Written by American Bird Conservancy
An important program to protect key grassland and wetland complexes in the core of the U.S. Prairie Pothole region has been proposed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It is called the “Dakota Grasslands Conservation Area”, and would dedicate $588 million from the Land and Water Conservation Fund to protect more than 240,000 acres of wetlands and 1.7 million acres of privately-owned grasslands in North Dakota, South Dakota, and eastern Montana.
Marbled Godwit. © Jan Wegener
Conservation would occur through the purchase of conservation easements from willing landowners. This program is meant to serve as a critical piece of a broader conservation strategy targeting more than 10 million acres of grassland habitat in the Prairie Potholes over the next few decades. Without such efforts, it is estimated that one-third to one-half of these critical habitats will be converted to other uses within 35 years.
Prairie potholes are seasonal, primarily fresh water wetlands found in North and South Dakota, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and other states in the upper Midwest and into Canada. This formerly glaciated landscape is pockmarked with an immense number of depressions which fill with snowmelt and rain in the spring.
In addition to being known as North America’s “duck factory“, the Prairie Pothole region is the core of the global range of several U.S. WatchList birds. Ninety percent of the global population of Baird’s Sparrow breeds in the Prairie Potholes, and 86% of the Sprague’s Pipits. These areas are also crucially important to the Short-eared Owl, Long-billed Curlew, Marbled Godwit, Nelson’s Sparrow, and McCown’s Longspur. Most of these birds have seen significant declines in available habitat throughout their ranges.
“It will be impossible to stem the tide of grassland bird declines without implementing widespread conservation strategies in the Prairie Pothole region,” said Dan Casey, Northern Rockies Coordinator for ABC and primary author of the Prairie Potholes Joint Venture’s Landbird Implementation Plan. This plan is designed to identify strategies for implementing biologically-sound landbird habitat protection and enhancement in the Prairie Potholes Region.
“Working with willing landowners to acquire conservation easements will not only protect these crucial wetland and grassland habitats, it will help maintain traditional land uses and lifestyles of the prairies. Similar work is needed throughout the range of these birds wherever native prairie can still be found,” Casey said.
Although the official public comment period for the project’s initial environmental analysis ended in mid-January, the opportunity to comment will continue for those on the mailing list for the draft land protection plan. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to request to be added to this list. A fact sheet on the project is available at: www.fws.gov/audubon/dakotagrassland.html.