Andrew Earl

May 12, 2021

Why is the USDA Turning a Blind Eye to Drained Wetlands in the Prairie Potholes?

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

9 Responses to “Why is the USDA Turning a Blind Eye to Drained Wetlands in the Prairie Potholes?”

  1. Preston Brunk

    This is a shame. There needs to be more enforcement! Hire people who are more passionate about wildlife and also who know about these prairie pothole regions and the necessity of having them. I am currently attending Chico State University in Chico, Ca obtaining my bachelors in Environmental Science with an emphasis in applied ecology and I am also a very avid duck hunter (hunting at least 60 days out of our 100 day season). I believe hiring like minded people would be a great solution to this issue.

    • Kristyn Brady
      Kristyn Brady

      Thank you for the thoughtful response, Preston. We wish you the best of luck in your education and hope to see you bring your passion for hunting to decision-making like this in the future!

    • Karen Flom

      When the state head of NRCS directs employees to be “farmer friendly” it doesn’t matter how passionate an employee is about wetlands or wildlife. That employees decisions will be overturned on appeal by someone climbing the career ladder.

  2. Alan Wentz

    Look back further into the years after the original passage of Swampbuster (late 1980s and early 1990s). When my team at NWF and I wrote the original language for this provision and Congressman Tom Daschle and Senator Robert Kasten introduced it, it passed intact. USDA immediately attempted to modify the language of the law with weakening regulatory action. They failed. Unfortunately rather than obey the law, they have continued to use this approach of ignore it and avoid their legal enforcement authority. If additional court action is not used to force USDA to follow the law, we will continue to lose wetlands. It’s not a question of better field people, it is going to take stronger administrative action in USDA to protect these wetlands from the failure of 35 years of USDA to do its job.

  3. Richard

    It is a difficult situation. Farmers who violate should not be compensated but the NRCS walks a fine line, they aren’t an enforcement agency and encouraging private land owners to participate in EQUIP and CRP requires NRCS access onto land. If it is suspected that NRCS is potentially out to get them especially on borderline noncompliance you will loosen the private land conservation partnership. As with many things it’s not all black and white, and FSA could use a different enforcement tool such as requiring certification of compliance for subsidy payments.

  4. Thomas

    It has been reported, that Ohio has removed 90 percent of its wetlands especially along Lake Erie. It seems no one is concerned about saving wetlands here!

  5. Scott

    Time to transfer some of the enforcement duties to multiple agencies-including state wildlife divisions. This is a major infraction with far reaching consequences. Enough is enough!

  6. William Kneer

    All fresh water sources need to be left for aquifer reasons as well as necessary for purification and reproduction of invertebrates that fuel our fresh water food chains.

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Chris Macaluso

May 11, 2021

Sediment-Built Marshes Where Drag-Screaming Redfish Await

Why are some anglers writing off one of our best options for restoring these disappearing habitats?

Four League Bay might be the most remote destination on Louisiana’s coast. Even with a 300-horsepower outboard pushing a 24-foot bay boat, the ride from Terrebonne Parish’s Falgout Canal west to Four League takes nearly an hour of weaving through fresh and brackish marshes, bayous, lakes, and bays. Most of them are slalom courses of crab-trap floats. Alligators spring from the banks, and blue wing teal headed back to the Dakotas from their wintering grounds in Central and South America take flight.

My good fishing buddy Todd Masson and I had been trying to get on the boat with Capt. Lloyd Landry for nearly two months, cancelling and rescheduling throughout the early spring as strong thunderstorms and unseasonably cold fronts pushed through Louisiana. Had we known that tropical storm and hurricane-force winds would sweep across the area just a couple hours after we returned to the marina, we might have cancelled again.

That day, the forecast gave us about a 5-hour window before thunderstorms were due to arrive. So, we put a stiff southeast wind at our backs and headed to some of the most unmolested, beautifully intact marsh in all of Louisiana to catch some hard-pulling, drag-screaming redfish.

