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Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center

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A New Center for Waterfowl Research

Harvey K. Nelson & Forrest E. Lee
Director, Research Biologist
Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center
Jamestown, North Dakota


As man reaches for the moon, the pressures of modern day living increase his need for common earthy things like trees and flowers, the solitude of a northern lake, wild creatures, and fun in the sun. Wildlife resources are playing an increasingly important role in our modem society. The 48 species of swans, geese, and ducks, as well as other birds and animals, offer the people of North America a tremendous storehouse of recreational opportunity. But, rapidly expanding human populations and modern technology are not always compatible with the well-being of waterfowl populations.

The voice of the American people, with which legislative action is identified, has emphasized in many ways that the recreational attributes of the waterfowl resource are worth saving, even at a considerable cost. It is well established that the costs will run high because man and waterfowl often compete for food and space. Maintaining adequate habitat for both man and waterfowl in North America will require improved technical know-how, better biological information, an improved understanding of socio-economic relationships and careful planning. More sophisticated and penetrating research is needed to build a solid foundation of facts to guide future management of the Continent's waterfowl resources.

The seven-year-old dream of providing a new facility for waterfowl research in the North Central States was realized when the Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center was officially opened on September 18, 1965. The Center, located 3 miles southeast of Jamestown, North Dakota, is administered by the Division of Wildlife Research of the Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife, United States Department of the Interior. It is one of five principal research facilities of the Bureau, the others being the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center and the Migratory Bird Populations Station at Laurel Maryland, the Denver Wildlife Research Center at Denver, Colorado, and the Bird and Mammal Laboratory at the National Museum in Washington, D.C.

Map: Remaining Prairie Pothole Region of the United States and Canada.

One of the primary responsibilities of the Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife is the preservation and management of migratory birds, among which waterfowl are of paramount importance. In meeting this responsibility, continuing research is necessary to identify all factors influencing the breeding ecology of the principal waterfowl species. Attention must be given annually to the determination of production success to aid in the development of appropriate hunting regulations. Constant evaluation is required of the effects of hunting seasons and other factors influencing the seasonal distribution and abundance of waterfowl. Better knowledge is needed on specific seasonal habitat requirements of the principal species so as to guide habitat management and improve guidelines for habitat acquisition and preservation. We must find new ways to reduce "wasted waterfowl" - losses from disease, lead poisoning, other environmental pollutants, and crippling losses.

In the special waterfowl issue of the Naturalist (Spring, 1958), Dr. Clarence Cottam, renowned wildlife scientist and administrator, pinpointed critical waterfowl research needs. His statements were especially significant then, and still are, since they were based on his many years of experience in international waterfowl affairs. His chief concern was proper recognition of the role of private land ownership and the philosophy of private enterprise in the United States, whereby we must rely on private lands and individual land owner incentives to supply the bulk of our waterfowl production habitat and hunting opportunity. He urged that incentives be provided to encourage private citizens to incorporate waterfowl management into their land use programs. He emphasized that research was the basic prerequisite to more intensive management of waterfowl that must be practiced in the future. While considerable progress has been made on many phases of research needs cited by Dr. Cottam in 1958, other facets still remain critical problems requiring new and increased attention.

The acute need for the new Research Center is emphasized by the increased attention given in recent years to the loss of vital waterfowl production habitat in the northern prairies of the United States and Canada, and programs launched by federal, state, and provincial agencies to preserve valuable wetlands. Furthermore, because of severe habitat losses, it has become imperative that most game species, particularly waterfowl, and remaining habitat be managed more intensively if desired population levels are to be maintained.

It is also essential that greater attention be given to the basic biology and behavioral characteristics of the various waterfowl species in order to better understand their responses to habitat changes and other stresses to which they are subjected. While certain research and management techniques are currently being applied to a number of immediate waterfowl problems, many of the answers required can be obtained only through fundamental, long-term research conducted in suitable ecological situations in appropriate areas. In the case of waterfowl production problems, this is primarily the prairie pothole and parkland region and adjacent transition zones of the United States and Canada.

