Life in the North Country 4 – Conservation in the Northern Prairie

Duck Factory

Heavy rain dogged us as we crossed the vast wet prairie of Manitoba and Eastern Saskatchewan.  After leaving Thunder Bay, Ontario, we pulled our small trailer through the western-most edge of the boreal forest and on into the vast northern prairie.  Unfortunately there’s not much prairie remaining in either in the US or Canada, because most falls under the plow and is planted in monotonous fields of grain including canola for the oil, soy, winter wheat and grasses for winter animal feeding.  The darken skies drenched this pancake-flat land, the rain finding it way into a network of isolated wetlands collectively known as the prairie potholes.


Biologists call them a duck factory.  Glaciers finished gouging out these potholes 10,000 years ago, leaving behind depressions that over thousands of years turned into the perfect habitat to breed waterfowl, shorebirds and waterbirds. Amazingly 50% of the continent’s migratory duck population – including the most iconic of waterfowl: pintails, shovelers, gadwalls, blue winged teal and two of my childhood favorites redheads and canvasbacks – emerge from these productive wetlands every year.  Along with shorebird species like the Wilson Phalarope and American Avocet and 40 species of waterbirds, these pothole wetlands pump out million’s of waterfowl and form the foundation habitat for North American waterfowl hunting – a $1.8 billion enterprise.

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Farmers perennially hope to cash in on these vacant and economically useless lands with ditching to dry them out so as to plow whenever possible.  This ever-present threat forged one of the greatest conservation  achievements of the modern era – the development of a formal coalition of conservation agencies and groups call a Joint Venture.  The name, which describes business ventures where parties agree to develop, for a finite time, a new entity, aptly describes this conservation counterpart.  In 1989 the USFWS designated five areas where conservation agencies and groups joined with farmers, local politicos and other important interests toachieve objective targets to restore or protect wildlife habitats.  The first JV’s  began as on-the-ground application of the newly minted National Waterfowl Management Plan and the recently funded North American Wetlands Conservation Act passed by Congress in1989 .  Waterfowl hunters, led by groups like Ducks Unlimited (DU), the International Association of Fish and Wildife Agencies (IAFWA) and The Wildlife Management Institute provided the political force to insure congress worked hard to create both the legal and financial framework.  Much of the wild America is now part of a Joint Venture.usjv

The  Prairie pothole JV  was one of the original Joint Ventures.  By working closely with farmers, local business and political interests, the PPJV became so successful its management board  boasting in the early 2000’s it was protecting land ahead of schedule.  This success of this and other joint ventures resulted in an explosion in funding and the number of new joint ventures.  New species groups were added in 2005 so the PPJV morphed into “all bird” Joint Venture with the \ additional planning goals for shorebirds and land birds.  I was involved in this transformation, being one of many co-authors of the first national shorebird plan.  It was a time of great enthusiasm.


Waterfowl numbers increasing as a direct result of the implementation of Joint Ventures in 1989 and the political power of sportsmen

Another Age in Conservation

Though only 10 years ago, that was another age in conservation. The prospects for ducks in the prairie potholes have diminished and the fact that they are diminished say much to conservationists across the continent.  Not long after the country embarked on all those new joint ventures and almost exactly when the 50 state’s joined in with “Action Plans”, the bottom dropped out of conservation funding.

We all know the story because it occurs in every part of our social existence. Extraordinary pressure to reduce the size of government created by the outsized influence of the Barons of Industry, including those commanding agriculture, forest products and mining, dried up funding for conservation. Meanwhile conservation agencies , especially state agencies, fell under extraordinary political influence to relax land use regulations while abridging the power of local governments to resist short-sighted exploitation schemes –schemes that promise the world but end with exploited communities paying a big price in the quality of their citizen’s lives.

This is also not news to anyone familiar with the most recent transformation of North American agriculture.  Where once farmers saw limits and some generosity to wildlife — an entire Farm Bill Program known a the Conservation Reserve Program provided funds to farmers to keep plowable but environmentally important lands unplowed– now see the land only for the production of food and profit. In fact congress recently cut funds in the new Farm Bill for CRP while easing the restrictions on destructive uses .  This retreat almost doesn’t matter because the soaring prices of commodities would have lured farmers away from protection anyway.

