By Jeff Lucas, USFWS
Law enforcement officers in the Service are tasked with many things, but did you know there is a group of them that there are a group of them that are in charge of monitoring prairie potholes?
The Prairie Pothole Region is an area of the Great Plains that contains thousands of shallow wetlands known as ‘potholes’. During the last Ice Age, glaciers carved these indentations into parts of the Dakotas and Montana. As a result of the Small Wetland Acquisition Program of 1958, the Service now has a hand in protecting these wetlands.
The Program allows us to acquire wetland and habitat conservation easements from private landowners as a way to help keep agricultural lands in production. It also helps to protect vital wetland and upland areas in the Prairie Pothole Region.
In recent years, the cost of grains has sky rocketed, and operators are doing what they can to remove water from their fields to increase yields. Also, wetland drainage and tiling technology has advanced in effectiveness. This has culminated over the years to cause a notable increase in wetland easement draining and filling violations, either inadvertently or purposefully.
Sitting at the tip of the spear in the protection of these important natural areas are the Easement Law Enforcement Officers.
Investigating a wetland draining violation. (Photo: USFWS)
Historically, easement enforcement was done solely by service Biologists working as dual-function officers. To assist these biologists, the Service now employs a handful of full-time, specialized Federal Wildlife Officers at Wetland Management Districts throughout Minnesota and the Dakotas.
With the use of aircraft, all-terrain vehicles, and by foot, these relatively new full time easement officers are charged with monitoring, investigating, enforcing, and ensuring that the complex terms of the easement contracts between the Service and private land owners are complied with. The officers will ensure that any subsequent restoration order, which may be issued due to an easement violation, is followed to completion by the violator.
Easement law enforcement officers must possess the strong character trait of patience. Unlike traditional law enforcement work where officers can observe, contact, cite, and release violators in one fail swoop, it is not uncommon for easement law enforcement officers to spend multiple years investigating a single easement violation.
The time and effort put into this type of enforcement can sometimes seem like a losing battle. That discouragement, however, quickly leaves the officers mind when a compliance check of a previously drained wetland reveals multiple broods of ducks that have come back. When those ducks leap off the restored wetland and fly overhead, an easement officer will tell you, “I swear that duck just smiled at me.”
Jeff Lucas is a Law Enforcement Specialist in the Division of Refuge Law Enforcement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.