The new Center will help implement the Bureau's responsibility through research in solving problems and fulfilling recognized investigational needs. The initial program has stressed waterfowl production research, with emphasis on wetland ecology and species biology. A broad, basic ecological approach will consider environmental relationships of the entire biotic community. For example, research is underway to determine more precisely the factors affecting quality and permanence of water on small wetland types. These approaches are designed to develop a much better understanding of water chemistry and other limnological characteristics of wetlands. These investigations will enable us to understand the true role of various wetland types in the waterfowl production picture and to refine wetland classification procedures. The information will be of immediate utility in the purchase and lease of waterfowl production areas in the United States, as well as in similar programs being developed by our Canadian friends to the north.

Though much of the initial research has been centered on various waterfowl production problems, future efforts will be made to seek solutions to some of the other conflicts between agriculture and wildlife. For example, it is important that we develop new methods to reduce crop depredations, and find new incentives to encourage landowners to maintain wildlife on private lands.

Greater attention must be given to wildlife disease problems, seasonal nutritional requirements and effects of environmental pollution. There is need for improving knowledge on predation - where, when and under what circumstances does predation play a significant role and what might be done about it? Studies are underway concerning the physiology of reproduction and related factors that affect population levels of waterfowl. More information is needed on the influence of weather on waterfowl mortalities, distribution and abundance.

Another research objective is to improve the knowledge of waterfowl population dynamics in cooperation with the Bureau's Migratory Bird Populations Station at Laurel, Maryland so as to better define given population segments of ducks and geese from specific geographic areas of the breeding grounds and establish their relationship to specific harvest areas and wintering areas.

The Center, directed by Harvey K. Nelson, is presently staffed with 23 permanent personnel. During the next two years, the technical staff will be increased to about 40, consisting of 32 biologists and specialists from other scientific disciplines to perform the necessary field work and to conduct related laboratory support studies, and 8 clerical and maintenance personnel.

Construction has been completed on the main administration-laboratory building which provides necessary office and initial laboratory space for the staff. Other completed facilities on the 500-acre site include vehicle storage and an equipment building with shop. Two residences are currently under construction and scheduled for completion in early spring. Construction of a combination animal propagation building and laboratory, holding pens, a greenhouse, a series of small experimental ponds, and a public visitation area are planned for 1966.

A field research station with laboratory, garage, shop, and residence was completed near Woodworth, North Dakota in 1964. A field office is also located at Aberdeen, South Dakota.

The technical program is divided into four sections, each performing different but interrelated functions so as to foster a team approach to current waterfowl research needs.

Section of Wetland Ecology.  Ecology is the science that deals with the interrelations of living plants and animals and their environment. Biologists and ecologists assigned to this group are concerned primarily with the environmental relationships of waterfowl on their breeding grounds in the north central United States and Canada. At the present time, waterfowl populations and production are being intensively studied in various types of wetland communities located in Alberta, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Northwest Territories, North and South Dakota. New studies are being initiated in Minnesota and other localities in North Dakota. Some of these investigations are part of the cooperative breeding ground studies conducted jointly by the Bureau, Canadian agencies and Flyway councils. The purpose is to obtain biological facts that will be useful in preparation of annual hunting regulations, to develop a better understanding of breeding biology and to improve guidelines for the preservation and improvement of waterfowl habitat.

Section of Wildlife-Land Use Relationships.  Special emphasis will be given to an analysis of the relationships of agricultural land-use practices to wildlife production, especially waterfowl in the prairie regions of the United States and Canada. Personnel assigned to this group will conduct investigations of a socio-economic nature to determine the compatibility of varied agricultural, recreational and other land and water developments with wildlife programs and will attempt to establish equitable wildlife values that are acceptable to all interests concerned. Close liaison will be maintained with other land management agencies and institutions engaged in wildlife and land management programs. The principal objectives will be directed toward making all public lands as productive of wildlife as possible.

