Eastern Dakotas Ground Crew: Wide Open Spaces

Written by Pam Garrettson
Saturday, May 21, 2011

Pam Garrettson.This past week we finished 4 of the 8 air-grounds that are in North Dakota, including Danzig and Streeter, among the most beautiful country that we survey. They are located in the Coteau, which features steep hills (primarily used to graze cattle) and large, deep wetlands ringed with cattails. These more permanent wetlands are used by diving ducks, as well the dabbling ducks we had already been seeing in abundance on the flatter Drift Prairie (DP). Redheads, canvasbacks and ruddy ducks build their nests over water in emergent vegetation. Compared to tilled row crops, pastures provide more of the upland grass cover used by dabbling ducks for nesting. In particular, we counted many more pintails on the Coteau than on the DP, and they will readily nest in sparse cover, even in pastures that are heavily grazed.

Cattails in a wetland are great in the right proportion, but if they choke out the entire pond, our experience, and formal research, suggests that ducks will not loaf or feed on it, and it’s likely worthless for brood-rearing as well. Here’s the dilemma: the water is deep enough that we classify and record it as a pond, but it benefits waterfowl little if any. We have increasingly noticed this problem in the eastern Dakotas, as shallower ponds have remained wet for multiple years; if they were deeper, or were periodically dry, cattails would not take over the entire basin. Fertilizer runoff also contributes to runaway cattail growth; cattails thrive on phosphorus. Not surprisingly then, this is more prevalent on cultivated areas of the DP.

If this weren’t enough, draining and tiling (installation of perforated drainpipes, or “tiles” underground) of wetlands, and loss of land enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) in the DP was starkly evident on our last air-ground in South Dakota. The rest of the crew wearied of me stomping back to the truck in disgust with a running commentary on the data I had just collected. “This used to be (…a wetland….a CRP field...), now it’s (……insert your choice of a few choice words here).”

CRP is a soil conservation program begun in 1985 that pays farmers to plant highly erodible land in permanent cover; out here it’s usually grassland. It has been a boon to ducks and a lot of other wildlife, but almost 2 million acres were lost in the Dakotas and Montana between 2007 and 2009 when farmers allowed their contracts to expire, or took the penalty for an early out. It’s economics; high agricultural commodity prices mean CRP payments are not competitive with farming or renting out the land. But let’s not pretend it’s free-market economics, because prices are driven in part by corn-based ethanol, which is heavily subsidized, many times over. Case in point: E85 (85% gasoline, 15% ethanol) is going for almost a dollar less than the stuff blended with 10% ethanol, the latter being pretty much your only other option in most places.

Grassland habitat in southeastern North Dakota.

Grassland habitat in southeastern North Dakota. Photo by Chris Nicolai, US FWS

Ring-necked ducks in northeastern South Dakota.

Ring-necked ducks in northeastern South Dakota. Photo by Chris Nicolai, US FWS

Northern pintail in southeastern North Dakota.

Northern pintail in southeastern North Dakota. Photo by Chris Nicolai, US FWS

Mags Rheude walks along a cattail-choked wetland in northeastern South Dakota.

Mags Rheude walks along a cattail-choked wetland in northeastern South Dakota. Photo by Chris Nicolai, US FWS

A lot of land has been de-enrolled from the Conservation Reserve Program on this air-ground.

A lot of land has been de-enrolled from the Conservation Reserve Program on this air-ground. Photo by Chris Nicolai, US FWS

A permanent wetland on the Streeter airground in southeastern North Dakota.

A permanent wetland on the Streeter airground in southeastern North Dakota. Photo by Chris Nicolai, US FWS

The road is out near Chasely airground in North Dakota.

The road is out near Chasely airground in North Dakota. Photo by Mags Rheude, US FWS