Habitat goals for migratory birds in the Prairie Pothole Region reportedly will fail at current rate

Habitat goals for migratory birds in the Prairie Pothole Region reportedly will fail at current rate

A Government Accounting Office (GAO) report released in late September informed Congress that, at its current level of funding and pace of acquisitions, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) will not achieve its migratory bird habitat-protection goals in the Prairie Pothole Region, according to the Wildlife Management Institute. The report suggests Congress consider several funding alternatives for habitat protection and recommends that the FWS focus on acquiring the least expensive, high-priority habitat.

More than 60 percent of migratory bird species in the United States use the Prairie Pothole Region for breeding and migration stopover. Known as the "duck factory," this region represents only 10 percent of North American waterfowl breeding habitat yet is responsible for 50 percent of its waterfowl production. Located in the northcentral part of the country, it is known for short-, mixed and tallgrass prairies, with millions of depressional wetlands that create one of the richest wetland ecosystems in the world. In the last century, millions of wetland and grassland acres were cultivated for agriculture production, and such habitat alteration continues today.

Through the Small Wetlands Acquisition Program, the FWS has protected 3 million acres in the 64 million-acre U.S. Prairie Pothole Region through fee title acquisition (700,000 acres) or permanent conservation easements (2.3 million acres) to date. The FWS has developed sophisticated, scientific models to determine that an additional 12 million acres of "high-priority" habitat - at-risk wetlands and grasslands supporting a high number of breeding duck pairs per acre - need protection in order to sustain the region's current population of 4.2 million breeding duck pairs. If these goals are not met, the region stands to lose 40 percent of its waterfowl productivity. The GAO reported that, at current acquisition rates, more than 150 years could be needed to reach this goal, yet the FWS may have only a few decades before much of the priority habitat is lost.

Several factors are influencing the renewed effort to plow native prairie and to convert Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) lands. The demand for increased ethanol production has resulted in record planting of corn crops. With the advancement in genetically modified crops, native prairie in drier, northern climates has become profitable for production agriculture. Nearly 10 million acres, currently, are protected under CRP. However, CRP contracts on 2 million acres of high-priority habitat in the region are set to expire by 2010, and market forces could cause large tracts to be placed back into production. In addition, the cost of land is three times higher than it was just 10 years ago, making habitat protection increasingly expensive. These changes all lead to a mounting sense of urgency for the permanent protection of critical Prairie Pothole grasslands and wetlands.

While the GAO acknowledged that the FWS could be more efficient in using current funds by acquiring lower-cost, high-priority habitats, a review of acquisitions in South Dakota since 2002 showed that 70 percent of acquisitions were of the highest priority areas, so improvements would only be marginal. The most important need identified by the GAO is an increase in the funds (currently $17 million) that the agency has available annually for fee title and easement acquisition. The GAO points to three options, all of which would require congressional action, for raising funds: (1) increasing the cost of the federal Duck Stamp, (2) reauthorizing the Wetlands Loan Act and (3) providing additional resources through the Land and Water Conservation Fund. (jas)

October 07, 2007