Initially work will center around the Woodworth Station in central North Dakota, located in some of the best pothole habitat remaining in the United States. The area also contains a representative sample of the pothole terrain being brought under Federal and State ownership through wetland preservation programs. As the program develops, field research will be extended to other areas in the Great Plains Region, such as national wildlife refuges, waterfowl production areas, major reservoirs, state projects, and private lands - wherever the proper circumstances prevail to meet specific study requirements.

Section of Techniques Development.  It is hoped that this group of experienced biologists will provide a needed link between basic research and the application of such findings to operational programs. Special attention will be given to developing new approaches in wildlife management. The Section will keep abreast of research work done by other wildlife agencies, as well as organizations outside the wildlife field, so as to be aware of new discoveries that may be applicable to current waterfowl programs. When necessary new discoveries that have direct application in management programs will be field tested, and guidelines developed to the point where such can be turned over to public agencies, private land owners and other organizations for their use. The Section will conduct an active research program involving the development of species standards and new methods for propagation of waterfowl and will initiate studies relating to the development and introduction of new strains of waterfowl species for specific habitats. This Section may also work with some phases of the rare or endangered species program now being expanded by the Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife.

Section of Laboratory Services.  Personnel in this section will conduct studies to provide supplemental information and laboratory support for field projects being carried out by the other three sections. This will provide a team approach to complex waterfowl and other wildlife problems. Any one scientist cannot be expected to be able to evaluate all of the factors influencing the ecology of the arctic tundra, a pastured upland or a prairie pothole. Such studies would require the combined efforts of a waterfowl biologist, a chemist, a soil scientist, a limnologist, and a plant ecologist. The latter four scientists will be members of the laboratory services group. To learn more about the breeding biology of waterfowl, the services of other specialists such as the physiologist, pathologist, biochemist or geneticist may be required. Much of the work by this section will be carried out in the laboratory, which is being equipped with the necessary precision instruments and experimental facilities. Other investigations will be conducted on the site, anywhere on the waterfowl breeding grounds where specific problems occur.

It is the Bureau's desire to explore new horizons in waterfowl research at this Center in order to develop a sound foundation on which to build better waterfowl management programs for the future. Maintaining waterfowl populations for about three million hunters in the United States and Canada and for additional millions who wish to observe, photograph, and study waterfowl is recognized by sportsmen, conservationists and administrators as a task that will become increasingly difficult in the years ahead.

In Dr. Cottam's previously-mentioned article (NATURALIST, spring 1958) his concluding remarks very ably describe the importance of waterfowl research: "It is well to re-emphasize the conclusion that constantly changing conditions in wildlife, agricultural or industrial management always will require new information and new techniques to meet new problems. Hence, research always will be an absolute necessity. Let us remember that research in all fields that has been competently and objectively pursued has always paid high dividends."

Photo by Jim Thompson: Mallard Brood Loafing on Mud Flat

The foregoing gives a brief look at the status of development of the new Research Center, its responsibilities, current research activities and future goals. The Center is open from 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. Interested persons are encouraged to visit the Center to inspect the facilities or visit field projects in the immediate area. Special tours or programs will be arranged upon request for school groups, other youth groups, and professional and business organizations that may wish to visit the Center during the day or evening. Write to [Post Office Box 1672]*, Jamestown or call [252-5363]*.

* Current contact information: 8711 37th Street SE, Jamestown, ND 58401; (701) 253-5500

This resource is based on the following source (Northern Prairie Publication 0092):

Nelson, Harvey K. and Forrest B. Lee.  1966.  A new center for waterfowl research.  Naturalist 17(1):29-32.

This resource should be cited as:

Nelson, Harvey K. and Forrest B. Lee.  1966.  A new center for waterfowl research.  Naturalist 17(1).  Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center Online.  http://www.npwrc.usgs.gov/about/npwrc.htm  (Version 19MAR99).

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