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 that, Shook produced two photos of a nearby farm--the first showed rich grasslands embracing prairie potholes. The second, taken after the grasslands had been plowed up in 2012, revealed an eroding wasteland. "This spring," he said, "we had all this runoff. Now silt is filling up these wetlands."
A farmer came to Shook in 2012, told him that his CRP contract had expired, and asked if there was another conservation program he could get into. There wasn't. "Now all his grass is gone," said Shook. "And every wetland is drained except for one big one that all the water, soil, fertilizers, and pesticides run into. The small wetlands are where the waterfowl form pair bonds and where the ducklings get their invertebrates. That's extremely important."
At one of the refuge's waterfowl production areas, Shook showed us habitat compromised by lack of grazing and fire. North American prairie plants evolved with bison and fire, which pruned old growth that would otherwise have turned to smothering mats of duff. Fires never sterilized the earth because fuel didn't have a chance to build up. And bison never stayed long enough in one place to do damage; they just moved on. As much as funding and manpower allow, Shook is replicating these processes with prescribed burns and well-managed cooperative grazing agreements with local ranchers.
From a hill overlooking the blue, duck-dappled expanse of Chase Lake, I watched a sharp-tailed grouse beat and glide west until it was a pencil dot on azure. Grasshopper sparrows and horned larks buzzed from the roadsides. In a section ungrazed for 50 years, we hiked over a thick carpet of plant litter that felt like a quaking bog. It was rife with invasives such as silverberry, buckbrush, Kentucky bluegrass, smooth broom, and Canada thistle. But on burned and grazed sections we encountered a profusion of natives, including purple coneflower, yellow coneflower, blanket flower, purple prairie clover, prairie smoke, green needle, and little bluestem, all close to firm prairie soil. As part of a birding festival, a group comes out here every year, and participants were recently undone by the presence of cows. "Isn't that bad for wildlife?" they asked Shook. He set them straight by showing them what he had shown Johnson and me.
"In North Dakota agriculture and environmentalists are butting heads all the time," said Shook. "With crop production I can understand that. With cattle ranching I can't. We have the same goals. We both want healthy grass."
In Jamestown, Johnson and I stopped in at the U.S. Geological Survey's Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center--the great bastion of research on the Great Plains. There we caught up with David Mushet, Clint Otto, and Chip Euliss, who depressed us with their charts and graphs revealing how grassland and wetland birds and amphibians respond negatively to grassland loss, and how future population declines are expected. They also shared that honeybees, already plummeting nationwide, were suffering significantly greater winter mortality on croplands than on grasslands. "To the best of our knowledge, this is the first time an insect has been shown to have a stressed immune-system response to landscape quality," remarked Otto.
Euliss added this: "My view of a perfect world is to have 100 people on a hill looking down on a prairie landscape and each appreciating it for a different reason. That's what this team is trying to accomplish."
We heard similar sentiments from Stephen Adair, who directs Ducks Unlimited's Great Plains regional office, in Bismarck. "North Dakota produces more ducks than any other state," he said. "Once farmers start to grow crops on wetlands, they're not inclined to stop. North Dakota had a million acres open to hunters. Now that habitat is vanishing. Our deer tags are way down; we haven't had a pronghorn season in three years. The pheasant count this year is down 30 percent. Sharp-tailed grouse and Hungarian partridge are down 30 percent. We're especially worried about northern pintails and [greater and lesser] scaup. There used to be a lot of freshwater shrimp in the potholes; now scaup body weights are down. And in winter they feed on clams at the mouth of the Mississippi, where they may be further damaged by the dead zone. If we don't do something, we could look like Iowa. And it's not just hunting and birding that are threatened; it's the whole economy that these activities support."
But a solution is in the works. While the oil fracking boom in western North Dakota has taken an appalling toll on wildlife, the windfall from oil taxes has created an opportunity by leaving the state with an enormous surplus. Now Ducks Unlimited, Audubon, the National Wildlife Federation, The Nature Conservancy, Pheasants Forever, and the North Dakota Natural Resources Trust are promoting a 2014 ballot initiative called the Clean Water, Wildlife & Parks Amendment, which would dedicate 5 percent of the oil extraction tax to conservation, enabling grants for conservation measures such as wildlife partnership contracts.
"This is ground zero for our effort to protect and restore waterfowl in the northern Great Plains," said DU's Adair. "It's voluntary. It will empower existing conservation forces and use tax dollars without growing government. We've seen time and time again that farmers and ranchers are really open to conservation on their land where it makes sense."