By Jim Kurth, Chief, National Wildlife Refuge System
Many concepts of modern strategic habitat conservation have their roots in the past 50 years of work in the Prairie Pothole Region.
We identified our conservation target: waterfowl. We understood the challenge: habitat loss. We knew we had to work at a landscape scale to be successful. We recognized that working lands in private ownership were a key. Over the years, the Refuge System has purchased more than 700,000 acres of waterfowl production areas. They provide great duck nesting habitat and are places where people can enjoy hunting and other outdoor recreation. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service enlarged its conservation footprint by purchasing more than 2.7 million acres of easements.
In 1986, the North American Waterfowl Management Plan put our efforts into sharper focus. It laid out population objectives that we could step down into habitat protection strategies. Over time, our Habitat and Population Evaluation Team (HAPET) scientists have used emerging tools and technology, like geospatial data analysis and modeling, to pinpoint the best areas for waterfowl nesting. This helps us get the highest conservation return on investment.
Recently, threats to habitat in the Prairie Pothole Region have accelerated. High prices for agricultural commodities are resulting in large tracts of prairie being converted to row crops. Tile drainage is expanding into new areas. A boom in oil, gas and wind energy is further fragmenting the landscape. Service Director Dan Ashe responded to this crisis by directing 70 percent of the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund to the Prairie Pothole Region and requiring science-based investment decisions. Our longstanding partner, Ducks Unlimited, is helping us accelerate land protection. We are in a race against time.
It’s hard to envision what the Prairie Pothole Region will look like a hundred years from now.
I remember how it looked when I made my first trip to the field after moving to headquarters in 1999. I visited Windom Wetland Management District in Minnesota with my long-time friend, now-retired refuge supervisor Don Hultman. The district manager then was Steve Kallin, whom I met in college at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point in 1974.
It was a beautiful spring day at Windom, full of songs of meadowlarks, bobolinks and red-winged blackbirds. As we walked across a waterfowl production area, a hen mallard flushed a few feet ahead of us. Steve gently pulled back some of the grasses, and there it was, a clutch of mallard eggs. I remember feeling incredibly happy. It was a simple moment of shared pride in generations of conservation work.
I am thankful for the visionaries who began this work and am proud of the generations of professionals who have continue to protect and manage our wetland management districts. I know today’s wetland managers, who are the best trained and best equipped ever, will carry on this great legacy.
Tundra swans at Hecla Waterfowl Production Area, part of Sand Lake Wetland Management District in South Dakota. (Photo by Tom Koerner/USFWS)
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