In the 1970’s, severe drought dried the prairie potholes in the upper Midwest and the bottomland hardwoods of the Mississippi Delta. The drought directly caused a plummet in waterfowl populations in the potholes and indirectly destroyed waterfowl habitat by allowing farming of the dried potholes and bottomland
hardwood wintering habitat in the Mississippi Delta. Hundreds of thousands of acres of bottomland hardwood were cleared and the fields planted to commodity crops.
In the early 1980’s work began on the 1985 Farm Bill (Food Security Act of 1985) which is typically renewed on five year periods and the farm lobby was concerned they might not be able to have enough votes to provide the farming community with price supports of previous Farm Bills. This was due to the increasing
urban constituents with their corresponding congressional representation compared to the decreasing farm representation. The farm lobby worked with the environmental lobby to develop a Farm Bill that benefited both groups with one of the major environmental achievements being “Swampbuster” which prevented
farmers from receiving USDA benefits if wetlands were filled or drained.
The FWS Washington staff worked closely with the USDA staff and one of the accomplishments was that FWS would help USDA meet the requirements of the Executive Orders on Wetlands and Floodplains. FWS would be the owner or easement holder to protect wetland and floodplains of properties that reverted to USDA ownership.
Many of the wetlands that were transferred to FWS or held by easement required funds for restoration and this is what the first funding in the early formulation of the private lands program were used to complete. Trees were planted in the Mississippi Delta where they had been cleared to plant commodity crops. One of the provisions
of the 1985 Food Security Act was the Conservation Reserve Program. The concept was to reduce erosion (and surplus crops) by planting grass on grain fields and paying landowners a rental contract for 10 year period. FWS staff in Region 3 brought the concept of putting water back on drained wetlands in place of just planting grass
that would also reduce erosion as well as benefit waterfowl. They used private lands funding to “piggyback” the CRP program and pay the additional cost of plugging the drain tiles of ditches to restore wetlands on private lands. The early projects were done in the prairie potholes of Regions 3 and 6.
The Fish and Wildlife Act of 1956 and Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act were used to justify the expense of Federal funding for wildlife on private lands. FWS biologists recognized that 70% of the land in the was privately owned and to benefit wildlife required working on that private land
cooperatively. Prior to this action, FWS only worked on National Wildlife Refuge lands or FWS held easements. This private lands initiative grew into the Partners for Wildlife Program that Director John Turner requested funding from Congress
as a separate program. The Refuge Program used equipment and personnel early in the program history to help achieve on-the-ground results so a high priority was given to working on projects that directly benefited Refuges. As the program grew
and more funding became available, the PFW reliance on Refuges equipment and personnel lessened, however, Refuges is still heavily vested in the Partners Program and administer the Program in Regions 3 and 6.
The Partners for Wildlife Program expanded beyond wetland restoration with projects that planted grass buffers around the wetlands as well as other forms of upland habitat work. The Program also expanded to do stream restoration, fish habitat and endangered species
habitat restoration. The name was changed to the Partners for Fish and Wildlife to reflect that projects were done to benefit fisheries as well as migratory birds. Since the first appropriation of $100,000, the Program
has steadily grown to where the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Act authorized up to $75,000,000.