Prairie potholes in the Upper Midwest. (Courtesy of U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)
A government agency wants to keep water-draining equipment used by farmers away from federally protected wetlands in several states.
Drain tiles are underground perforated pipes buried in farmers’ fields. They are used to drain unwanted water – including some wetlands – allowing for more room to plant crops.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing a process to determine how close drain tile can be installed to wetlands that are under the agency’s protection.
The regulations would apply to easements the agency has on privately owned wetlands, called Waterfowl Production Areas, and only in the Prairie Pothole region of Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota.
Waterfowl Production Areas are purchased by the Wildlife Service as part of the National Wildlife Refuge system. The areas are managed for the production of waterfowl. There are about 1,000 such areas in South Dakota, totaling nearly 150,000 acres.
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Public hunting is one of the benefits these areas provide. The Wildlife Service uses funds from the sale of Federal Duck Stamps – something hunters purchase with their duck license – to conserve the wetlands.
As part of the proposed new regulations, the Wildlife Service will provide individual setback distances to landowners based on site conditions, including soil characteristics, drain tile diameter, drain tile depth, and topography.
Landowners In the Prairie Pothole Region who follow these setback distances would not be held responsible for draining a protected wetland area.
Prairie potholes are freshwater depressions and marshes, often less than 2 feet deep and 1 acre in size. The region is known as a “duck factory” because more than 50% of North America’s ducks hatch there.
The Wildlife Service said the proposed regulation would help ensure no drainage of the wetlands occurs, and would give farmers more clarity regarding where they can and cannot install drain tile.
Waterfowl Production Areas date to 1958, when Congress created the Small Wetlands Acquisition Program to conserve and protect small wetlands and pothole areas in the Prairie Pothole Region.
When landowners grant a wetland easement for a Waterfowl Production Area, they give up certain rights to use or develop the wetland on their land in order to protect the habitat for waterfowl.
A public comment period is open until June 27 on the proposed drain tile regulations. To make a comment, search the docket number “2023-08998” at regulations.gov.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated to reflect a correction. The originally published version of the story incorrectly described an aspect of easement transactions with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
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