BISMARCK, N.D. -- As pheasant season opened this fall, the news reports were grim: Fewer birds were expected across the Dakotas, their numbers most likely thinned by a rainy summer nesting season and an early fall blizzard.
Beyond the weather, though, there are other reasons for concern in the Prairie Pothole region, the grasslands and seasonal wetlands that stretch across the middle of the continent through the Dakotas and into Canada. The federal ethanol mandate, coupled with a demand for grains overseas, has led farmers to invest in recent years in more cornfields and soybean crops. High commodity prices means many farmers are forgoing enrollment in the federal Conservation Reserve Program, which pays them to remove environmentally sensitive land from production.
Since 2007, the program has lost 6.4 million acres nationwide. Nearly 1 million of those acres were in North Dakota. State-run conservation programs in the pothole region, although not as vast, have also seen losses as the nation's Corn Belt has crept gradually to the north.
Grasslands are disappearing, and so is wildlife habitat. And it's not just pheasants. The pothole region is home to thousands of seasonal lakes formed 10,000 years ago when glaciers melted and left depressions in the earth. Those lakes, which wax and wane seasonally, are rich habitat for waterfowl. The region is known as the nation's duck factory and is home to more than half of migratory waterfowl in North America.
"A lot of people like to say, 'Oh, they'll just go somewhere else,'" said Neal Niemuth, a biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service in North Dakota. "There's a grain of truth to that. They will try to go somewhere else. But the fact of the matter is, most wildlife is territorial. You can't just pack more into one area. Populations will decline."
As the grasslands disappear, multiple federal policy aims vie against each other: one that has encouraged more corn-based ethanol, and another that has paid farmers to let marginal cropland remain as conservation land. Plans announced last month by the Obama administration that would ease off the biofuel content in the U.S. gasoline supply could slow the trend (E&ENews PM, Nov. 15).
But the loss of conservation land already is well underway and has implications on water quality, flood control, hunting access and the landscape in a region undergoing not just an agricultural boom but an oil boom. Pheasants are only the most obvious example of what losses might confront the Prairie Pothole region in the coming years.
Ducks Unlimited, which focuses on wetlands conservation, put the Great Plains and the Prairie Pothole region on top of a list of the 25 most important and threatened waterfowl habitats on the continent. Millions of ducks and geese pass through each spring to nest in the grasslands.
The potholes also function as flood control by absorbing surges of rain and snowmelt. That flood control capacity has been taxed in recent years as farmers drain wetlands to plant more crops.
Ten years ago, landowners in North Dakota were far more interested in the conservation payments, said Kevin Kading, who oversees a state land conservation program that allows hunters to hunt on private land where the owners have enrolled in the program. Landowners are paid on average $12 to $15 an acre to make their property available in the Private Land Open to Sportsmen (PLOTS) program administered by the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. Many earn far more than that now by renting their land to farmers who plant crops.
At its peak in 2008, PLOTS had 1.1 million acres available to hunters. That dropped to 760,000 this year. The future consequences are worrisome. A portion of the proceeds from hunting licenses goes toward PLOTS. So if fewer hunters buy them, there's less money available to go toward conservation. That means less habitat, Kading said.
The effects are real: The state has a photo of piles of uprooted PLOTS signs, iconic yellow triangles that mark open acreage.
It's "kind of like a pile of rubble, compared to a building that was once standing," Kading said. "Now it's just come down to this pile of signs."
'It's a big deal'
For pheasants, the withering of PLOTS means that in years of bad weather, populations might not rebound in the way they did before the habitat loss, Kading said.
"What we really saw on the landscape when we had a lot of habitat was when populations dipped low, they could rebound quickly," Kading said. "The trend might be that they don't rebound as quickly. There's just less habitat. So your trend line slowly goes down. Without the habitat, they're just not going to be producing the wildlife."
But Kading and other state and federal wildlife officials are careful to note that although they are concerned about pheasant populations and other consequences of fewer acres of conservation land, they don't fault landowners for dropping out of the program. It's a calculation all business owners must make, they note.
Advocacy groups such as Ducks Unlimited have been more critical of the shrinking of available conservation land. The organization considers the native grasslands and wetlands of the pothole region more threatened than the world's tropical rainforests, said Eric Lindstrom, a government affairs representative for Duck Unlimited. Grassland is being converted at a rate not seen since the Dust Bowl era, he said.
