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Bird’s-Eye View
Biologist Ron Reynolds talks about the complex threats to avian life in the prairie pothole region.

An aerial view of the prairie pothole region of central North America.
J. Ringleman, Ducks Unlimited/United States Global Change Research Program

When Ron Reynolds surveys the northern plains, he does it from a duck’s perspective. He has spent the past 31 years thinking about the ecology of ducks and other waterfowl as a biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). That experience has given him a deep understanding of the requirements for healthy bird populations and of the conservation and agricultural programs that have an impact on those populations.

Audubon spoke with Reynolds just after the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report last September that highlighted the snail’s pace of land conservation in the region, a pace that could have a profound effect on many bird populations. At the end of an extensive conversation, Reynolds, currently the supervisory biologist with the FWS’s Habitat and Population Evaluation Team in Bismarck, North Dakota, apologized “for giving you more than you are probably looking for here. But I am passionate.”—Kristin E. Phillips

Audubon: Twenty years ago, 35 percent of the historic prairie pothole region remained. How much has been lost since then?
Reynolds: Generally speaking, what we consider in terms of loss of wetlands since European settlement in North Dakota is about 50 percent; in South Dakota it is about 35 percent. That’s as of the mid-’80s.

So what’s happened since then? We feel fairly comfortable that not a lot of draining has occurred because the 1985 farm bill included a conservation provision called Swampbuster.  If you, as a landowner, take part in the farm program (which has all kinds of safety nets and benefits), you cannot drain wetlands that have not been previously converted. The penalty is fairly severe: You can lose your farm payments. We are just completing (with Ducks Unlimited an assessment of wetlands drainage since the early ’80s, and there is additional drainage in the neighborhood of 1 percent to 2 percent of remaining wetlands in the Dakotas.

Q: Mallard numbers have fallen from 8.7 million to 5.5 million during the past 50 years. Is that the same for all migratory birds?
A: Not really. Some of the ducks like gadwalls are at an all-time high; they may be making up for the loss of species like pintails. We also have 6 million to 7 million acres of CRP land [protected under the USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program in the prairie pothole region. This has had a positive impact on duck production, mainly because that particular cover is undisturbed, unlike native prairie that is grazed down to the nubbin. So with CRP, ducks have high nest success.

But now a lot of CRP land is being removed [from the program]. A landowner who enrolled in CRP in 1985 can make more money plowing the land up [and planting corn or soybeans]. North Dakota was recently number one in the nation in acres planted in soybeans, and this is putting more pressure on remaining grasslands and wetlands. Programs like the CRP are having a hard time competing.

We know more about mallard population biology and ecology than some countries know about their people. When we run our models, we simulate changes to the landscape. If we lose those 1.4 million acres of wetlands to drainage [the high-risk acres noted in the GAO report], we will lose about 40 percent of our breeding-duck carrying capacity in this region. That’s huge. That is going to affect duck hunting, duck hunters, and hunting regulations nationwide.

It’s going to affect all of the other birds as well. We can’t predict what is going to happen, but we have some species that could end up on the endangered species list if we continue to lose them. A good example: The U.S. prairie pothole region harbors about 30 percent of the continental population of black terns. They’re declining at a rate of 1.8 percent a year.

Q: How many ducks use the land that has been set aside by the government programs?
A: We estimate that about 27 percent of the breeding ducks that settle in the U.S. prairie pothole region are attracted to wetlands that the FWS has already protected through its acquisition programs, either via fee or easement.

Q: Is there a difference between a fee or easement?
A: No difference in how they attract ducks, but there are differences in what our interest is, of course. For fee, the people own the land and the FWS manages it for them. For easements, the landowner retains a lease but cannot drain, fill, or burn the wetlands. We monitor easements and protect the people’s investment. We maintain 26,000 wetland easements—they’re checked every year.

Q: Are farmers increasingly interested in the conservation aspects of their land?
A: We have a number of landowners who want to sell us an easement on grasslands, and less that want to sell an easement on wet areas that are cropped. When owners have already converted grassland to cropland, there is a stronger incentive to drain because the wetland interferes with activities like disking. But for wetlands in grazing land, there is virtually no incentive to remove the wetlands that in dry years provide forage and water for their cattle.

Q: What percentage of the pothole region is ranched versus farmed?
A: About 70 percent of prairie pothole portion of the Dakotas is cropland, and when you get over to Minnesota and Iowa, it’s probably 90 percent to 95 percent cropland. In the Dakotas we still retain somewhere between 50 percent and 80 percent of the wetlands.

Q: What concerns do you have for those wetlands?
A: One of the big concerns is the SWANCC decision. There was a wetland drained in Illinois—I believe it was a gravel pit. Someone filed a 404 violation of the Clean Water Act against the Solid Waste Agencies of Cook County (SWANCC), and the Supreme Court said the Clean Water Act did not cover isolated wetlands. I don’t want to interpret that decision in the pothole region, because these things usually happen on a case-by-case basis, but it certainly sets a precedent for following decisions that may be interpreted against protecting potholes. Potholes are unintegrated and isolated; they have not been here long enough geologically to develop connectivity.

