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Research Access to Privately Owned Wetland Basins in the Prairie Pothole Region of the United States

David P. Fellows & Thomas K. Buhl

Abstract: We describe efforts to obtain access for research to 81 wetland basins on 69 farms in four zones of the Prairie Pothole Region of North Dakota, South Dakota, and Minnesota. Access was obtained to 54% of the farms in areas where land was intensively cropped and 87% of farms in areas of low cropping intensity. On average, 1.35 operators had to be contacted and 1.70 interviews were required to obtain a decision on access to a farm. On 77% of the farms, cooperators placed at least one restriction on access, most commonly requiring walking access only or notification before nighttime work. Cost of obtaining access averaged $265/farm in wages and travel expenses. No cooperators were willing to sign written access agreements. Operators rescinded access to four farms and drained three wetland basins during the first year; six of the seven sites lost were in the intensively cropped portion of a low-wetland-density zone. The difficulty of obtaining and retaining research access to privately owned wetland basins in intensively cropped areas may be related to landowner attitudes towards wetlands. Researchers may have to rely on remote sensing or consider payment for access to secure representative research sites in such areas. Unwillingness of cooperators to sign access agreements may jeopardize research by the newly formed National Biological Service and other resource management agencies.

Key Words: access, landowner attitudes, Prairie Pothole Region, private land, wetlands

Table of Contents

Tables and Figures


Based on boundaries proposed by Mann (1974), about 260,000 km² of North Dakota, South Dakota, and Minnesota lie within the Prairie Pothole Region (PPR). Agriculture is the predominant land use within the region, and most land is controlled by private landowners or tenants (here jointly referred to as operators). Cooperation of operators, therefore, is critical to wetland research and monitoring efforts throughout the region. In 1991, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) contracted with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center (NPWRC, now Northern Prairie Science Center, National Biological Service) to conduct a 2-year pilot study to identify indicators of prairie pothole condition for the EPA's Environmental Monitoring and Assessment Program-Wetlands (EMAP-Wetlands). Because EMAP-Wetlands is designed to provide data on long-term trends in wetland conditions, the program will require repeated and long-term access to wetland basins (wetlands) on private lands. One objective of the pilot study, therefore, was to assess problems of access to private land.

Although there is substantial literature on landowner attitudes toward recreational use of private lands (e.g., Stoddard and Day 1969, Kitts and Low 1974, Westfall 1975, Brown et al. 1984, Kiefer 1985, Wright 1985, Zecor 1986), literature searches failed to locate a single reference dealing with research access to private land. This report summarizes contacts and working relations with 93 operators during 2 years in four zones of the PPR.


Study Area

Selection of study sites was dictated by design of biological and physical studies needed to develop indicators of wetland condition. We stratified the U.S. portion of the PPR into four zones (Figure 1) based on wetland density (Mann 1974). The high and medium density zones consist of the Missouri Coteau and drift plain, respectively. The low-north zone represents the bed of glacial Lake Agassiz. The low-south zone comprises drift plain where most potholes have been drained. Target study sites within these zones were selected from among 422 10.4-km² (4-mi²) plots on which Cowardin et al. (1988) had previously mapped wetland distribution and land-use patterns. Cropping intensity in each plot was assessed by dividing the total cropland area by the total upland area. Within each zone, the two plots with the highest cropping intensity (high-crop) and the two with the lowest cropping intensity (low-crop) were selected for study, except that in the low-north/high-crop stratum, we worked with the three highest-crop plots to obtain the required sample of wetlands. Wetlands within the selected plots were classified following the Cowardin et al. (1988) modification of the classification of Stewart and Kantrud (1971). Two each temporary, seasonal, and semi-permanent wetlands were selected at random from both the pair of low-crop and the two or three high-crop plots in each zone, subject to the requirements that all target wetlands in the high-crop plots be surrounded by cropped land and all target wetlands in the low-crop plots be surrounded by grassland. In the low-north zone, we omitted semipermanent wetlands because of scarcity. Wetlands to which access was denied were replaced with qualifying same-class wetlands drawn at random from the same plots. Following the 1992 field season, we terminated work in the low-wetland-density zones because a number of operators there had either drained our study sites or rescinded access to them. To maintain adequate sample size, we added one new pair of high-crop and low-crop plots each in the high and medium wetland density zones (highest and lowest cropping intensity of remaining plots within the zone) and selected one wetland of each class per plot as above.

