As spring arrives on the northern plains, a myriad of waterbirds are winging their way northward to places they have considered home for endless generations.
A recent grant from the North American Wetlands Conservation Act - administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is helping to further conservation efforts to protect these unique and essential wildlife habitats.
The grant provides $770,109 for Phase III of the South Dakota Threatened Habitats project, with $1,635,531 in matching funds. Another $27,167,000 from the Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp Act (a.k.a. Duck Stamp) will be used to "voluntarily purchase perpetual wetland and grassland conservation easements from landowners in the project area," according to the information about the project.
"South Dakota continually leads the Nation in sodbusting of native prairie to tillage monoculture," said Kurt Forman, working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as the South Dakota coordinator for the Partners for Fish and Wildlife. "We average 40,000-50,000 acres of native prairie/wetland complexes that are lost each year and this trend continues to expand westward into formerly secure bird production landscapes."
This project represents "a continued effort to accelerate protection of this threatened landscape by working primarily with family ranchers to ensure a sustainable future," according to the NAWCA grant summary. "A diverse coalition will address these challenges by developing an integrated suite of wetland and grassland conservation tools that will be implemented to benefit the grasslands needed by ranchers and the vital landscape attributes needed by prairie birds.
"Contributions will be combined with grant funds to restore 3,453 grassland acres and 250 wetland acres; enhance 42,062 grassland acres, establish 34 acres of wetlands and enhance and 2,685 wetland acres. This habitat will not only provide direct benefits to more than 7,000 breeding duck pairs, but will also afford critical conservation benefits to the full spectrum of native bird communities dependent on the rapidly disappearing native grasslands and wetlands of central South Dakota. For example, match and grant tracts will provide direct breeding habitat benefits to an estimated 475 willet pairs, 440 marbled godwit pairs, 210 pairs of Sprague’s pipits, 135 pairs of Baird’s sparrows and 2,730 pairs of chestnut-collared longspurs."
Twenty-eight prairie potholes (61 wetland acres) restored on private land by the U.S. F.W.S. Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program in the project area and perpetually protected via a voluntary U.S. F.W.S. wetland conservation easement.
"The project area encompasses the Missouri Coteau of South Dakota and adjacent grassland/wetland landscapes," Forman said. "Specific conservation practices including wetland restorations, native prairie restorations, rotational grazing systems and wetland enhancements will be focused towards the remaining grassland/wetland complexes of the project area.
"Projects are selected by F.W.S. wildlife biologists with an emphasis on those sites that directly contribute to the grassland and wetland habitat objectives defined in the 2005 Prairie Pothole Joint Venture implementation plan." An emphasis is placed on projects best addressing the joint venture habitat objectives and based on the seven evaluation factors:
- Risk of habitat conversion to tillage and/or drainage
- Grassland tract size
- Native prairie condition
- Breeding pair density
- Proximity to other protected tracts
- Cost-benefit relative to other tracts
- Association with existing or potential conservation easements
The goals of this project are being achieved only through a coopertative effort, Forman noted. "First and foremost I would like to acknowledge the landowners who are willing to share our vision of a sustainable grassland/wetland landscape in the project area.
Other cooperators for this particular grant are the Beadle Conservation District; Hyde County Conservation District: South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks; Ducks Unlimited; 200 private landowners, and the Heartland Chapter of Pheasants Forever.
The remaining grassland ranchers in the project area are often under intense economic and social pressure to convert their prairie to the plow.
An example of sodbusting of native prairie in the project area.
Forman was an author, along with Kenneth F. Higgins and David E. Naugle, of a 2002 article in the scientific journal "Waterbirds" on how changing land use in the northern Great Plains is impacting the conservation of waterbirds: "Wetland and grassland habitats of the northern Great Plains are a primary breeding ground for waterbirds in North America. Native mixed grass prairies that were historically used for cattle grazing have met with changing social and economic pressures that put the remaining 40% of this resource at high risk of tillage."
The paper described:
- 1) the current state of waning rural societies,
- 2) characterized impacts of land use change on waterbird habitats, and
- 3) discussed conservation actions to benefit waterbirds.
- 2) characterized impacts of land use change on waterbird habitats, and
"Recent population statistics indicate that a record number of farmers facing low commodity prices are selling their farms and moving to urban centers for employment. Other farmers are shifting from diversified agriculture to monoculture grain farming to take advantage of farm programs that provide incentives to bring marginal land into production. Additional data indicate that concurrent changes in crop types have decreased quality of farmland wildlife habitat while bigger and faster farm equipment and genetically modified crops continue to make farming marginal land less risky. Legislators and administrators should be advised that waterbird habitat loss continues to expand westward. The last chance to sustain the unique grassland-wetland character of the northern Great Plains is to accelerate grassland conservation with short- and long-term stewardship programs and incentives to family ranchers. This philosophy is of vital importance because it also protects wetland habitats that otherwise are vulnerable to drainage when native prairie is converted to cropland. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, this would conserve our prairie heritage for future generations while preserving the private property rights of landowners."
Grassland protection priority areas for grassland birds. Images courtesy of the F.W.S.
Upland accessibility by breeding duck pairs in the Prairie Pothole region.
"Over 80,000 acres of native prairie have been converted to cropland in the project area from 2005-2007," according to information provided with the grant. "The degree of native prairie loss found within the South Dakota Threatened Habitats project area is by far the highest documented within the PPJV. These large-scale landuse changes continue to rapidly expand westward into formerly secure grassland tracts and prairie wetland complexes that represent much of the last of the best remaining breeding bird habitat."
"Many biologists believe that the ultimate landscape character of the project area will be defined within the next decade," Forman said. "Recent landscape modeling indicates that current rates of habitat loss will lead to a 50% reduction in native prairie acreage in some of the most biologically rich portions of the Threatened Habitats project area within just 34 years. Each acre of grassland and prairie loss will have direct negative impacts on the full spectrum of bird assemblages in the project area."
This project initially started in 2001. Currently, there are over 1.5 million acres of such conservation easements in the PPJV portion of eastern South Dakota.