A South Dakota duck hunter walks through the tall grass along a wetland with his dog. (Josh Haiar/South Dakota Searchlight)
The federal government plans to spend $23 million to restore and conserve grasslands and wetlands in the Prairie Pothole Region, which is known as the “duck factory” of North America and is home to migratory birds, fish and other wildlife.
The money is part of the Department of the Interior’s $120 million in funding from the Inflation Reduction Act to restore ecosystems nationwide.
“These projects will increase the resiliency of habitats and infrastructure to withstand severe and unanticipated weather events, furthering our work to restore America’s natural infrastructure through nature-based solutions,” Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said in a statement.
The Prairie Pothole Region is an area of wetlands that extends across parts of South Dakota, North Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska and Montana, as well as Canada.
The region was covered by a thick sheet of ice over 10,000 years ago. As the ice receded, it left behind depressions in the land that filled with water, forming numerous “pothole” wetlands.
The money will help with a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service effort to restore and conserve native grasslands and wetlands on over 350,000 acres of existing Waterfowl Production Areas. Those are protected wetlands or grasslands managed by the Fish and Wildlife Service to support waterfowl and other wildlife species – ideally located in breeding or nesting areas, or migratory stopover sites for waterfowl. The areas are open to the public for hunting, wildlife observation, and other outdoor recreation, but they are managed with an emphasis on wildlife conservation.
“The projects will build upon critically important breeding areas for waterfowl, grassland birds, pollinators, and threatened and endangered species,” said Deborah Kornblut, a spokesperson with the Fish and Wildlife Service, in an emailed statement.
Officials involved are “still identifying project specifics and project leads,” Kornblut added. Some of the existing ways the Fish and Wildlife Service works to restore the Prairie Pothole Region is through planting native grasses, wildflowers and wetland vegetation, as well as conducting controlled burns and restoring natural water flows.
Waterfowl and water quality
The announcement is welcome news for many duck hunters.
According to Ducks Unlimited, a waterfowl conservation group, the Prairie Pothole Region is the most important and threatened waterfowl habitat on the continent. The group says many of the potholes in the region have been drained to plant more crops, dried out from drought or degraded by pollutants.
“If we lose those wetlands and grasslands, it’s not just going to impact South Dakota and North Dakota,” said Bruce Toay, who manages conservation programs for Ducks Unlimited’s South Dakota chapter. “It’s going to impact all of North America’s waterfowl.”
Toay said the widespread draining of small wetlands is especially harmful to waterfowl populations, because many ducks are territorial breeders.
“Ten 1-acre wetlands will create three times as many ducks as one 10-acre wetland,” Toay said. And while farmers may see an opportunity to increase yields by draining a temporary wetland, “Those temporary, seasonal basins are the most productive during the breeding season.”
Toay said people who are not interested in ducks should still want to see their habitats conserved. Wetlands also provide cleaner water, carbon sequestration to fight climate change, flood control and greater biodiversity.
Rocco Murano, a senior waterfowl biologist for the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks, recently briefed the Game, Fish and Parks Commission on the state’s waterfowl. He said the number of resident duck hunters has fallen from about 25,000 to 11,000 since the late 1990s. The department is unsure what is driving the trend.
That decline impacts the funding for conservation efforts in the state, because license fees and the taxes on hunting, fishing and shooting gear go back into wildlife conservation efforts.
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