Figure 1: Map of eastern MT, ND, SD, and MN showing zone boundaries and study plot locations.
Figure 1.  Zone boundaries (adapted from Mann 1974) and locations of twenty-one 10.4-km² (4-mi²) study plots.

Operator Contacts

Most initial contacts with operators were made in person. We made initial contact by telephone only with absentee owners or where repeated efforts to make personal contact with an operator had failed. When required, follow-up contacts were also made in person whenever logistically feasible. All of our 1992 cooperators were contacted by letter in fall 1992 to thank them for access and to remind them to file claims for any losses caused by the study and by telephone in spring 1993 to verify continued access.

Almost all of the contacts were made by one person (TKB), who had several years experience interacting with operators in the PPR. He discussed study objectives and planned on-site activities (i.e., one or more annual visits by each of several teams of 1-4 researchers to assess aquatic vegetation, invertebrates, soil and water chemistry, hydrologic functions, and sedimentation rates; installation of an invertebrate sampling device in each wetland for the duration of the study; and possible nocturnal visits to assess amphibian populations). He also discussed compensation in the event research activities caused damage or loss of income, and he left a handout containing this information with each operator who granted access or who wanted additional time to consider our request. The research was presented as a FWS project; the EPA was mentioned only if questions arose concerning the ultimate use of the data.

If an owner granted access to land that was operated by a tenant, the tenant was also asked for permission unless we were otherwise instructed by the owner. If contacted first, a tenant who agreed to cooperate was asked about need to contact the owner. For co-owned land, we first tried to contact the owner who was most closely associated with the farming operation and, if access was granted, followed his or her advice regarding need to contact the others. Refusal by either a tenant or an owner was taken as denial to work on the land. A few target wetlands were bordered by two farms; denial of access by an operator on either farm constituted denial to work on that wetland.

Cooperators were offered a choice of two written access agreements, one formal and one informal, the latter providing space for the landowner to record restrictions or special conditions. Both agreements granted revocable access through May 1994 but otherwise were designed primarily to relieve the cooperator of liability and to document the cooperator's right to compensation for damage or loss of income arising from study activities. Cooperators were asked about the preferred travel route to the wetland, restrictions on access or activities, and planned pesticide applications that might pose a hazard to researchers.


Analyses were conducted using the farm (i.e., all land controlled by an operator or operator group and containing at least one target wetland), rather than the wetland, as the experimental unit because 15 operators controlled access to two or more target wetlands. A chi-square test using the categorical data modeling procedure (CATMOD) of SAS (SAS Institute Inc. 1988) was used to test whether the proportion of farms to which we obtained access varied by cropping intensity or zone. A chi-square test using the frequency procedure of SAS (SAS Institute Inc. 1988) was used to determine whether the proportion of farms where we had at least one restriction on access varied by cropping intensity or zone. Because of sample size constraints and similar wetland conditions, we combined the low-north and low-south zones into a single low-wetland-density zone for chi-square tests.


Overall, we obtained access to 47 of 69 target farms and 53 of 81 target wetlands (Table 1). We obtained access to 77% (n=17) of farms in the high density zone, 60% (n=25) of farms in the medium density zone, and 70% (n=27) of farms in the low density zone. Neither the interaction between cropping intensity and zone (χ²=1.81, df=2, P=0.405) nor differences among zones (χ²= 1.85, df=2, P=0.397) were significant. However, the percentage of farms to which we obtained access was significantly higher (χ²= 9.37, df=1, P=0.002) on the low-crop (87%, n=30) than on the high-crop (54%, n=39) plots.
Table 1.  Numbers of 10.4-km² plots, farms, and wetlands targeted for access, farms and wetlands to which access were obtained, operators involved and contacted to obtain a decision, and total visits required to obtain a decision in each wetland density and cropping stratum in 1992 and 1993.
Stratum1 Number Plots Number Targeted Access Granted Operators2 Total Visits3
Farms Wetlands Farms Wetlands Involved Contacted
H/l 3 6 8 5 7 7 (2) 7 (1) 12
H/h 3 11 14 8 11 12 (9) 9 (7) 21
M/l 3 12 10 10 8 14 (6) 13 (5) 18
M/h 3 13 18 5 9 14 (12) 9 (10) 28
LN/l 2 4 3 4 3 4 (3) 2 (3) 5
LN/h 3 8 11 3 3 8 (3) 7 (1) 9
LS/l 2 8 8 7 7 8 (2) 8 (2) 13
LS/h 2 7 9 5 5 8 (3) 6 (3) 11
Totals 21 69 81 47 53 75 (40) 61 (32) 117
1 Zone/cropping intensity, where H = high-wetland-density, M = medium-wetland-density, LN = low-wetland-density-north, LS = low-wetland-density-south, and h = high-crop, l = low-crop.
2 Number of owners (number of tenants).
3 Includes only visits or telephone calls when we were able to talk to operator.