In the US the impact was especially severe. A 2013 paper in the Wildlife Society Bulletin reports  “it (becomes) apparent that the PPJV is unlikely to reach stated conservation goals unless there is more money, better cooperation and stricter regulations”.   Not only is the plan unlikely to reach it goals, its successes are also endangered.  “We are going to lose this land if we don’t do something” said DU CEO Dale Hall.

star tribune wetland destruction

Farmers have always focused on profit so the current march to further mechanization and increased reliance on chemical comes naturally.  Todays version of more productive farming portends much greater change for wildlife.  It includes the use of genetically altered grains that can withstand direct application of a deadly herbicide called  glyphosate and marketed by Monsanto Corportation as Round Up.  This controversial chemical is known to most people as a potent killer of crab grass and other pesky garden intruders.  It’s main value, however, comes to farmers .  Round Up ready crops don’t need mechanical cultivation because the herbicide kills all plants except those genetically engineered by giant corporations like Monsanto, Dow Chemical and Dupont. The list of Round Up ready crops is long and growing and it now includes over 95% of North America’s corn, wheat and soy, our most important crops.

Although it saves farmers a large part of the work one used to call farming, it also pushes farmers further into the arms of the world’s corporate behemoths.  For unlike standard strains, with which the farmer can set aside a small portion of each year’s harvest for the planting of next years crop, farmers must pay for seed every seed every year.  This  corporate hegemony is so complete that the US Supreme Court ruled in favor of Monsanto, when a farmer tried to use seed corn grown from a Round Up ready crop for his own use the following year.


In defense of the chemicals, they do cut down tractor time.  Where once it took a farm family all its time to farm hundreds of acres, now they can farm thousands of acres.  More intense, more mechanized, more at an industrial scale, the newest version of large-scale farming sweeping this land devastates wildlife. Big tractors, chemical sprayers and combines require fields devoid of pesky obstacles like unproductive wildlife habitat. Duck Unlimited estimates that habitat for an estimated 110,000 pairs of ducks have been lost between 1997 – 2010.   Here’s a quote from the Prairie conservation page of the USFWS ” grassland conversion (from wetland and grassland to crops) in the corn belt have not been seen since the 1920’s and 30’s”.  The US is fast losing conserved prairie potholes from this mechanized onslaught, potentially undoing historic wildlife habitat protection efforts. But is it the same here in Canada’s prairie provinces, Manitoba, Saskatchean and Alberta?

IMG_7537As we wound our way on the Trans Canada Highway we saw plenty of evidence to the contrary.  For hundreds of miles we encountered lush potholes ringed with fencing that kept livestock out.  While thwarted cows stared on enviously, ducks lived apparently productive lives within good vegetative cover. relatively free from predation.  You could read signs from the roadside procliaming this work a result of volunteers from Duck Unliminted Canada   These intrepid volunteer conservationists not only pay for the fencing but also the farmers to stop them from plowing to the waterline.  From the roadside, it appeared that unlike Americans,  Canadians were still up to the job of conservation.

Unfortunately we saw only a veneer of conservation.  Behind these well crafted habitats was ubiquitous devastation spreading like a contagion.  The evidence was no further than DU Canada’s website where they documented large scale habitat change caused by farmers converting prairie potholes to cultivated land.  It appears ducks suffer throughout the North American landscape both US and Canada.

wetland loss manitoba

These maps from Duck Unlimited Canada document the lost of prairie potholes from 1968 to 2005 as a result of farmland drainage ditching


Even though this devastation comes from the hands of farmers – one should not blame them.  Even out in this desolate land, where ducks are easier to find than people, the cold hand of the new Gilded Class touches all. Few of us realize the pressure created by corporate interests placed on farmers hoping to remain farmers. Throughout our travels through the North American prairie lands from Manitoba to Alberta and back again from Montana to Wisconsin we found a landscape littered with the wreckage of failed farms. The immensity of the remaining farms suggests wealth. As we pulled our little trailer through the vast and lonely landscape howerver we saw only modest homes.  I was incredulous.

Mandy and I know something of the wealth that can come from these farms because of our minuscule farm in NJ.  We are not farmers and our land would more properly and derisively called a “farmette”.  But we do plant  6 acres, with Round Up ready crops and understand the value of productive farmland.  Scaleing up costs and profits to thousands of acres, we could easily imagine these farmers as wealthy.  In fact they are not.

