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Associated Press, Published December 10 2010

Proposal would protect duck breeding grounds

HELENA, Mont. – The federal government is proposing to spend roughly $588 million over the next two or three decades to prevent 2 million acres of prime migratory bird habitat across the Dakotas and part of Montana from turning into farmland.

The Dakota Grassland Conservation Area would be the first step toward the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s broader goal of conserving nearly

12 million acres of privately owned land throughout the Prairie Pothole Region. That’s about twice the area of Vermont.

The wide swath that runs through the eastern half of the Dakotas, across the top of North Dakota and into northeastern Montana contains millions of glacier-formed, water-filled depressions that wetland and grassland birds use as breeding habitat.

The region is particularly important for ducks, so much that it’s been dubbed “the duck factory.” The area is just 7 percent of North America’s breeding area, but 30 percent of the duck population goes there, said Jim Ringelman, Ducks Unlimited’s director of conservation programs for the Dakotas and Montana.

“It’s the best habitat in North America for breeding ducks,” Ringelman said. “If we’re going to stabilize and reverse population declines, we’re going to have to protect (this region).”

About 200,000 acres of native prairie are lost to cropland conversion each year. At that rate, half of the native prairie that remains in the region will be converted to other uses in 34 years, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

“A lot of it is due to conversion to agricultural lands, taking native prairie land and converting it into farmland for wheat, corn and soybeans,” said Nick Kaczor of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s refuge planning division. “Some of the wetlands are being drained to be farmed.”

The Dakota Grassland proposal is at the beginning of a lengthy process before it can be approved, but a farmers’ group has already voiced opposition to it. Gordon Stoner, president of the Montana Grain Growers Association, said the proposal would keep the prairie “from coming out of grass, which is contrary to where we as an organization are.”

Stoner is a wheat, pea and lentil farmer in Sheridan County at the western end of the proposed conservation area. He said he struggles with the idea that government money would be used to take potential farmland out of production.

“When my government bids against me with my tax dollars – or at least my contribution to the income to the U.S. government – that is very hard for me not to take exception to,” Stoner said. “A billion people go to sleep every night with an empty stomach. Right out of the gate, this seems contrary to what we as an organization represent in trying to feed the world.”

Ringelman said he believed opposition would fade once it’s understood the program is voluntary for private landowners. Ducks Unlimited will work with the Fish and Wildlife Service to explain it to the landowners, he said.

“I’m hoping that a lot of organizations will view this as the ability of individuals to exercise their right to participate in the program,” Ringelman said.

Under the proposal, the government would buy conservation easements to 1.7 million acres of grassland and 240,000 acres of wetland from willing landowners. The landowners would be paid between a third and half of the land’s value for the easements.

The owners would still be able to use the land for livestock grazing and for hay in grasslands after the prime nesting season is over in mid-July, but any development would be limited. Roads, pipelines, wind projects and other development would be allowed under some circumstances, the Fish and Wildlife Service said.

The program could cost $588 million, based on past projects, and it could last 20 to 30 years, Kaczor said. That figure is a rough estimate and could change, he added.

It would be paid for with money from the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act of 1965, which generates cash from oil and gas leases, excess motorboat fuel tax revenue and sales of surplus federal property.

The program is only a beginning to the federal agency’s overall conservation strategy, which identifies 1.8 million acres of wetland and 10 million acres of grassland to be protected in the Prairie Pothole Region.

Kaczor said the approval process will continue until at least September 2011. The federal agency is taking public comment, with three public hearings scheduled for next week in Minot, N.D., Jamestown, N.D., and Huron, S.D.