Treating joint husband-wife ownership as a single owner, 75 owners and 40 tenants controlled the 69 farms (Mean of X=1.67 operators/farm) (Table 1). Because of refusals by the first operator contacted and the occasional ability of one operator to represent another, we had to contact only 61 owners and 32 tenants (Mean of X=1.35 contacts/farm) to obtain a decision on all farms (Table 1). Counting only visits where we made contact with an operator, 117 visits were required to obtain a decision on all 69 farms (Mean of X=1.70 visits/farm) (Table 1).

Cooperators imposed at least one restriction to access on 77% of farms in the low-crop and 91% of farms in the high-crop plots (χ²=1.51, df=1, P=0.219). Restrictions were placed on 77%, 73%, and 95% of the farms in the high, medium, and low density zones, respectively (χ²=3.19, df=2, P=0.203). The most common restrictions were notification before night work (46% of farms) and walking access only (27%) on the low-crop plots and walking access only (67%) and notification before night work (33%) on the high-crop plots. On 19% of the farms, we were required to notify an operator before each visit. Restrictions were imposed on placement of monitoring devices on 14% of farms on the high-crop plots to minimize interference with tillage. No cooperators restricted access when cattle were present, but several warned us about dangerous animals.

All access agreements were verbal. None of the 65 cooperators were willing to sign either version of the access agreement. A few asked to review copies of the agreements, but most either ignored the offer of a written agreement or expressed the opinion that none was needed.

Unsolicited comments by operators indicated some common concerns pertinent to wetland research on private land. Of the 93 operators contacted, seven expressed anger at the FWS or state wildlife agency for a variety of reasons; five of these seven denied access. Another seven, four of whom denied access, expressed concern that results of the study might be used to reclassify a wetland or otherwise prevent wetland tillage. Concern that study results might limit pesticide use were voiced by three operators, one of whom denied access. Nine of the 10 operators who expressed concern about pesticide or wetland issues were on a high-crop plot.

Four operators rescinded access rights after the study began. One operator refused access to the first researcher who tried to visit the wetland and denied having agreed to participate in the study. Three operators rescinded access near the end of the first field season. All three cited concern over placement of monitoring devices as the reason for rescinding access. However, during the initial contact, all three had explicitly stated concerns that the study might lead to wetland reclassification or pesticide restrictions. In addition, three study wetlands were drained during the first field season. Of the seven wetlands lost from both causes, three (rescinded) were low-north/high-crop, one (rescinded) was low-south/low-crop, two (drained) were low-south/high-crop, and one (drained) was medium density/high-crop. Thus, during the first field season, we lost 33% of the 18 initially-accessible wetlands in the low density strata and 63% of the 8 initially-accessible wetlands in the low density/high-crop strata (Table 1). No wetlands were lost after the end of the first field season.

Cost of securing access to the 47 farms was about $12,500, or $265/farm. Contacts required 8 person-weeks in 1992 and 3 person-weeks in 1993 at an average cost of $430/40-hr week. Associated travel cost about $5,700 for mileage and per diem. Telephone and other miscellaneous costs were estimated at $2,000. No damage claims were filed in either year.