Q: Have there been challenges under SWANCC in the prairie pothole region?
A: One from what I’ve heard. A landowner in South Dakota drained a large seasonal or semi-permanent wetland, and a group that called themselves the “Lady Ikes” filed a Clean Water Act violation with EPA. The landowner was found in violation.

There’s an act pending in congress called the Clean Water Restoration Act to correct any misinterpretation of the Clean Water Act. Congress did intend that these isolated wetlands be covered, so they want to correct the language so that it is clear to the court. We really need support. It has been proposed several times, but it has been tabled and never gets to the floor.

Because of that weakening in protection, the only thing standing between wetlands and drainage are either our easements or the Swampbuster provision of the farm bill. I believe that there is a pent-up demand to drain wetlands in the prairie pothole region because of this period of Swampbuster and the effect that’s had on drainage. There are a lot of landowners out there who said if I ever get a chance, I’m going out full force.

Q: What would you lose if this happened?
A: We would lose so much habitat in such a short period that it would be unbelievable.

Q: Is there a financial benefit to leaving the land as it is?
A: Of course, we pay them for easements—it’s a one-time payment. And the farm bill [programs are] very lucrative for farmers—it’s an annual thing. With the price supports, the insurance, and the safety nets they get, you can’t lose money on croplands these days. It’s not like a business where you basically are at the whims of supply and demand.

The term some use is “farming the program”—they don’t farm the land, they farm the program. Like preventive harvest, where farmers get paid to for a crop that they never harvest. All sorts of programs guarantee that farmers make a profit.

Within the [farm] bill, there are conservation provisions. And it is interesting how many landowners don’t believe that the American people are entitled to any restrictions on their farming operations . . . when the American people are guaranteeing them a farming profit. That attitude is fairly common. You can open up the website of the Environmental Working Group, which has data on how much money every farmer in America gets in terms of subsidies from the government.

Q: What areas do you target for the ducks, and how do you determine those areas?
A: We conduct surveys of breeding waterfowl and have been doing so since 1987. We use that data to build models that look at the long-term carrying capacity of wetlands through dry and wet cycles. We map the distribution of breeding ducks to know which wetland types support them and which grasslands are accessible.

Our major species are upland breeding ducks, like mallards, blue-winged teals, pintails, and gadwalls. They make up about 85 percent of our breeding ducks and require wetlands and secure nesting cover. The hen will nest in a road or a rock pile if she doesn’t have a choice—physiologically, biologically, emotionally, she is programmed to do that. But will that nest be successful? In areas where we don’t have very much grassland, the predators destroy the vast majority of the nests.

Our strategy here with our easement program is to protect the high-priority wetlands and grasslands. We know we can’t get it all. A large, semi-permanent wetland is unlikely to be drained. On the other hand, a one-acre seasonal wetland in a crop field is at high risk. This is not just a duck issue. We also have models for grassland songbirds, breeding shorebirds, and marsh birds, and they all tell us the same thing: In order to attract and produce migratory and resident birds, we have to protect the highest at-risk wetlands and grasslands. In the GAO report, we identified 1.4 million acres of wetlands (of the 7 million acres of wetlands up here) and 10 million acres of grass areas that we want to focus on.

Q: And that’s the land the GAO report says will take 150 years to obtain. Will the increase in the Duck Stamp help purchase more land?
A: It will all help, but you have to understand that even if we double the price of the Duck Stamp, it’s going to take 75 years. But that’s assuming that the price of land does not go up. We are already seeing a diminishing purchasing power of our current dollars. So even if we double the price of the Duck Stamp we still get to where we were five years ago.

There is another GAO report from September 2007 that shows that farm program payments are an important factor in landowners’ decisions to convert grasslands to croplands. These farm program payments are so much of an incentive that landowners are going out and plowing up native prairie and other grasslands. The Agriculture Department is providing incentives to landowners to plow up the very land that we [in the FWS] are trying to protect.

Q: So there is no penalty for plowing previously unplowed land?
A: Not that I am aware of. We have been trying to introduce a provision that if you plow up native prairie, you would not be able to participate in the farm bill ever. This would help a lot.

A lot of the land that has not been plowed is marginal. It’s hillsides, rocky, and not too fertile. But because [farmers] are short-term thinkers and can get a couple of years of high profit, they believe it’s worth taking a chance. For example, Monsanto came out with a soybean variety called Round-up Ready. Owners (primarily in South Dakota) go into their native prairie and spray it with Round-up. Kills everything. Then they no-till in soybeans. There’s very little input—just nuke it and plant it. Around the third year it doesn’t work so well. The soil gets compacted and [the whole process] gets more expensive. But they have a few years of soybeans, and the price of soybeans is high. So people can make a lot of money. Not only the market, but if they plant and it fails, the government will pick up the cost. There’s no risk involved. It’s not a sustainable process, and the native prairie is dead. And the birds lose.



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