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Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center

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Wildlife Habitat Management on the
Northern Prairie Landscape

Management by Habitat Acquisition


A traditional practice in wildlife management is purchasing habitat for protection and manipulation. The significance of the Prairie Pothole Region was recognized early, as was the necessity of protecting and managing migratory birds and their habitats there. Several refuges were established for migratory bird protection and management, mostly by designation of lands already in the public domain.

The drought of the 1930s heightened interest in additional habitat protection, and passage in 1934 of the Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp Act, known as the 'Duck Stamp Act', provided a source of funds for federal acquisition of wetland habitat for migratory birds. Even while one federal agency was purchasing wetlands, however, another, the US Department of Agriculture, was sponsoring large-scale drainage projects. Wetlands had been drained in prime crop production areas of Minnesota and Iowa in the late 1800s and early 1900s. New programs expanded drainage into the more northerly and westerly prairie areas and threatened much of the entire region with subsidized drainage. In the late 1940s and 1950s, state and federal biologists raised serious alarm over the loss of prairie wetlands, and subsidized drainage was reduced. In the late 1980s, drainage was proscribed for farmers enrolled in US Department of Agriculture programs.

As wetlands were being lost, the emphasis on protecting habitat by land purchase increased. In the 1960s the Waterfowl Production Area acquisition program began and continues today, funded by annual duck stamp receipts.

Selection of lands

Lands for fee purchase or easement acquisition under the US Fish and Wildlife Service's Waterfowl Production Area Program are selected by wildlife biologists applying criteria designed to protect the best possible wetland complexes for waterfowl production. Wetland complexes should be between 32 and 400 ha, with 4 upland hectares for every hectare of wetland. There should be a scattering throughout the area of temporary and seasonal wetlands, which attract breeding pairs, and at least one semi-permanent and permanent marsh of significant size, which persists later in the summer and supports broods. Such wetland complexes help meet various life-cycle requirements of breeding waterfowl (Dwyer et al., 1979).

Easements prohibiting drainage, burning, and filling of wetlands are taken by the Service, especially near Waterfowl Production Areas, to extend habitat protection around the acquired complexes.

Ideally, the best wetland complexes in each township would be acquired, but this is not always possible. Funding is obviously a major constraint. Annual duck stamp receipts have limited the program. Another constraint is the availability of land for purchase. Waterfowl production areas are purchased only from willing sellers; condemnation has never been considered. The price paid for land generally is limited to the appraised market value of the property. That is, a marsh with high value for migratory birds is not given any additional consideration for that value unless it is recognized in the market as a whole.

Current status

About 2.3 million ha, or about 9% of the Prairie Pothole Region landscape, had been acquired or protected by federal, state, or private entities in 1988. Nearly half of that total is in the Department of Agriculture's Water Bank Program (130,000 ha) or its Conservation Reserve Program (1.1 million ha).

The North American Waterfowl Management Plan (described below) has a goal of securing 450,000 ha for protection and enhancement by the year 2000. This, added to the 2.3 million ha already protected, will bring the total land protected to 2.75 million ha, or 11% of the Prairie Pothole Region. As of September 1992, the US Fish and Wildlife Service had acquired 228,000 ha in fee title and 547,000 ha in easements under the Waterfowl Production Area Program. In addition, 177,000 ha in the Prairie Pothole Region are protected under the Service's National Wildlife Refuge System. A portion of that area was acquired by other federal agencies, such as the US Bureau of Reclamation, the US Army Corps of Engineers, and the US Department of Agriculture (primarily through the Resettlement Administration).