Discussion and Conclusion

The four operators who rescinded access to their wetlands early in the study effectively reduced the frequency of access from 87% to 83% on the low-crop plots and from 54% to 46% on the high-crop plots. The access rate on the high-crop plots was notably lower than access rates obtained in upland studies conducted by NPWRC staff in the same geographical area during 1992-94. Access was obtained to 99% of 90 farms to conduct walking surveys of avian abundance in a variety of habitats, including cropland, throughout North Dakota (L.G. Igl, personal communication). A study that used a chain dragged between two jeeps to repeatedly search for duck nests in fields enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program in North Dakota and Minnesota gained access to 98% of 127 farms (R.J. Greenwood, personal communication). A project that used a chain dragged between ATVs to search for avian nests twice per season in growing crops obtained access to 77% of 40 farms in North Dakota (J.T. Lokemoen, personal communication). Although not fully comparable because of differences in approach when contacting landowners, different contact persons, etc., these results indicate that landowners may be more willing to grant access for research on uplands than on wetlands.

Several studies (Stoddard and Day 1969, Brown 1974, Westfall 1975, Brown et al. 1984, Kiefer 1985, Wright 1985, Zecor 1986) indicate landowners are most likely to deny public access for recreation because of 1) previous negative behavior or damage by recreationalists, or 2) landowner protectionist attitudes (such as those who desire to maintain exclusive hunting rights for themselves or those with anti-hunting beliefs). Although we did not attempt to assess landowner attitudes, parallel concerns may have contributed to low access rates in this study.

Smutko et al. (1984) found that 70% of PPR landowners moderately to strongly support wetland drainage, and that in North Dakota (but not in South Dakota), crop farmers are more prodrainage than livestock producers. Wetland preservation provisions of the 1985 and 1990 Federal Farm Bills limit the ability of prodrainage landowners to manage their lands in the preferred manner. Federal restrictions on pesticide use place similar limits on farmers. Because of the role that research has played in such legislation ("negative behavior"), farmers in high-crop areas where drainage and pesticide use are common may perceive wetland research on their property as damaging to landowner rights ("protectionism"). If we are correct, landowner reluctance to grant research access can be expected to increase as more restrictions are placed on wetland drainage and pesticide use.

Animosity toward the FWS may have led some operators to deny access, but it seems unlikely to have played a major role, given the high access rates obtained on the low-crop plots and in the upland studies cited above. Based on operator comments and restrictions placed on access, nocturnal visits and our desire to install monitoring equipment in basins that are commonly tilled during dry years may also have increased the reluctance of some operators to cooperate in this study. Because the same person made nearly all contacts, personality conflicts between operators and the contact person seem unlikely to account for poor access on the high-crop plots.

If agricultural development affects the physical and biological functions of wetlands, wetland access problems such as those we encountered on the high-crop plots, and rescinded access on the low-wetland-density plots, may introduce biases in studies that require a representative sample of prairie wetlands, especially if the objectives require long-term monitoring. Given the cost of obtaining access to a wetland and the potential for lost data if access is terminated during a study, researchers may want to take additional measures to guarantee access, such as to consider payment for access to vital sites in high-crop and low-wetland-density areas. Other options are to build provisions into a study to compensate for low and rescinded access or, in the case of monitoring programs, to focus on wetland attributes that can be quantified through remote sensing. The alternative, to avoid working on land controlled by those who seem to strongly favor drainage or who express concern about possible pesticide or other restrictions stemming from the research, risks eliminating the theoretically most seriously impacted wetlands and injecting substantial bias into landscape-scale research or monitoring programs.

The absence of damage claims was not unexpected. Although 55% of cooperators granted vehicular access to their wetlands, we drove only on pasture and harvested cropland. Monitoring devices that might otherwise have interfered with farm operations were installed after harvest in 1992, and widespread flooding from unusually heavy spring rains prevented tillage of monitored wetlands in 1993. Lack of claims confirmed our pre-study assessment that our other activities would be unlikely to cause farm losses or damage to cooperator property.

Reasons for our failure to obtain written access agreements from cooperators are speculative. The long tradition of "handshake agreements" in the upper midwest, coupled with our decision not to "push" the agreements during landowner contacts may have been one factor. The degree of detail and inclusion of legal terminology on the agreement forms may also have made farmers reject them for fear of "fine print."

In late 1993, most biological research functions within the U.S. Department of the Interior, including those conducted by NPWRC, were consolidated into the newly formed National Biological Survey, which has since been renamed National Biological Service (NBS). The U.S. House of Representatives' version of the National Biological Survey Act of 1993 (H.R. 1845) contained language prohibiting new NBS research on non-Federal real property without written consent of the owner. This provision has been carried through in subsequent legislation. For example, P.L. 103-332, the Fiscal Year 1995 NBS appropriations bill, prohibited use of appropriated funds for new surveys on private property without written consent.

