09 December 2010

Dakota Grassland Project Would Accelerate Wildfowl Habitat Conservation

To "accelerate" the conservation of wetland and prairie habitats in the Prairie Pothole region, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to establish a Dakota Grassland Conservation area.

The project would work with private landowners to develop voluntary conservation easement agreements to protect unique natural habitats in an area extending from southeast South Dakota, to east and northern North Dakota and to the extreme northeast corner of Montana.

"We need to accelerate funding in this area," said Nick Kaczor, the planning team leader for the project. Native habitats are being converted to cropland and other uses at a faster rate than in past years, and we need more options for protecting vital places."

The agency has identified 240,000 acres of wetlands, and 1.7 million acres of grasslands for conservation within the area, which is known as a significant "duck factory" in North America. These lands are important for protecting the unique ecosystems of the region, which are important havens for a myriad of birds and other wildlife.

These locales were determined by preparing map overlays which indicate known havens for birds species in need of conservation, including waterfowl species, Marbled Godwits, Grasshopper Sparrows and Sprague Pipits, Kaczor said.

The Fish and Wildlife Service has been actively protecting habitats in the region since earlier in the 1900s, and has established easement agreements since the 1960s, said Kaczor.

The Dakota Grassland project would utilize funds from the Land and Water Conservation Fund to purchase easements, and which would complement efforts now financed through the Small Wetlands Acquisition Program, and the Migratory Bird Stamp purchased by waterfowl hunters and other enthusiasts.

Potential partners in the effort include The Nature Conservancy, Ducks Unlimited, Delta Waterfowl, and the Natural Resources Conservation Service, of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Three public meetings are being held during December for people to provide their comments on the proposal. Written comments will be accepted through December 31st.

The project is now in the initial stages of the public scoping process required by the National Environment Policy Act. A draft land protection plan will be released later in the winter, and its availability will be announced on the project's webpage.

"I am absolutely excited about the potential of this project," Kaczor said. "It is not very often there is an opportunity to do a project on a landscape level."

If the project moves ahead, it would get started in 2013, Kaczor said.

The federal agency recently announced a similar project for the Flint Hills region of Kansas and Oklahoma.