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Government Commission Approves $28 million For Waterfowl Conservation

Sixteen states will receive the government funding to help conserve waterfowl and shorebirds.

Natalie Voss

Fans of ducks, herons, sandpipers and other water-dwelling birds can rest easy knowing favorite feathered friends have a few more safe havens to splash in, after a government commission approved $28 million in funding to 16 states for the conservation of migratory waterfowl.

The Migratory Bird Conservation Commission announced the grants this fall. The funding will impact projects in Arkansas, California, Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, Louisiana, Minnesota, Montana, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oregon, South Carolina, South Dakota and Tennessee.

The commission, now in its 85th year, is charged with conserving a variety of species and their environments, as well as monitoring and managing those birds’ populations. It also handles the issue of permits for the capture or transport of migratory birds, including permits for those interested in falconry.

The funding will allow the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to lease, purchase or restore a total of 128,000 acres of wetland. Eight of the grants will be focused on restoring species hit hard by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. Though many people don’t consider their usefulness, swamps and bogs are critically important to the many species of birds that breed and live there.

Just as significantly, the grants from this program were all provided on the condition that they be matched by non-federal government entities. Officials with the commission estimated this provision would draw about $54.4 million in additional funding for the 16 states from various sources.

Additionally, the commission approved over $3.5 million for fee title land acquisitions of 1,700 acres in four national wildlife refuges. These funds were generated from the sale of "Duck Stamps," which marked their 80th anniversary this year. Ninety-eight cents of each stamp’s sale goes directly to the National Wildlife Refuge System for habitat protection acquisitions.

The largest grant ($2 million) will go to North Dakota, where the funds will be used for the Missouri Coteau Habitat Conservation Project in Burke. The project is in its thirteenth phase and its organizer, Ducks Unlimited, has gotten the funding matched with an additional $2,017,604. This phase of the project will allow for conservation easements to be purchased for 10,074 acres along the central flyway, and will also add the land to the National Wildlife Refuge System. Agricultural development is one of the biggest challenges facing that region, which is at risk of being drained, overfilled or contaminated by agriculture. Destruction of prairie lands around the wetlands would also threaten the nesting grounds for waterfowl.

Johann Walker, biologist for Ducks Unlimited, said the central flyway typically sees the arrival of migratory water birds in early April, with most arriving for the breeding season by mid-June. The waterways are frozen by fall, when ducks and other waterfowl head south. Many of those breeding grounds are owned by farmers, who currently use the land around the waterways for grazing cattle. Although cattle prices are strong these days, a dip in the market could prompt farmers to transition the property to cropland, meaning they would likely drain the waterways.

"There's great demand from private land owners for those agreements," Walker said. Currently, the Fish and Wildlife Service has about 1,400 landowners waiting for evaluation of around 350,000 acres.

"These are the kinds of things that allow people to expand their operations, or to allow younger folks and their family to get into the business. [The agreements] can do even more than just help people hang on—they can help people build their operations."

The agreements Ducks Unlimited is purchasing in the North Dakota project are perpetual, minimally restrictive agreements, and do allow farmers to continue to graze animals or grow and cut hay on the land within certain calendar guidelines to allow the birds to nest there.

Walker said Ducks Unlimited’s mission is to get out in front of conservation issues, locking in habitats before development impacts the duck population. For the moment, population numbers are not a concern: Walker reported there are close to 50 million active breeding ducks on 300,000 square miles in the prairie pothole region.

"It's been very strong [in the past decade]," he said. "The thing about waterfowl is that their abundance is one of their key characteristics, so it's been a really neat decade. Although we've had a lot of conversion of grassland, they’ve continued to be productive. The challenge is that a great deal of the wetland habitat that we care about is not protected in any way from agricultural conversion."

Walker and other conservationists hope that with the help of surrounding communities, ducks and farmers can continue to coexist happily for many more decades.

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Posted: December 16, 2014, 8:15 a.m. PDT

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