Wildlife Management Institute

WMI Outdoor News Bulletin New Study Spotlights Challenges to Conservation Planning Goals in the Prairie Pothole Region
New Study Spotlights Challenges to Conservation Planning Goals in the Prairie Pothole Region PDF Print E-mail
Monday, 17 June 2013 11:30

image of Prairie Pothole region landscape, Credit: Casey Stemler

New research to be published in the June edition of the Wildlife Society Bulletin suggests that conservation goals in the Prairie Pothole Region are not attainable given current pressures on the system, reports the Wildlife Management Institute. The study, “Conservation Planning in an Era of Change: State of the U.S. Prairie Pothole Region,” analyzed current loss rates for wetlands and grasslands, and added the factors of time and costs of conserving these threatened habitats. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) researchers determined that it would be unlikely that the Prairie Pothole Joint Venture will meet their goal of permanently protecting 10.4 million acres of grasslands and 1.4 million acres of high-risk wetlands beyond what has already been protected. Coupled with a recent Prairie Summit hosted by Ducks Unlimited, the study sheds light on the challenges of achieving landscape-level habitat conservation goals in an era of expanding energy development (both renewable and non-renewable), land conservation adverse policies, and lacking/reduced spending on land protection. The abstract is available now as an online-only, Early View report, the full article is available to professional society members.

The 118 million acre U.S. Prairie Pothole Region, encompassing the northern tier of Montana, northern and eastern North Dakota, eastern South Dakota, western Minnesota, and north-central Iowa, is a unique habitat. Historically the region ranged from tallgrass prairie in the east to mixed-grass prairie in the central portion to shortgrass prairie in the west. Retreating glaciers at the end of the last ice age left thousands of depressional wetlands called prairie potholes. These wetlands vary in depth and duration depending on climatic conditions and precipitation. Many fish, wildlife and plant species have become adapted to these variable systems and the region hosts a broad diversity of species including up to 67 percent of North America’s breeding waterfowl and many other migratory bird species.

However, the prairies are one of the most altered landscapes on the continent. In addition to the potholes, the retreating glaciers also left behind extremely productive soils and the grasslands made it very easy to break ground for agriculture. As a result, the region saw rapid grassland and wetland conversion rates over the last century, and today remaining grasslands are being overturned at rates not seen since the Dust Bowl era. These conversion rates have increased due to energy development along the Bakken formation in eastern Montana and western North Dakota, renewable energy development (including industrial wind development and cultivation of corn for ethanol), as well as high agricultural prices and subsidies that have encouraged farmers to cultivate what had previously been considered marginal areas.

The Prairie Pothole Joint Venture (PPJV) was created in 1987 as an effort to develop landscape-level conservation plans for the region to address the loss of wetlands and native grasslands and support healthy migratory bird populations. The PPJV has established landscape goals for habitat protection across the region, however they had not assessed whether those goals were actually attainable. The study’s authors reviewed existing published scientific literature that they supplemented with a synthesis of state and federal data to determine the effectiveness of the PPJV’s current conservation efforts considering both historic habitat losses and projected future rates of habitat conversion.

What the study determined is that when time is incorporated into the conservation planning process, seemingly small wetland and grassland annual loss rates become far greater challenges. PPJV partners have succeeded in protecting an average of 0.2 percent of the 8.1 million acres of extant wetlands (small wetlands, ponds, and lakes) and 0.26 percent of the 26.4 million acres of extant grasslands per year. But with wetland loss rates ranging from 0.05 to 0.57 percent per year and grassland loss ranging from 0.4 to 1.3 percent, the partners will not be able to keep up with the conversion. The authors determined that the partnership would not be able to reach their conservation goals unless:

  1. greater funding is targeted towards conservation
  2. landowner interest and acceptance of conservation programs remains high, and
  3. wetland and grassland loss rates are decreased through public policy (particularly agriculture programs) or other mechanisms.


“Because the land within the PPJV boundary is more than 90 percent privately owned, it is clear that ranch and farm related programs that retain wetlands and grasslands on the landscape and are also socially acceptable to landowners are key to long term sustainability of this ecosystem,” said Kevin Doherty, PPJV Science Coordinator.

The findings are relevant not just for the Prairie Pothole Region but also for the many landscape-level conservation efforts that are currently underway. Without fully understanding the rate of habitat loss across a landscape over a period of time compared with the rate of permanent habitat protection, it is difficult to assess if plans have “stretch goals” or if they need to make hard choices on which species and landscapes conservation investments will be made.

The threats to the prairies from agricultural conversion and energy development were the subject of a two-day Prairie Summit hosted by Ducks Unlimited in Bismarck, ND. The event drew 90 representatives from conservation organizations and natural resource management agencies to see firsthand the challenges facing the region. Ducks Unlimited (DU) has been one of the leaders in organizing conservation groups to support federal and state policies to conserve the Prairie Pothole Region. Specifically the groups have worked to direct higher levels of federal funding towards the prairies and have advocated for strong agricultural policies to protect the remaining grasslands and wetlands.

“We are going to lose this land if we don’t do something. If we speak with one voice for conservation, we will make reverberations in the halls of Congress,” said DU CEO Dale Hall. “What is really important is having a level playing field. That’s why re-coupling conservation compliance to crop insurance is so critical – it levels the playing field for our nation’s farmers and ranchers.”

In addition, DU and other groups have supported fully and permanently funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a federal fund derived from offshore oil and gas revenues to protect important landscapes. One priority project for LWCF funding has been the Dakota Grasslands Conservation Area that has focused on permanent easements in the region that prevent land conversion but allow landowners to retain rights of use and access. The Dakota Grasslands project would conserve 240,000 acres of wetlands and 1.7 million acres of grasslands through these easement agreements with willing landowners.

Without these collaborative efforts, the rate of wetland and grassland loss in the Prairie Pothole Region will continue to outpace the ability to conserve remaining habitat according to the FWS study. Changes to public policy and conservation funding levels are expected to be top legislative priorities for organizations focused on conserving this unique and threatened habitat. (jas)