Manitoba’s farm’s are like farms across North America and they tell an all to familiar story.  From 2005 to 2011 the number of farms fell by 17% while the size increased by 14%.  One would expect the fewer farmer got wealthier but they didn’t.  On average yearly net income of a farming is only about $49,000 and it has changed mostly as a consequence of variation in market price with only a modest increase in the period. The math is depressing.  For example if a farmer plants 1000 acres in wheat, he might expect 45 bushel/acre in a good year.  In the same good year he might earn $8 a bushel although in reality a good year farming means bad prices because of the abundance.  At first blush you would cheer – the farmer made $300,000.  But take out expenses of around $250 and acre and you would frown with a net gain of only $50,000 – and that in an impossibly good year.  Most farmers have to work second jobs to stay farmers.


Meanwhile they are literally up to thier necks in toxicant and debt.  According to one report Round-Up is so widely used that it occurs in most air and water samples.  Understanding the impact of a land awash in chemicals is constantly thwarted by the corporations making the deadly chemical and the politicians serving them.  Still Round Up is known to kill many species of aquatic life so its not a huge leap of faith to assume farmers and thier families are taking big risks. And the risks aren’t ameliorated by financial security.  Farm debt is at high levels and the bigger the farm the bigger the debt.  Fully 78% of farm debt is concentrated in the biggest farms.  In other words the people doing most of the work and taking most of the risk, are barely making a decent middle class existence while the bottom line for corporations like Monsanto keeps getting better and better.  In 2013 alone, Monsanto profits rose 20%.
farm debt canada

Even Sportsmen Can’t Stop The Barons of Industry

As a conservationist I recognize something more alarming than the barons of Industry and their politicians draining wealth from the land and its people — after all I live in New Jersey.  Here short-sighted exploitation of our natural resources comes and goes like the tide.   Our land is the Rodney Dangerfield of wildlife habitat.  Most “natural” places have been abused so many different times, a biologist would find it hard to know what is natural?     Looking back over the last hundred years of conservation you can see a similar push and pull between the greedy and the people who love wildlife.  But practical people, like the people driving the Prairie Pothole Joint Venture, usually find a way to work together and do the best for both wild animals and humans.

puck cartoon

1889 Puck magazine cartoon describing the recurring exploitation of robber barons

The conservationists’ greatest fear comes not because we’ve lost duck habitat to industrial-level farming.  It comes because one of the most powerful groups of conservationists in our nation’s history cannot, or won’t, stop it.  It was duck hunters that brought on one of the most important advances in conservation – creating the first Duck Stamp in 1936 when the country was still mired in the depths of the greatest economic downturn in modern history. That one action precipitating a chain of actions that shape modern conservation.  Not long ago a joint venture of duck hunters and like-minded farmers had the power to defend ducks, now they cannot match the industrial overreach that characterizes farming today. Like a strong winter chill that freezes this vast northern landscape, the barons of industry creating the new gilded age, suck the life from both the land and the families that were once proud stewards of the land.

This means a lot.  Non-hunting outdoors people often treat hunters and fishermen with disdain – afterall how can you help an animal by killing it?  It defies common sense.   Yet sportsmen pay for the privilege to pursue their sport – unlike kayakers, hikers, birders and most egregiously photographers, who often make money from the sale of their wildlife photographs. Sportsmen buy licenses, pay taxes and support government agencies that battle the ever-present corporate interest to destroy land and wildlife.  From their collective voting and financial power sportsmen have created an edifice of conservation that has until recently created a firewall of protection

Now the firewall has been breached and wildlife are like the children of the late 19th century who find themselves no more than pawns in service to the gilded class.  Those of us in the trenches of this fight, wildlife and land management professionals, see the collapse of conservation as we drive to work hoping it’s better elsewhere. We see it growing more ominous every year hoping that the people who love wildlife can organize and resist the industrial rape of our land.  But even the most hopeful can’t ignore the fact that when sportsmen can’t stop the juggernaut of greed that sweeps our land, little hope remains.


1930’s era cartoon by political cartoonist and conservationist Ding Darling


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