fact was not evident, at least not to my untrained eye. In some locations, an occasional vista included more water than land, despite a general lack of runoff from winter snowmelt and spring rain.
"We had virtually no runoff from snowmelt this spring," said Lloyd Jones, USFWS refuge coordinator, from his front seat in the airplane. "But we've had 4 or 5 inches of rain in the past few weeks. That helped raise water levels. But some wetlands remain bone dry."
Jones was my onboard tour guide. He, along with pilot Shawn Bayless, regional aircraft manager for the USFWS, alerted me to points of interest as we flew.
Occasional drought is a normal occurrence in the Prairie Pothole Region. Plant life is a key feature of any prairie wetland, since plants provide food and cover for ducks and other wildlife. Wet-dry cycles are necessary to produce a diversity of wetland plants.
Further on, Jones and Bayless noted a Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) grassland that was in the process of being plowed under.
"The ducks that have nested in that field will be displaced, probably to habitat of lesser quality," Jones said.
The further east we flew, the more water we encountered.
"That's one of our WPAs," Jones said as he pointed downward. "See the white signs on the corners. Those cattail islands in that marsh are perfect for over-the-water nesting duck species like canvasbacks. I wish everyone could see this WPA."
Below was a beautiful cattail marsh. The uplands surrounding the marsh were covered with tall grass.
"Our goal is to have one duck nest per acre of grassland on our WPAs," Jones said.
Although I've never set foot on that WPA, and likely never will, it was gratifying to me to have been a part of the preservation process -- however small -- via my more than three decades of purchasing Federal Duck Stamps.
Federal Duck Stamps cost $15, and can be purchased at U.S. post offices. Most hunting and angling license vendors also sell the stamps. In addition, they can be purchased online at www.duckstamp.com.
The 2008-09 Federal Duck Stamp features a pair of northern pintail ducks painted by Minnesota artist Joe Hautman.
Bill Marchel is a wildlife photographer and columnist. He lives near Brainerd.