Journalists get up close and personal with working lands and at-risk wetlands in North Dakota
After a week in legendary North Dakota—where every day I was up before dawn and in bed long after the northern summer sun set—I am sunburned, windswept, and my body feels like it was hit by a truck.
No this wasn’t a marathon hunt week—wrong season—but an exercise in living like a reporter on the road. I was there with 18 journalists and a handful of partners* to learn about what’s happening to wildlife habitat in the state. We were all hoping to see firsthand the impacts that rapid advances in ethanol, oil, gas, and agricultural production are having on the Prairie Pothole Region (PPR).
The PPR is home to a unique ecosystem, created over tens of thousands of years as glaciers retreated across the northern part of the continent. The glaciers left behind rocky soils and millions of shallow, seasonal wetlands known as potholes. These potholes, and the grasslands surrounding them, are prime waterfowl breeding habitat, lending the PPR its nickname: North America’s Duck Factory. Over half of the continent’s waterfowl are born in those grassland-wetland complexes.
Among the highlights of the trip was an outing to locate duck nests and candle the eggs, to see how well developed the ducklings inside are, estimate hatch dates, and determine nest success. The site we visited boasted about 460 nests, and it was a unique thrill to flush one hen after another from her nest among old Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) plantings. The hens will return to the nests despite our handling of the eggs, and eventually these mother ducks will march their ducklings up to three miles to a wetland to swim, feed, and possibly grow into one of the ducks you’ll hunt this fall.
There’s a lot of other wildlife in the region, especially some of our favorite fish and game—walleyes, wild turkeys, pheasants, sharptail grouse, whitetail deer. We even heard rumors of moose in Lostwood National Wildlife Refuge, close to the Canadian border. Unfortunately, all of these critters are at risk because grasslands and wetlands are being converted for agriculture and other uses at a rapid pace.
The potholes and grasslands of the PPR were once naturally maintained by grazing herds of millions of bison. The bison are mostly gone from this landscape, but cattle have long been their surrogates, keeping the PPR relatively healthy and supporting prairie habitat.
However, myriad factors are causing cattle to disappear from the land, nearly as abruptly as their native predecessors did. Newly developed seed types and farm equipment have allowed corn and soy crops to move north from the central plains, as those plants can now grow in the shorter northern seasons. Ethanol production and international markets have fostered that migration, as has wetland drainage, which also has the unfortunate side effect of causing flooding and overflowing lakes, literally submerging communities around Devil’s Lake. And the discovery of natural gas in the Bakken Formation has led to hundreds of wetlands being made into well pads. On a dollar-for-dollar basis, it’s hard for cattlemen to compete with these technological advances, and yet they are one of the last remaining forces helping the Duck Factory to persist.
While the TRCP laments the loss of cattle from the landscape, we do not oppose energy development or technological innovation. We just want it to be done responsibly, in balance with other demands on our public and private lands, and to ensure that sportsmen and wildlife don’t get the short end of the stick.
Most folks in North Dakota, I think, feel the same way. Dozens of times during the trip we heard that sportsmen and wildlife enthusiasts are the heroes of conservation, for instance through our Duck Stamp purchases and backing of the Conservation Reserve Program. Many of the industry representatives we spoke with also hunt and fish and they want their children and grandchildren to be able to do the same, so they strive for a conservation-minded approach to development. And just this week, North Dakotans overwhelmingly voted to preserve Depression-era rules, which would limit corporate farm ownership in the state, thereby perpetuating a family farm structure that many believe to be far better for conservation than the alternative.
But the PPR is still suffering a slow death by a thousand cuts. Congress has passed laws through the Farm Bill which should limit grassland and wetland conversion for agriculture, but those laws are unevenly enforced—and even when they are, violators may not be penalized. When it comes to other types of development, there are currently no state or federal laws designed to protect this landscape.
The TRCP wants America’s farmers and ranchers to be successful and profitable, but not at the expense of sportsmen’s access and opportunity. This visit has reinforced our resolve to help develop policies that balance the needs of production agriculture and private landowners with the needs of sportsmen, fish, and wildlife, and that make conservation a financially-viable part of the farm economy.
*Many thanks to Delta Waterfowl, Ducks Unlimited, North Dakota Game and Fish Department, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, and the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources for helping to organizing the Prairie Pothole Institute.