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Tony Dean, Published December 16 2007

Plowing more acres isn’t without cost

Scott Stephans isn’t a politician, nor does he care about the politics surrounding the subject of climate change.

Stephans is a scientist who serves as “Ducks Unlimited’s” director of conservation planning out of the Great Plains regional office in Bismarck. And he’s concerned –very concerned – about the impact of climate change on ducks.

Stephans along with other “Ducks Unlimited” scientists, remain convinced that even if we stopped burning fossil fuels today, we would see many of the effects of climate change including sea level rise because so much carbon dioxide has been released.

And you can add these scientists to the growing number who believe that at least 25 percent of the new carbon dioxide emissions are caused by devegetation, including the destruction of forests, plowing grasslands and other native habitats.

Stephans and I saw firsthand the importance of grass on the landscape when we hunted pheasants recently in Lyman County, South Dakota. We limited, which has become the norm this season, but likely saw a conservative estimate of about 1,500 wild birds that flushed far ahead of us, the way late season roosters so often do. That they were there testifies to the importance of grass, of which there is plenty, especially on Steve Halvorson’s farm where we hunted.

Jim Ringleman, who directs conservation planning out of the “Ducks Unlimited” regional office, did some research and noted that there are almost 3.4 million active CRP acres in North Dakota. And if all of those acres have been in grass for 10 years, they have sequestered the carbon equivalent of 47.6 million metric tons of carbon dioxide.

That’s equal to the emissions from 8.6 million cars over the course of a year, based on an average car and average number of miles driven.

Put another way, North Dakota has 340,000 registered vehicles, and if all of North Dakota’s CRP were to revert back to cropland, the magnitude of carbon dioxide emission would equal the greenhouse gases emitted over a quarter century from all of the cars registered in North Dakota.

Stephans is also worried about projected climate change forecasts which suggest less rain and snow over the Dakotas in the future. Based on research done by Dr. Carter Johnson, a Sioux Falls, S.D., native, and a distinguished professor of ecology at South Dakota State University, scientists believe many prairie potholes will dry up. This is significant because the trend is expected to cover nearly the entire prairie pothole region, America’s duck factory.

“I think we’re seeing impacts, especially in this flyway, and particularly in Alaska where we’re losing prime wetland areas due to the melting of permafrost,” added Stephans.

He continued, “The trends we’re seeing now with a lot of native grasslands being plowed to make more room for crops, will work against ducks too. Equally important, the carbon dioxide that is sequestered by native vegetation, is released into the atmosphere when those grasslands are plowed.”

The late waterfowl scientist, Art Hawkins, told me before his death a year ago, that the areas of southern and western Minnesota and north Central Iowa, once were the “best of the best” in terms of wetland quality.” Today, few wetlands remain in those regions and that, unfortunately, is the only area current projections on climate change suggest will receive adequate precipitation.

Stephans said, “What’s left is all we have and if we lose it, we can expect to see reduced duck numbers, as well as all other ground nesting birds.”

That grassland loss also impacts fisheries, especially in areas such as South Dakota’s glacial lakes region, or the Devils Lake area where grass slows runoff and helps maintain higher water quality. With reduced water quality, fishing suffers.

Stephans said that in addition to the threats to the breeding areas, a sea level rise in the southern gulf coast could decrease the quality of waterfowl wintering grounds.

“Climate change is something we have to pay attention to,” said Stephans, “and it means negative impacts on many of the things we all care about.”

The bottom line is the rush to plow may mean more income for some, but there are tradeoffs and the quality of outdoor recreation is one of them.

Tony Dean is the host and executive producer of “Tony Dean Outdoors,” a television series that airs across the Upper Midwest. His daily radio show,

“Dakota Backroads,” airs 42 times daily on 39 North Dakota and South Dakota radio stations, plus two in Minnesota. He can be reached at tonydeanoutdoors@pie.midco.net Plowing more acres isn’t without cost Tony Dean 20071216