Because the EMAP study was begun before formation of NBS, it was exempt from the requirement for written consent, and the study continued as planned. However, the reluctance of regional landowners to sign an access agreement, as found in this study, may jeopardize broad areas of research by Federal employees in the PPR if such provisions continue to be part of the appropriations language for NBS. Other Federal natural resource agencies may be similarly enjoined. Encouragingly, our experience suggests that restrictions on entering private lands for purposes of research that allowed either written or verbal permission would serve congressional desire to protect landowner interests without affecting the willingness of landowners to participate in NBS research efforts.


This research was cosponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency through Interagency Agreement Reference Number DW14935541-01 and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Reference Number 14-48-0009-92-1929. Julia Beiser provided statistical assistance. We thank Lewis Cowardin, Jane Austin, Alan Sargeant, Spencer Peterson, and Rolf Koford for comments on earlier drafts of this paper. The interest and assistance of cooperating farmers throughout the study area was greatly appreciated.

Literature Cited

BROWN. T. L. 1974. New York landowners' attitudes toward recreation activities. Transactions of the North American Wildlife and Natural Resources Conference 39:255-263.

BROWN, T. L., D. J. DECKER, and J. W. KELLEY. 1984. Access to private lands for hunting in New York: 1963-1980. Wildlife Society Bulletin 12:344-349.

COWARDIN, L. M., D. H. JOHNSON, T.L. SHAFFER, and D. W. SPARLING. 1988. Applications of a simulation model to decisions in mallard management. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Technical Report 17.

KIEFER, J. L. 1985. Attitudes of landowners and landusers toward recreation on private land in Sheboygan County, Wisconsin. M.S. Thesis. University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point, WI, USA.

KITTS. J. R. and J. B. LOW. 1974. Utah landholders' attitudes toward hunting. Transactions of the North American Wildlife and Natural Resources Conference 39:180-185.

MANN, G. E. 1974. The Prairie Pothole Region - a zone of environmental opportunity. Naturalist 25(4):2-7.

SAS INSTITUTE INC. 1988. SAS/Stat User's Guide, Release 6.03 Edition. SAS Institute, Cary, NC, USA.

SMUTKO, L. S., J. A. LEITCH, L. E. DANIELSON, and R. K. STROH. 1984. Landowner attitudes toward wetland preservation policies in the Prairie Pothole Region. North Dakota Agricultural Experiment Station, Agricultural Economics Miscellaneous Report Number 78. North Dakota State University, Fargo, ND, USA.

STEWART, R. E. and H. A. KANTRUD. 1971. Classification of natural ponds and lakes in the glaciated prairie region. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Resource Publication Number 92.

STODDARD, C. H. and A. M. DAY. 1969. Private lands for public recreation: is there a solution? Transactions of the North American Wildlife and Natural Resources Conference 34:186-196.

WESTFALL, R. D. 1975. Landowner willingness to allow public access for three recreational activities: a study of rural landowners in Kent County, Michigan. M.S. Thesis, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI, USA.

WRIGHT, B. A. 1985. An empirical assessment of behavioral aspects and other determinants of rural landowners' hunter access policies. Ph.D. Dissertation, Texas A & M University, College Station, TX, USA.

ZECOR, D. T. 1986. The Wisconsin landowner study: landowner attitudes and values toward wildlife management on private lands, posting, and hunter access. M.S. Thesis, University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point, WI, USA.

This resource is based on the following source (Northern Prairie Publication 0950):

Fellows, David P., and Thomas K. Buhl. 1995. Research access to privately owned wetland basins in the Prairie Pothole Region of the United States. Wetlands 15(4):330-335.

This resource should be cited as:

Fellows, David P., and Thomas K. Buhl. 1995. Research access to privately owned wetland basins in the Prairie Pothole Region of the United States. Wetlands 15(4):330-335. Jamestown, ND: Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center Online. (Version 31JAN2002).

David P. Fellows and Thomas K. Buhl, National Biological Service, Northern Prairie Science Center, 8711 37 St. SE, Jamestown, ND 58401

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