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.
With crop insurance, the evaporation of CRP compensation, and soaring prices for soybeans and corn, farmers have a strong incentive to till every square inch of their land. Prices for both crops are driven up by global food demand. But for corn a bigger influence has been the ethanol mandate of the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act, which requires the amount of ethanol in gasoline to be increased from 4.7 billion gallons in 2007 to 36 billion by 2022. That's why the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that at least 35 percent of the 2013 corn crop went to making ethanol. Consequences for wildlife have been devastating.
"Energy independence" was only the alleged reason for the ethanol mandate, rammed through by Corn Belt Democrats. The real reason was a gravy train for their constituents, as President Obama's Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, freely admitted a decade ago while serving as Iowa's governor. Asked by Paul Rogers of the San Jose Mercury News why northeasterners should be forced to spike their gasoline with ethanol when the science clearly shows ethanol is bereft of environmental benefit, the governor replied: "Because it helps farmers from my state expand their markets." Rogers failed to get a positive response when he inquired if the governor would therefore support a law requiring everyone in Des Moines to buy a computer to help people in Silicon Valley expand their markets.
Corn ethanol requires more energy to make than it delivers (see "Drunk on Ethanol," Incite, July-August 2004; audm. ag/Ethanol2004). Corn requires prodigious amounts of fertilizer and pesticides (made from and with fossil fuels); the farm machinery used to plant, grow, and harvest it requires vast quantities of fossil fuel, and still more is needed for the refining process.
In other words, by the time you've paid extra to burn ethanol in your car, you've underwritten a net energy loss. You've also polluted air and water more than if you had filled up with straight gasoline. With the production of each gallon of ethanol you get at least 10 gallons of sewage-like effluent, which requires wastewater treatment at additional energy expense. Fertilizers, pesticides, silt, and soil wash from the converted grasslands into creeks, polluting the Mississippi River system with a witches' brew that helps create a bacteria-infested, algae-clogged, anaerobic "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico. (In 2013 the dead zone covered an area larger than Connecticut.) A study by Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs found that producing and burning ethanol creates 93 percent more greenhouse gases than producing and burning fossil fuel. Plowing grasslands releases carbon stored in soil even as it destroys the land's future ability to sequester carbon. What's more, corn production generates nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 300 times as potent as carbon dioxide.
Busting restored CRP grasslands, native prairie, and wetlands to make ethanol is like chipping giant sequoias for garden mulch. "Cellulosic ethanol" rendered from grass would be great for wildlife and energy independence, but there's been scant progress in making production efficient and economical. Ethanol plants are set up for corn, and Corn Belt politicians like it that way.
Still, as Audubon Dakota executive director Marshall Johnson notes, "There are no villains" farming or ranching on the Great Plains. "I know this guy who didn't want to plant his CRP land," Johnson says. "He told me this: 'I'm not gonna get a good crop off it, and I don't like the way a bad crop looks. But I gotta do it--I don't have a competitive conservation alternative.' Most farmers want to do the right thing by their land. The demand for CRP is tremendous. It's not that the demand is down; it's that the program isn't fully funded and commodity prices are up. What we're trying to do is get some resources on the table for conservation."
One of Johnson's priorities is promoting "bird-friendly beef " fed on grass, a far healthier food than corn-fed, hormone-laced feedlot beef. "We have farmers who are trying to keep their grass alive and conservationists who would love to see more grass," he says.
Johnson and I drove from Jamestown, in the heart of the Drift Prairie (the transitional mixed-grassland zone west of the eastern tallgrass prairie), out and up along the Missouri Coteau--the ancient ridge pushed up as the Missouri River Valley was forming. Ahead of us, the Coteau's mosaic of prairie potholes, grasslands, shrubs, and sparse tree cover rose to the horizon.
The Coteau contains the best and biggest remnants of undisturbed Great Plains because the land is less suitable for row crops than prairies to the east. On his iPhone Johnson brought up a Google Earth photo that showed the Drift Prairie as mostly monotone, cut by a few roads, creeks, and crop lines. The adjoining Coteau, by contrast, looked like it had taken a round of 12-gauge birdshot; each perforation was a prairie pothole.
Well into the Coteau--in Woodworth, North Dakota--we visited the 4,385-acre Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge, where we met its manager, Neil Shook. He led us to a wall map of Stutsman County, on the Coteau's eastern edge and half in the Drift Prairie, to show us grassland loss since 2005. In 2005 the county had 436,000 acres of native prairie and 196,000 acres of CRP land. By May 2012 it had lost 19,000 acres of prairie and 92,000 acres of CRP land. "In 1994," Shook said, "we found an average of 2.5 duck nests per acre. When you figure in all the lost shorebirds and grassland passerines, that's a huge hit--a lot of birds that aren't going to be around anymore. Much of this land that has gone under the plow doesn't have farmable soil; it should be grazed or hayed."