Northern Great Plains Grassland and Wetland Habitat Falls to the Plow
Vital prairie pothole habitat is disappearing. Reformed farm- and ethanol-subsidy programs--and economic incentives--are needed to leave these crucial lands alone.
In the twilight of a fine day last September, Gary Pearson, a former waterfowl veterinarian with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and now a small-animal vet in private practice, drove me from Audubon's Alkali Lake Sanctuary in east-central North Dakota to a "kame" (a hill deposited by a retreating glacier) seven miles south of Jamestown.
Lit by our headlights, killdeer flushed from dirt roads. The first stars winked on. And the kame, framed against a violet sky, rose like an island in a vast sea of corn and soybeans.
Only two years earlier it had been an island in another sense, bearing a patch of the nearly extinct 10,000-year-old native prairie that once swept unbroken from the Gulf states into Saskatchewan. Now this patch, too, was gone, its rich array of wildflowers, grasses, forbs, insects, reptiles, birds, and mammals replaced by soybeans. "If we get a big rain, this will all be gullies," declared Pearson. "It's a social outrage. We shouldn't be paying farmers not to plow this kind of terrain; we should be fining them if they do."
Paying farmers to quit plowing marginal, erodible lands was a strategy conceived under the Reagan administration mostly as a means of stalling overproduction. In the early 1980s Great Plains farms, hit by plummeting crop prices and massive erosion from grassland tilling, began to fail at a rate not seen since the Dust Bowl. By mid-decade, waterfowl and grassland bird populations were at near-record lows. But in 1985 the reauthorized farm bill included what Congress called the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). It paid farmers to remove environmentally sensitive land from production and establish plant cover that prevented soil loss and water pollution.
CRP quickly became the nation's largest private-lands conservation program and arguably its most successful, converting much of the plains from a black, bleeding desert to stable grasslands that linked vestigial blocks of native prairie. Surging back were scores of grassland passerines, many imperiled, along with pheasants, sharp-tailed grouse, Hungarian partridge, waterfowl, wading birds, shorebirds, deer, and jackrabbits.
But now wildlife production is falling again. So high are the prices of soybeans and corn that farmers can make more money growing these crops even on marginal and highly erodible lands like kames than they collect under CRP. And farmers are doubly motivated to plow and plant these lands because if the crop fails (as it frequently does), they are, more often than not, covered by federal crop insurance. In fact, crop insurance, at an annual cost to U.S. taxpayers of about $14 billion, is the single biggest reason we're losing prairie potholes, restored grasslands, native prairie, clean water, and soil. The federal government insured $117 billion worth of crops in 2012, including almost all the corn and soybeans grown in the United States. The Obama administration and some Republicans want to shrink the program, but for the moment, powerful agribusiness interests prevail.
The 1985 farm bill contained two effective conservation provisions in addition to CRP--Swampbuster and Sodbuster, which denied crop insurance to farmers who "busted" up wetlands or marginal, erosion-prone terrain. But in 1994 Congress decoupled Swampbuster and Sodbuster from crop insurance, so now farmers have nothing to lose and much to gain by hacking up and planting any and all land, wet or dry. If they pull some kind of a crop from the bottom of a dried-up wetland for three years and it then refills with water, they can collect on a crop-insurance claim. So in dry years they're motivated to plow up and plant every prairie pothole in sight.
Massive conversion of grasslands and wetlands to row crops is the new normal on the Great Plains, including America's "duck factory," the prairie pothole region (mainly in the eastern Dakotas, southwestern Minnesota, north-central Iowa, and eastern Montana). Prairie potholes--fishless, usually temporary, and rich in invertebrates--produce most of North America's waterfowl. But they're being drained at an alarming rate. Estimates range from a 50 percent loss in the Dakotas to a 99 percent loss in Iowa. At least 300 species of migratory birds rely on the prairie pothole region. Mainly as a result of crop insurance and the high price of corn and soybeans, America lost 9.7 million acres (26 percent) of its CRP lands from 2008 to 2012. During this period corn planting increased by 13 million acres. And expiring CRP contracts will make 1.6 million more CRP acres available for agriculture in 2014. Meanwhile, Congress is slicing away CRP funds, so 70 percent of the farmers who apply for CRP contracts get denied.
Pearson, an avid sportsman, came to North Dakota in 1967 largely because of the prolific game. "Hunting got better in the 1990s," he told me. "And it was good until three years ago, when CRP loss got critical. The first thing we need to do is stop subsidizing overproduction. Farming has become about the biggest welfare operation in the country. Farmers were doing well three years ago. So now, when crop prices are even higher, why do we have to plow up even more land? We need to take the economic incentives out of draining wetlands and plowing up native prairie and CRP grasslands. We need Aldo Leopold's land ethic."