An iconic landscape is threatened, he said, in part by agricultural practices and federal policy on ethanol subsidies. The changes have broad conservation, environmental and economic impacts, well beyond the potholes themselves.
"It's more than birds and hunting," Lindstrom said. "It's about water quality, it's about keeping working lands and livestock production, it's about carbon sequestration. We are sort of the duck factory here in the U.S. for the rest of the country. It's all the birds that fly to California, to Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas every fall. It's billions of dollars of economic activity that are tied right here to the prairies."
The North Dakota Farm Bureau disputes the comparison to rainforest loss. Its president, Doyle Johannes, said during his annual address in November that technology has given farmers tremendous advances that have been good for agriculture as well as the land. Farmers are doing more with less, he said.
"We aren't pillaging and plundering the land just to make a buck," Johannes said during the speech.
But many remain worried. In South Dakota, the self-proclaimed pheasant capital of North America, the state Division of Wildlife this summer recorded a 64 percent decline in the number of pheasant broods from 2012.
The situation is considered so dire that Gov. Dennis Daugaard (R) plans a pheasant summit this month to examine the factors contributing to the loss of habitat. As the world's "premier destination for pheasant hunting," he wrote recently, it's "a tradition we owe it to future generations to maintain."
The state's economy is at risk, said Emmett Keyser, assistant director of the South Dakota Division of Wildlife. As many as 100,000 hunters each year visit his state for pheasant hunting, a tradition that has an estimated annual economic impact of $185 million. Pheasant hunting is a "pretty substantial part of the landscape in South Dakota," Keyser said.
It's the first time South Dakota has had such a summit since the late 1970s, when the federal Soilbank program ended and the state and others in the region saw similar losses until the CRP program began.
"It's a big deal," Keyser said. "We're not saying it's an emergency quite yet, but we're certainly saying there's a great deal of concern out there."
There are no easy fixes, although some are looking to the farm bill for help. The Senate version of the bill, S. 954, reconnects conservation compliance to the crop insurance program, a requirement that might keep some marginal land from being farmed. It also includes provisions that limit farmers' participation in other federal farm programs if they cultivate erosion-prone grasslands (E&E Daily, June 11).
In North Dakota, oil and gas development is also having an impact on habitat, although no studies have been done that break down how much can be attributable to new roads, increased truck traffic and other factors associated with the oil boom.
But an editorial that appeared in North Dakota's Forum newspapers -- often cautious and pro-development -- warned as hunting season opened that decisions about land and water stewardship will have ramifications for "generations to come."
"If the drivers of the state's early 21st-century economy continue to erode the conservation, environment and outdoor ethic that makes the state unique," the editorial warned, "the damage to traditional values and cherished heritage will be irreversible."
Some landowners are going against the grain. Jim Faulstich, a rancher from South Dakota, started changing practices on his cattle ranch after he struggled in the 1980s to stay in business. He feared that like some of his neighbors, he'd go broke, and he began looking for ways to better manage his cattle operation and the land.
Faulstich wrote a vision plan that vowed to improve the natural resources on his property so that he could pass it on to the next generation in better shape than he got it. The planted tree belts and grass mixes allow him to graze cattle year-round and manage the land in a way that draws more nesting birds.
"We didn't have a choice: We had to change or go broke," he said.
Now, the businesses is big enough to support one of his daughters and his son-in-law. The ranch hosts hunters from around the country each pheasant season. It wasn't their intention to also run a hunting operation, but it has helped diversify their cattle operation and fatten their bottom line, Faulstich said.
"In the process of operating this way, the wildlife numbers have increased," he said. "We didn't do the conservation practices so we could get into the hunting business. We accidentally got into the hunting business."
Even with high commodity prices in recent years, Faulstich has never considered converting carefully cultivated grasslands to crops. They don't have to chase trends, he said. They know they have a long-term, workable business model.
"I've been through watching these cycles, both through weather and conversion," he said. "And I've learned that if you start chasing any one of those, it will come back and haunt you."
Erika Bolstad is researching a book about the Bakken boom and her family's mineral rights in North Dakota. Follow her on Twitter: @erikabolstad.