Many Louisiana anglers write off Western Terrebonne Parish, especially the marshes and shorelines of Four League Bay, during the spring because the area is inundated with freshwater pouring from the Atchafalaya River. The assumption is that the 240,000 cubic feet per second of fresh, sediment-rich water that is building new marsh annually in the Atchafalaya Delta chases away the redfish and speckled trout.

The annual floods that scare away some coastal anglers are the exact reason the area teems with fish and the marshes are so healthy and intact. The nutrient-rich freshwater from the river mixes with the Gulf’s saltwater, creating a diverse forage of shrimp, crabs, pogies, crawfish, bluegill, mullet, and an assortment of other prey. The suspended sediment in the river water feeds the marsh, giving it a more stable soil structure for plants to root and submerged grass beds to grow.

It’s the perfect environment for fat, healthy redfish.

We picked a protected shoreline about seven miles from the river’s mouth. A handful of casts and Masson connected with a thick 20-inch redfish. A minute later, a bruising 29-inch red crushed a soft-plastic grub at the end of my line.

 

 

That pattern continued throughout the morning as Landry guided us into protected pockets and shorelines, picking away at healthy, well-fed redfish and black drum until the thunderstorms pushed us east to the marina just after noon.

Had the winds not limited our search area, we were set to chase speckled trout as well. Landry had been catching them in open lakes and bays as they transitioned from wintering grounds in interior marshes into their spring and summer feeding and spawning areas in the Gulf of Mexico.

We had options. Despite the strong winds that kept most anglers off the water that day, the benefit of healthy marshes laden with submerged freshwater grasses is that there are ponds and protected shorelines to duck into and hide—this works well for both fish and fishermen.

 

 

In far too many places along Louisiana’s coast, the options are running out. Marshes that have been cut off from annual, life-giving Mississippi River sediment by levees are more vulnerable to erosion from hurricanes or any other high-wind events. They are sinking below the water line, too, as seas gradually rise while the marsh subsides.

Nearly 2,000 square miles of wetlands, some of the most productive fish and wildlife habitat in the world, have been lost in the Mississippi River Delta, especially the basins between the mouth of the Mississippi and Atchafalaya Rivers, in the last century. To stem that loss and build back some marsh, the state of Louisiana is moving toward construction of sediment diversions both east and west of the Mississippi River below New Orleans. These structures will help to mimic the annual flooding that is sustaining and growing the marshes near the Atchafalaya River’s mouth—the processes that originally built all the marshes, swamps, and barrier islands of South Louisiana.

Some anglers and commercial fishermen are objecting strongly to the projects, claiming the freshwater will eliminate fishing. But there are few options for fixing this broken system other than using every single available sediment resource, especially the suspended sediment that comes with annual floods along the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers. Without reconnecting the Mississippi River to its delta, another 500 square miles of wetlands could be lost in the next century.

Anglers and fish have had to adjust to losing habitat far too frequently over the last 50 years in coastal Louisiana. Making adjustments as we regain habitat is something that I, and many other anglers, welcome.

Anglers need options. Without sediment diversions and all other efforts to rebuild and sustain our coast, we just might run out.

 

Marnee Banks

May 6, 2021

Hunters and Anglers Applaud Administration’s Plan to Conserve 30 by 30

The Biden Administration announced a plan to conserve, connect, and restore 30 percent of the nation’s lands and waters by 2030. The “America the Beautiful” initiative is a ten-year conservation and restoration plan that focuses on public, private, and tribal lands and waters.

“We appreciate the administration’s focus on fostering collaborative solutions to conserve our lands and waters, while including feedback from sportsmen and sportswomen,” said Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “Whether it be climate change or public access or habitat loss, the issues facing our outdoor places are multi-faceted and require thoughtful leadership. As this plan continues to take shape, the details will matter, and the hunting and fishing community is ready to bring solutions to the table.”