The public's views

Acquisition by federal and state conservation agencies is not unfettered. Although society generally looks kindly on protecting migratory bird habitat by acquisition, the process is often controversial at state and local levels. One reason for this is lingering resentment over the US Fish and Wildlife Service's role in reduced subsidies for farm drainage over the past 40 years. Also, the perception exists that government ownership of too much land threatens the traditional family farm and rural community. The fear that the federal government will use its power of condemnation to take lands can be a serious impediment to approval for larger projects. Expansion-minded neighbors may worry that federal acquisition will drive up land prices. Perhaps the greatest obstacle to acquisition in the Prairie Pothole Region is the frequent shortfall between payments made by the Service, as authorized by the Congress, in lieu of real estate taxes and what the real estate tax would be if the property were privately owned. Because purchase through the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund requires the Governor's approval of lands to be acquired, the element of foregone real estate taxes jeopardizes acquisition. For example, in Minnesota, which requires review and approval at the county level for both fee purchases and easements, several counties are avoided by the Service because of strong opposition to any acquisition of waterfowl production areas. Also, it is difficult to obtain approval for fee acquisition in North Dakota because of perceived concerns about the amount of land the Service already owns there. Generally, however, in South Dakota, Montana, and Iowa, no problems arise in getting necessary approval for acquisition.

Although easements solve some of the problems of fee acquisition, they are not a panacea. The purpose of a conservation easement is to acquire an enforceable interest in real estate to prevent habitat alteration. As time passes, and memories of the easements dim or the property changes ownership, the chance of violating the easement provisions increases, in part because economic pressures encourage more intensive agricultural use. The Service routinely informs landowners of easement provisions to prevent violations. On occasion, however, enforcement actions against easement violators must be carried out, even to the point of litigation.

Example: Hamden Slough National Wildlife Refuge

The Hamden Slough National Wildlife Refuge, in north-central Minnesota, serves as an example of an integrated approach to planning for acquisition and management of wildlife habitat (US Fish and Wildlife Service, 1988). The Service proposed the area as a national wildlife refuge in 1976. After a long and exhaustive planning process, the concept of a refuge, incorporating 2407 ha owned in fee title, was approved. The proposed method of habitat acquisition was different from other refuges because the refuge would include not only federal land but also private land, some of which would be under various easement arrangements to assure preservation and management toward refuge objectives. Not only was land ownership and land use stated in terms of area, but the sites were located in different parts of the refuge to allow a landscape evaluation of waterfowl production potential. The purpose of the refuge is to produce nearly 10,000 waterfowl annually by restoring and protecting about 3400 ha of prairie pothole habitat (US Fish and Wildlife Service, 1988).

After delineating the boundaries of the proposed refuge, Service staff completed an inventory of current habitat and land use practices within the boundary. They then advanced eight different management scenarios, the first of which maintained the status quo and served as a control (Table 1). Mallard production under the first seven scenarios was predicted by means of the mallard model described above. The most promising scenario included a mixture of land acquisition, leases, conservation agreements, and various waterfowl management techniques, including protection of nesting hens from predation. This was predicted to cause an 8.5-fold increase in mallard production.

Table 1.  Predicted increases in mallard production for Hamden Slough National Wildlife Refuge under eight alternatives
Alternative Increase
Present habitat 1 X
Traditional acquisition and management 2 X
Non-traditional acquisition with conventional farming 2 X
Non-traditional acquisition with conservation farming 3 X
Traditional acquisition with predator exclusion 3 X
Traditional acquisition with predator removal 8 X
Non-traditional acquisition and mix of management options 8.5 X
Non-traditional acquisition and mix of management options—reduced area 5 X

Waterfowl productivity, site characteristics, proximity to other lands, existing land use, economics, and social impacts were analyzed and used to determine the method of protection, type of development, and management approaches under each alternative. Although the model does not incorporate economic or social features, these considerations were used in the final selection process. Concerns of the public were elicited during numerous public meetings. The scenario predicted to produce the most ducks was not selected because of public concern about the amount of land required for purchase. Purchase of land under that scenario was reduced. The resulting plan predicted duck production to be five times higher than that under the present landscape (Table 1).

Based on the planning process, a refuge management plan was prepared and habitat acquisition and management are in progress. Currently, about 1073 ha of the 2400-ha core area have been acquired. Unfortunately, public sentiment concerning wetland and flowage easements on the 1000 ha surrounding the refuge has not been positive, which has hampered restoration and easements on those lands. As more habitat restoration takes place on the refuge, attitudes may change. A citizen advisory committee was established in 1991 to encourage dialogue and public participation. Local concerns about the effects of the refuge on agricultural lands and loss of tax revenue will diminish only through communication by land managers.

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