Jim Williams has been watching birds and writing about their antics since before "Gilligan's Island" went into reruns. Join him for his unique insights, his everyday adventures and an open conversation about the birds in your back yard and beyond.

Wetlands being lost at frightening pace

Posted by: Jim Williams under Bird conservation Updated: October 25, 2013 - 3:32 PM
Below is comment written by editor Diana Rupp for readers of the magazine "Sports Afield." It is directed at hunters, but carries an important message for birders as well. Hunters and birders are partners in conservation efforts. We share much. As you read, change the word "hunter" to "birder". When she writes "North Dakota," you can almost always substitute "Minnesota".
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North Dakota’s prairie landscape is beautiful in early fall. The grasses are lush, the buffaloberries
are ripening, and the prairiempotholes—small natural wetlands that dot the plains—are loaded with ducks. In fact, this region is the heart of North America’s “duck factory,” some of the richest and most
productive wetlands in the world. I had the chance to see all this because I was in the state capitol, Bismarck, this past September as part of a group of journalists attending a media summit organized by the
Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP), an organization that aims to help hunters and anglers influence conservation issues on the federal level. The location of the summit was no
accident. TRCP’s namesake, our most conservation-minded president, owned a ranch in North Dakota in the 1880s and hunted there extensively. Today, changes in land use are altering this landscape irreparably.
TRCP’s goal for the press junket was to promote awareness of what’s happening on the northern prairies and how it affects wildlife habitat.
 
While national attention has centered on oil drilling in the western third of the state, the prairies that make up the majority of the Dakotas are undergoing a different kind of “boom.” Soaring commodity prices
are causing farmers to plow up grassland and former cattle ranches, converting productive
pheasant, duck, and deer habitat to monocultures of corn and soybeans. North Dakota is losing its native prairie grassland at the rate of 2 to 5 percent every year, faster than at any time since the Dust Bowl.
That’s having a major effect on ducks and other wildlife. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service estimates that 1.4 million small wetlands in the eastern Dakotas are at high risk of drainage. If these wetlands are lost,
breeding duck numbers could decline by as much as 37 percent—a loss of almost 3 million birds.
 
Much of this is due to market forces, but it’s not helped by the fact that the economic downturn and shifting national priorities have weakened conservation incentives. Because agriculture is big business in this region, funding from the Farm Bill (along with the rules that go with accepting that funding) has a strong
effect on land use in this region. The Farm Bill matters to hunters because its conservation rules, or lack of them, impact a huge swath of wildlife habitat—especially in the nation’s heartland.
 
The Farm Bill used to be closely tied to conservation initiatives, but that’s changed in recent years. Farmers who accept subsidized crop insurance used to have to protect or mitigate damage to wetlands, but the
subsidies no longer have any such stipulations. The problem has been exacerbated by the availability of inexpensive plastic tiles that make it easier than ever to drain wetlands to plant crops. TRCP and its partners, including Ducks Unlimited, are working to have rules included in the new Farm Bill (currently being debated in Congress) that would require farmers who receive money from the government to adhere to conservation- friendly practices. Hunters should contact their senators and representatives to support these efforts  In the meantime, another important thing we can all do is to buy a Duck Stamp, even
if we’re not planning to hunt migratory birds. More than 98 percent of the cost of this stamp goes to conserve habitat. As I saw during my visit, there’s still plenty of outstanding wildlife habitat in
North Dakota. But as the region becomes increasingly important in filling our nation’s food and energy needs, wildlife habitat must also remain an important priority. 
 
As Theodore Roosevelt knew, conservation is an investment, one that pays dividends in the form of deer, ducks, productive land, quality of life, and a hunting heritage we can pass on to the next generation.

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