Posted Friday, October 1, 2004
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BATON ROUGE, La. — The landscape of the Dakotas is changing much as Louisiana's did in the 1970s. It's changing for the same reason — soybeans.
Tens of thousands of wildlife-rich bottomland hardwoods were cleared 30 years ago to make way for Louisiana's new grain crop: North and South Dakota farmers are doing the same today.
"When soybeans hit $8 or $10 a bushel, it's hard to tell a landowner or a farmer not to plow," U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service district director Roger Hollevoet said. "And when the plow digs into this land, we know it'll take years to restore it to prairie grassland."
Hollevoet manages 500 square miles of prime North Dakota waterfowl territory, a place where the soil is rich enough to grow tons of soybeans. It's a vast prairie where, near the turn of the 20th Century, cattlemen and farmers — sodbusters — battled for the land.
Cattlemen were there because the American bison were gone. They were wiped out for their hides. It's reckoned that a million buffalo grazed places Dakotans call "the drift prairie" and the "Missouri Coteau." Cattle were turned loose on the vast, treeless grasslands where the major predators were wolves — and man — and plagues were frigid winters, summer's wildfires and occasional periods of drought.
"Recent studies show that duck nesting success is directly proportional to the grasslands in the prairies," Devney said. "To have any nesting success in an area, the studies show you have to have 40 percent of the area in grass.
It's the grasslands that brought Hollevoet to North Dakota. Ducks and geese like it here, always have. They like to build nests in tall grass, lay eggs and raise their young in nearby ponds.
Dozens more migratory and native birds use the cover afforded by the tall grasses to do the same thing, but it's migrants that borrow the land until it's time for their millenniums-old migration. Unlike the cattlemen and settlers, wild waterfowl know when it's time to move.
Hollevoet and lots of fellow waterfowl biologists learned about migrations early in life. Growing up in Minnesota, he watched flight after flight pointed southward in the fall.
"That's when you know how important places like this are," Hollevoet said.
There are dozens of Roger Hollevoets in the northern U.S. and Canada. Each one of them knows their jobs are a juggling act of conservation, landowner rights and taxing authorities.
Hollevoet said county officials don't like the federal government's move to buy land, because it removes that land from tax rolls.
"That's why it's important to obtain easements with the landowners, and come up with other plans that take marginal (farm) lands out of production and compensate the farmer," Hollevoet said.
"The easements pay the landowners, so that money stays in the local economy, and there is a procedure that, when Congress votes for it, pays local governments for lands used for (federally owned) waterfowl production areas."
The Conservation Reserve Program is another method. The federal plan pays farmers and landowners annually for uncultivated tracts that benefit wildlife, especially birds.
Delta Waterfowl vice president John Devney said extending plans like CRP and making sure the 2007 Farm Bill includes funding for wildlife projects are vital for waterfowl management.
"Recent studies show that duck nesting success is directly proportional to the grasslands in the prairies," Devney said. "To have any nesting success in an area, the studies show you have to have 40 percent of the area in grass. Yes, there has to be water, too, but without the grass, you run the risk of having the ducks move to marginal areas or settling in areas that expose their nests to far too many predators for the (duck) species to sustain its numbers."
Ducks Unlimited biologist Mike Checkett is on the same page.
Devney and Checkett read from the same book when they talk about the importance of preserving expanses of native grasslands and prairie pothole regions in both the northern U.S. Both quickly add the prairielands in the Canadian provinces of Saskatchewan, Alberta and Manitoba.
When wet, these areas provide the tall grasses and temporary and permanent water wild waterfowl need to survive and increase their numbers.
"Everyone needs to know that 62 percent of the grasslands that covered the prairie pothole region has been converted to cropland," Checkett said. "In two North Dakota counties in 2002, there were 12,925 acres tilled for the first time. In South Dakota in 2004, 30,000 new acres were plowed.
"In areas where there are extensive grasslands, we have found more than 25 ducks nesting per square mile," he said. "That's why we need 'sodbuster' and 'swampbuster' provisions in (federal) legislation and programs."
The good news for wildlife managers and hunters is that Canada has developed a program similar to CRP during the last two years, and winter wheat, a crop favorable for nesting ducks, is being planted on the Canadian prairies.
Checkett is based in Memphis, Tenn. Hollevoet lives smack-dab in the middle of the battleground.
"This is a beautiful place, these native grasslands," Hollevoet said. "And there are ways to make sure the farmer and wildlife benefit. We've proven that here."
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