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Living on Borrowed Water: Why Duck Production May Eventually Crash

borrowed_fThese are the seasons we tell our grandchildren about. Eleven million mallards descended on fields and marshes throughout North America this winter. Overall, more than 49 million ducks, the highest on record and 43 percent above the long-term average, made their way south. Last season was almost as good and 2012 produced the previous record number of ducks.

Enjoy it while you can. The duck boom is living on borrowed time. Thanks largely to a significant loss of Conservation Reserve Program land and the increased loss of native grass, duck numbers are likely to come crashing down when the next drought hits the Prairie Pothole Region.

We've been buried in ducks for the simple fact that the Prairie Pothole Region, which includes the Dakotas, southern Saskatchewan and parts of Iowa, Minnesota and Montana, has been inundated with water. Nearly three feet of precipitation fell on some parts of North Dakota in 2013, and water was bountiful in 2012. Nesting conditions have been ideal on virtually all of the Prairie Pothole Region (PPR), known as the duck factory, for the past several years.

"With enough water, a duck can find a place to nest just about anywhere," says Delta Waterfowl vice president of U.S. policy John Devney. "If the water stays throughout the spring and early summer, they will even re-nest if they have to. That's what we've been experiencing the past three years."

There's no telling when the PPR will go dry again, but it's going to happen. It's inevitable.

"The history of the prairies is one of dry periods and wet periods. Right now, we are in a wet period," says North Dakota-based U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Chuck Loesch. "Recent work we've done in our office shows the prairies will become drier overall and the timing of the precipitation will be later, more towards the late summer or fall when it is less beneficial to nesting waterfowl."

A glimpse into the past offers a look into what might happen in the future. Duck numbers bottomed out around 1990 during a prolonged and severe drought. Just 25 million ducks, one of the lowest counts on record, flew south that year. If the PPR experiences a similar drought, things will likely be much worse. Farmers are draining potholes, plowing under native grass and bailing out of CRP programs in a rush to plant corn and soybeans at an unprecedented level. The Dakotas have been especially hard hit. There were 3.4 million acres enrolled in CRP in North Dakota in 2007. Last year, there were less than 1.8 million.

Devney expects another 20 percent decline in CRP acreage next year and even more land will be taken out of conservation programs beyond that. The 2014 Farm Bill capped future CRP enrollment at 24 million acres. The 2013 level stood at 26.8 million acres, the lowest level since 1987.

Water Matters

The presence of grass, whether CRP, native or hay, is vital to duck production. Loesch examined CRP and native grassland cover in the Dakotas and found a direct and strong correlation between duck numbers and grass cover. More grass equals more ducks, although nothing matters in the waterfowl production equation more than water. That's why duck numbers are sky-high right now. But as Devney says, without an abundance of suitable nesting cover, ducks will struggle when water once again becomes a precious commodity. Loesch agrees.

"Predators are much more successful at finding nests when those nests are concentrated in the available cover. If there isn't much water and a reduced amount of nesting habitat, nest success will decline," says Loesch.

The current and future loss of suitable habitat "concerns me as a scientist and a hunter," he adds. There's no telling how severe the decline will be, mostly because it's impossible to predict how bad the next dry spell might be. However, given the trends in the decline of grassland and the history of duck production in dry years, Loesch figures ducks will have a very difficult time sustaining populations at the current level.

If the loss of CRP and other grass isn't bad enough, the Bakken Shale region of northeastern North Dakota and eastern Montana, part of the PPR, is seeing an unprecedented level of energy development. There are currently about 8,000 wells in the region, but that number is expected to increase by as much as five-fold by 2030, according to a report by the Audubon Society.

A report compiled by North Dakota Game and Fish found an additional 10,330 wetland basins will have a gas well within 110 yards of them by 2020. The mere presence of wells can reduce nest success in some species, and the constant human activity near nesting grounds is likely to have an adverse impact on duck production. Studies have determined that the proximity of an oil well decreases clutch size, lowers nest success, reduces re-nesting propensity and lowers duckling survival rates.

Voting Against Ducks

The good news, at least in the short term, says Devney, is that next year's moisture conditions are already looking bright. The PPR remained wet right through the fall, a sure sign that many of the ponds that produce the bulk of North America's ducks will still be holding water when the birds head north next spring.

While there's no telling how it will factor into future duck numbers, corn prices are also "normalizing," says Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership Director of Government Affairs Steve Kline. What was once selling for $8 a bushel is now selling for $3, thanks in part to a dramatic increase in production in Europe and South America.

"We could see a decline in land rental rates for corn production so they are more in line with the conservation rates, particularly on marginal land," says Kline. "Farmers may be more willing to put land back into conservation programs as it becomes less profitable to plant corn on that marginal land."

North Dakota voters had the opportunity to boost the incentive to preserve critical wetland and upland habitat during the last election. Measure 5, known as the North Dakota Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks Amendment, would have dedicated five percent of the state's oil extraction tax toward conservation measures, including a state-run program similar to CRP. Estimates put the amount of money generated at about $100 million per year. Devney says the federal government put about $120 million into CRP in the state when acreage was at its peak.

"We saw it as a means to make up for the loss of CRP land. It would have been great for conservation," says Devney.

Delta Waterfowl, Ducks Unlimited, The Nature Conservancy and Pheasants Forever all spoke in favor of it. DU reportedly put more than $1.8 million toward lobby efforts.

Unfortunately, ducks and duck hunters were dealt a crushing blow after Measure 5 was defeated by a whopping 80 to 20 margin. Opposition from the petroleum industry was stiff, even though it placed no additional tax burden on oil and gas producers. Farmers and business owners spoke against it, as well. Many state lawmakers were also opposed to Measure 5, and so were governing bodies from every county in the state.

In other words, pray for rain in the duck factory.

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