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Potholes most at risk are temporary wetlands that may hold only a few inches of water for a few weeks each spring, Delehanty said.
During that short time they unleash a rush of nutrients that provide a rich diet for nesting birds and their newly hatched offspring, he said.
Once the wetland dries up for the year, said Delehanty, the waterfowl move to larger and permanent wetlands for summer feeding and growth.
'Looks like chocolate milk'
Driving across the landscape of Pope County, DNR conservation officer Kurt Nelson can find a small marsh or some form of wetland vegetation beyond almost every dip in the road.
But the view is deceiving. Most of the ponds have poor water quality because too much fertilizer or feedlot wastes have drained into them from nearby fields.
"It's horrible to say, but the water looks like chocolate milk, and there's no vegetation growing in it," Nelson said. "Birds need something to eat, so that's why you won't see ducks here."
To illustrate, he stopped at one wetland and lowered a saucer-size white disc on a string into the water. Four inches below the surface, it could no longer be seen.
Nelson and others don't blame farmers for the problems but question the federal farm programs that seem to work at cross-purposes.
Doug Hertz, a rancher and farmer in the heart of pothole country in central North Dakota, said he understands the importance of wetlands and has enrolled nearly 1,000 acres in various conservation programs over the past two decades.
When those contracts expired last month, Hertz said he didn't renew any of them. Weeds have overtaken much of the land, he said, and it needs to be reseeded with hay or converted to grow wheat.
Hertz said that he respects the concerns of duck hunters who are alarmed about losing waterfowl habitat, but that he and many of his neighbors are ready to return their land to crop production.
"The economics of farming and ranching dictate that you've got to do this," he said.
Tom Meersman 612-673-7388
Tom Meersman firstname.lastname@example.org