The plan is a combined effort between the Departments of Interior, Agriculture, and Commerce and the Council for Environmental Quality. Early recommendations include many of TRCP’s priorities, including:

  • Expanding conservation of fish and wildlife habitat and migration corridors
  • Increasing access for outdoor recreation, including on landlocked public lands
  • Incentivizing the voluntary conservation efforts of private landowners, including ranchers, farmers, and forest owners
  • Creating jobs by investing in restoration and resilience

“The ambition of this goal reflects the urgency of the challenges we face: the need to do more to safeguard the drinking water, clean air, food supplies, and wildlife upon which we all depend; the need to fight climate change with the natural solutions that our forests, agricultural lands, and the ocean provide; and the need to give every child in America the chance to experience the wonders of nature,” the plan states.

More information on the 30 by 30 plan can be found here. The TRCP participates in a coalition of hunting and fishing organizations committed to conserving global biodiversity called Hunt Fish 30×30.

 

Interior Moves to Strengthen Bedrock Conservation Law Protecting Migratory Birds

This announcement is a positive step forward for maintaining the integrity of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act

The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership applauds Interior Secretary Haaland and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for actions announced today to restore the integrity of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

Since 1918, the MBTA has been the foundation to conserving the nation’s migratory birds, from warblers to waterfowl. It has provided clarity to industry, including the oil and gas and wind sectors, about allowable activities and provided reasonable exceptions for “incidental take”—the accidental death of birds.

Yet the previous administration severely weakened the law, eliminating any incentive for the regulated community to take prudent actions to avoid killing birds. Moving forward, sportsmen and sportswomen look forward to working with the administration and industry to continue America’s remarkable track record of migratory bird conservation.

“At a time when migratory birds are in serious decline, we see this as a positive step forward for not only maintaining the integrity of this bedrock conservation law, but also removing additional threats to species facing the impacts of climate change and other habitat stressors,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “To effectively halt and reverse declines of migratory birds and reduce the risk of future endangered species act listings, we believe it is critical that the Migratory Bird Treaty Act remain an effective tool for addressing foreseeable and avoidable threats to birds.”

Top photo by Dennis Buchner on Unsplash 

TRCP Releases Report on Restoration Economy

Data analysis shows 17.4 jobs created for every $1 million invested

(Washington D.C.)— The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership is releasing an economic report that showcases the importance of investing in habitat, conservation, and sustainable water systems. The collection of economic studies compiles the best available data to paint a picture of the value of environmentally beneficial investments.

The analysis shows that for every $1 million invested by the federal government, 17.4 jobs are created.

“The data backs it up. Investing in conservation creates jobs, propels our economy forward from the past year, and strengthens habitat,” said Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “As policymakers draft infrastructure legislation, they should keep these conservation priorities top of mind. We can build more resilient communities, combat climate change, and create hunting and fishing opportunities for more Americans.”

The report shows that the restoration economy creates more jobs than health care, energy, and military sectors per every $1 million invested. The report specifically looks at job creation for the following activities:

  • Investing in watershed restoration and management, including rivers and riparian habitat
  • Upgrading aging agricultural irrigation infrastructure to improve reliability while also increasing water use efficiency and improving flow regimes or fish and wildlife habitat
  • Restoring coastal and marine habitat
  • Investing in urban water, sewer, and stormwater systems
  • Expanding urban water efficiency and conservation
  • Restoring watersheds with a focus on floodplain restoration in the Mississippi River System
  • Encouraging modified agricultural practices such as cover crops and fallowing
  • Restoring native species, with an emphasis on wetland and riparian restoration

To read the report, click here.

To read more about the Conservation Works for America campaign, click here.

 

 

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CONSERVATION WORKS FOR AMERICA

As our nation rebounds from the COVID pandemic, policymakers are considering significant investments in infrastructure. Hunters and anglers see this as an opportunity to create conservation jobs, restore habitat, and boost fish and wildlife populations.

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