North Dakota expected to be awash in ducks this fall

(Dennis Anderson/Minneapolis Star Tribune/MCT)
Duck managers who have worked on North Dakota prairies say they've...
Story by Dennis Anderson
Star Tribune (Minneapolis)
August 25, 2011
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SOMEWHERE OVER NORTH DAKOTA — The Cessna 206 banked toward the rising sun last week, revealing beneath one wing a rich, broad countryside as green as it was watery. This was North Dakota in August 2011, one of the wettest years on record, in which basins large and small that have pockmarked the landscape for 10,000 years are water-filled.

And in many cases, duck-filled.

“I’ve been out here 30 years and I’ve never seen a spring and summer like this,” said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Lloyd Jones, a Wisconsin native and manager of Audubon National Wildlife Refuge in west-central North Dakota. “Water is everywhere.”

A former director of the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, onetime leader of Delta Waterfowl and a longtime Fish and Wildlife Service employee whose passion is ducks, Jones is a straight shooter whose voice carries a lot of weight continent-wide when the subject is waterfowl.

These days, that voice carries an urgent, almost singular message, one echoed by Ducks Unlimited and its forward-looking program, Grasslands for Tomorrow.

“We need to save native prairies and other grasslands in North Dakota and South Dakota,” Jones says. “And time is running out.”

Sitting in the right seat of the Cessna, alongside Fish and Wildlife Service pilot James Ward of Huron, S.D., Jones enjoyed a view of North Dakota otherwise reserved for the prairie’s golden eagles, red-tailed hawks, meadowlarks, northern harriers, grasshopper sparrows, ferruginous hawks, bobolinks — and, of course, mallards, widgeon, blue-winged teal, gadwall, pintails and other fowl.

To a duck lover, the picture from above was as pretty as the Mona Lisa — but no less complex and difficult to interpret. Yes, there will be ducks this year, as hens from Wahpeton in North Dakota’s southeast corner to Williston in the northwest have nested and in some instances re-nested and re-nested again in attempts to bring off broods.

Additionally, duckling survival rates will be high because the state’s plentiful water will afford young birds protection from predators they wouldn’t enjoy in most years.

As a result, North Dakota waterfowlers likely will be awash in ducks come October, including the 10,000 or more hunters from Minnesota who annually make pilgrimages west in search of clouds of birds they no longer see in their home state.

Similar banner years are likely throughout the entire Central Flyway, which extends south from North Dakota, through Nebraska and Oklahoma to the Texas Gulf Coast.

Ducks hatched on the northern plains this spring and summer also will thrill waterfowlers throughout the Mississippi Flyway, including those who remain in Minnesota, where in some autumns as much as half of hunters’ bags are filled with birds that originate in the Dakotas and parts of prairie Canada.

But beneath the watery patina that extends throughout both Dakotas this summer west to Montana, troubles ferment.

“Conversion of native prairies due to high crop prices, pattern tiling of farmlands, wind farms, oil and gas development and, of course, wetland drainage all are considerable threats to ducks in North Dakota and duck hunting throughout the nation,” Jones said. “These threats continue even in years like this, when water and the ducks it will produce suggest everything is OK.”

At stake not only are major segments of the nation’s natural heritage and an ecosystem whose subtle beauty might lack the majesty of the Rockies and the breathtaking opulence of the Grand Canyon but is a national treasure nonetheless.

So too at risk, with ducks, are people from Fargo to Baton Rouge, who through the water they drink and floods they endure tie their well-beings to this prairie landscape.

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For generations throughout the Upper Midwest, ducks and other wildlife have been threatened by wetland drainage. The problem has been particularly acute in Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois, whose flat, fertile landscapes could be relatively easily ditched and drained in preparation for the inevitabilities of industrial agriculture.

Many parts of North Dakota and South Dakota have remained apart from these landscape revolutions. Much less rainfall is recorded here, and the relatively arid lands can make for uncertain crop yields. Better, many producers have long believed, to leave their grasslands untouched and take their chances with cow-calf operations.

With the fairly recent development of genetically modified crops, that decision matrix has become more complicated. Now producers who historically have run livestock on their lands can spray Round-Up on vast sections of otherwise rocky, dry, depression-filled properties, killing grasses, and with one pass of an eight-wheel-drive John Deere replace native prairies with soybeans or corn.

“There, look down there,” Jones said. He was pointing to a 640-acre parcel that until this summer was native prairie. Now it is corn — probably not a high-yielding planting, but a planting with little downside risk to the producer because federal crop insurance will ensure him income from the new, tenuous planting approximately equal to that which his better, more established lands produce.

Add to this the almost religious fervor with which farmers and ranchers throughout the Dakotas, Minnesota, Iowa and elsewhere are laying pattern tile on their properties to rush rainfall and snowmelt into nearby ditches, thereby increasing yields, and the odds that ducks, other wildlife and people won’t suffer the effects of further habitat losses, and flooding, diminishes.

So it is that Jones, together with a cadre of other state and federal agencies and conservation groups, especially Ducks Unlimited, are struggling in North Dakota and South Dakota to perpetuate lands — especially grasslands — they never thought would be at risk.

Their efforts, grounded in hydrology, agronomy and the multiple scientific disciplines that concern waterfowl population dynamics, are multifaceted, including:

  • Ducks Unlimited agronomists are working with farmers and ranchers willing to plant winter wheat instead of spring wheat. The former, planted in September and harvested in early August, can provide undisturbed nesting cover for ducks and other wildlife.
  • Farm conservation experts are stationed locally throughout the Dakotas to advise producers on state and federal options that put cash in their hands, while helping wildlife.
  • Thousands of producers in the Dakotas are being paid millions of dollars to leave grasslands perpetually unplowed — in some cases onetime payments of $500 an acre.

“They love the program,” Jones said. “We have a list of more than 800 landowners who want into it. But we don’t have the money.”

And time is running out.

“We have 2.5 million acres of grasslands and wetlands under perpetual easement in North Dakota and South Dakota,” he said. “It’s the biggest landscape conservation effort in the nation. But given the changes that are occurring throughout the Dakotas — where the vast majority of ducks in the U.S. nest — we’ll need about 10 million more acres of targeted grasslands and about 1.4 million more acres of wetlands just to keep the continental duck population where it is today. Not increase it. Maintain it.”

In response, the Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing a new, ambitious Dakota Grasslands perpetual easement project be established and paid for by the Land and Water Conservation Fund, established in 1965.

Oil and gas leases on the outer continental shelf, excess motorboat fuel tax revenues and the sale of surplus federal property pay into the fund.

“At our current funding, it will take 150 years to conserve lands that need conserving. It won’t work,” Jones said.

Entombed in its cost-cutting mood, Congress needn’t suddenly get religion regarding conservation — a miracle if it did happen. It need only approve the Grassland Project’s eligibility for money from the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

From the Cessna, North Dakota appeared a conservationist’s dream. But the state’s inevitable wet-dry cycle will rotate again someday to dry, and farmers and ranchers will again hasten their conversions of grasslands to crop fields.

A lot is at stake for everyone if that occurs at the pace seen in recent years.

(c) 2011, Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

Dennis Anderson

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