An internal government watchdog uncovers a troubling lack of enforcement for violations
The prairie pothole region—which spans the Dakotas, Minnesota, and Iowa—is known for being the most productive waterfowl habitat in the world. The prairie potholes themselves are depressional wetlands that filter rain and snowmelt each year, some appearing on the landscape seasonally and others lasting all year. Together, the thousands of these wetlands serve as habitat for more than half of North America’s waterfowl. They are also central to the hydrology of the Northern Great Plains and provide some of our nation’s most high-value carbon sinks.
More than three decades ago, Congress saw the wisdom in conserving wetlands and ensured that landowners who converted or destroyed them wouldn’t be eligible for farm bill benefits. This policy, which has traditionally been referred to as “swampbuster,” was a good idea then and remains a good idea today. Hunters and anglers have supported this kind of accountability for decades, but to be truly effective and keep at-risk wetlands on the landscape, sound legislation isn’t enough.
We need credible agency implementation of compliance checks, as well. Ideally, compliance checks target wetlands at greatest risk to conversion and ensure that natural wetlands continue to serve their ecological function. But this may not be happening.
Last week, the Government Accountability Office released a study that revealed U.S. Department of Agriculture wetland specialists only reported a fraction of the wetland compliance violations that they encountered. Of the 417,000 tracts of land subject to swampbuster in the Dakotas, the GAO found that the Natural Resources Conservation Service had reported less than five violations between 2014 and 2018, indicative of a nearly non-existent enforcement regime.
NRCS wetland specialists explained that they do not report potential violations unless it is on a tract of land being inspected. Any wetland drainage visible across property lines, in view of the road, or on aerial imagery is not reported because doing so would undermine the relationships between landowners and the NRCS field staff providing technical assistance.
In short: The NRCS doesn’t want to be the bad guy, and wetlands get drained as a result.
Other farmers don’t want to the bad guys, either. The GAO study revealed that Farm Service Agency-run county committees, which are made up of neighboring landowners tasked with assessing good faith attempts at compliance, approved appeals on violations at wildly differing rates across county and state lines and often without clear justification.
This isn’t the first time there has been an issue with USDA’s enforcement of wetland compliance. In 2017, the agencies responsible were referring to outdated maps rather than going on real-time site visits to confirm wetlands were not being drained.
And this week’s report unveiled other complications. NRCS offices in all four Prairie Pothole Region states failed to follow the agency’s guidance to conduct annual quality control reviews from 2017 to 2019. The officials from NRCS headquarters in Washington, D.C., who are directed to oversee these reviews, were not involved.
Finally, despite the agency’s own guidance handbook, the NRCS selected properties for compliance checks—just one percent of the total lands subject to enforcement—based on random selection and not based on which lands are at highest risk of conversion. According to the GAO, between 2014 and 2018, the NRCS carried out compliance checks on 5,683 tracts in the four PPR states, that’s just over 0.5% of those subject to wetland compliance.
With its report, the GAO included a set of recommendations for the agency to improve their effectiveness in the field, available here. But sportsmen and sportswomen should demand that anyone compromising wetlands habitat, especially when it supports so many of our hunting and fishing opportunities within the PPR region and beyond, should not be able to benefit from the farm bill.
High commodity prices in the early 2010s resulted in record numbers of wetland determination appeals, as landowners sought to put more acreage into production. As agricultural markets recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, the pressure on prairie potholes and wetlands is only going to increase. We cannot afford for the USDA to turn a blind eye as bad actors take advantage of farm programs and the American taxpayer. The TRCP and its partner organizations will continue to work with Congress and USDA leadership to develop and bring to bear the policy and culture changes necessary to stem this tide of habitat loss.
Image courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service