Who's Missing?

Written by Pam Garrettson
Monday, May 16, 2016

Pam Garrettson.Last time I wrote, I alluded to the loss of grasslands and wetlands in the Eastern Dakotas crew area. This isn’t about water, though water is obviously important for breeding ducks. Though southern South Dakota was wetter than it has been in quite a few years, as we moved north things have been much drier, and that’s okay. Wet-dry cycles keep wetlands healthy; years of high water and phosphate fertilizer runoff had turned many larger wetlands into cattail-choked messes that were of little benefit to wildlife, or water too deep to support emergent vegetation at all. Some of these have now gone completely dry, and have been mowed, burned and even plowed through. But when water returns to those basins, their seed banks will sprout and create the nutrient-rich “hemi-marsh” (half emergent vegetation, half open water) that ducks and other waterbirds favor.

What’s not at all benign is the tiling and draining of those basins so that they won’t hold water even in very wet years, nor the losses of grasslands. From 2008-2011, corn prices were at all-time highs, and hundreds of thousands of acres of grasslands were converted to row-crop agriculture, either taken out of the Conservation Reserve Program, or native prairie freshly broken. Yet duck populations have remained relatively high, so they are compensating somehow. For ground-nesting ducks such as mallards and blue-winged teal, red fox are a major predator of both nesting females and their nests. In the Dakotas, an outbreak of sarcoptic mange caused a dramatic decline in foxes that coincided with those grassland losses. In many areas, the dominant predator is now the coyote, and while coyotes will take the occasional nest, nest success is generally much higher in coyote-dominated areas, so a hen still has a decent chance of hatching a brood if she can find a little bit of water and a field edge or ditch to nest in. That’s at least one plausible explanation.

But make no mistake, it’s a diminished landscape. It’s easy to document what’s there, but we were halfway through the survey when I began to realize what was absent or seldom seen: numerous shorebirds and grassland songbirds. It felt like being at a party with only half my friends there. I began to sound like an old-timer… "All this used to be grass… we should be hearing upland sandpipers...” Or clay-colored and grasshopper sparrows. Or seeing Wilson’s phalaropes, willets, black-necked stilts and other shorebirds. At one point, Helina rolled her eyes, “So that was like what, 20 years ago….?” as if I were talking ancient history, and to her and Clay, both in their 20’s, it might as well be.

The “good old days” I was remembering were no accident. They were the result of agricultural policies that favored conservation, coupled with low agricultural commodity prices that made participation in those programs economically feasible. Add a little water, and you had quite a party, where ducks, and all manner of birds flourished. I’ve been at this long enough to see the pendulum swing, and I hope to someday see it swing back.

Eastern Dakotas ground crew calibrating their position based on an aerial photo. Photo Credit: Pam Garrettson, USFWS.

Eastern Dakotas ground crew calibrating their position based on an aerial photo. Photo Credit: Pam Garrettson, USFWS.

Blue-winged teal on a wetland in Streeter, North Dakota. Photo Credit: Pam Garrettson, USFWS.

Blue-winged teal on a wetland in Streeter, North Dakota. Photo Credit: Pam Garrettson, USFWS.

Cattail regrowing in a wetland that had been mowed near Kenmore, North Dakota. Photo Credit: Pam Garrettson, USFWS.

Cattail regrowing in a wetland that had been mowed near Kenmore, North Dakota. Photo Credit: Pam Garrettson, USFWS.

Wetland that has dried out and been farmed near Kenmare, North Dakota. Photo Credit: Pam Garrettson, USFWS.

Wetland that has dried out and been farmed near Kenmare, North Dakota. Photo Credit: Pam Garrettson, USFWS.