An upland sandpiper alights on the Dakota Grassland Conservation Area. The area encompasses 1.7 million acres of grassland and 240,000 acres of wetland across a swath of eastern South Dakota,
North Dakota and Montana. (Tom Koerner/USFWS)
Harris Hoistad appreciates robust mid-America grassland, and last
spring Interior Secretary Ken Salazar authorized the Dakota Grassland
Conservation Area, which is designed to preserve such habitat.
"The beauty of healthy grassland comes from having the ability to walk across the
landscape and see all of the life that each of these tracts of land contain," Hoistad
says. "From the tiny insects on the ground to the wetland invertebrates that provide
food sources for all the birds, these grasslands are alive, and it is so easy to see why
they are such critical pieces of the habitat needs for many species of wildlife."
Hoistad, refuge manager at Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge in South Dakota,
has been involved with the Dakota Grassland Conservation Area project since its
planning inception almost three years ago.
The project was announced in April by Salazar, who heralded it as a model for
conserving working agricultural landscapes while benefiting wildlife under President
Obamas Americas Great Outdoors initiative. The project identifies 1.7 million acres
of grassland and 240,000 acres of wetland across a swath of eastern South Dakota,
North Dakota and Montana. The expansive conservation area is vital, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service planners say, because,
at current conversion rates, half of the
remaining native prairie in the Prairie
Pothole Region will be converted to other
uses in 34 yearsand existing programs
cant keep pace.
The project is designed to augment the
Services half-century-old Small Wetlands
Acquisition Program, which is funded
primarily by Duck Stamps. The Dakota
Grassland Conservation Area would
use the Land and Water Conservation
Fund and North American Wetlands
Conservation Act grants to purchase
perpetual conservation easements from
"Currently, within the proposed project
boundary, there are over 600 landowners
waiting to sell us a conservation
easement," says Hoistad. "Our current
funding cannot keep up with the demand
from private landowners who are
interested in working with us to conserve
habitat on their lands. Many of the
landowners we have on this waiting list
are also active livestock ranchers who
value grass and water on the landscape.
Many of their goals for beef production
mesh very well with our wildlife habitat
needs. This relationship creates a win-win
situation for all parties."
The Prairie Pothole Regionnamed for
the millions of small, glacially formed,
water-filled depressions, or "potholes,"
that dot its landscapehas been called
North Americas "duck factory." Its
grasslands and wetlands are crucial to
millions of migratory birds, waterfowl
and grassland nesting prairie songbirds.
"Healthy grassland habitat contains a
very diverse mixtureover 100 speciesof plants," says Hoistad. "These plants
are of varying heights and also grow and
mature at different times of the year. The
differences in the growing season are why
they are so attractive to a wide variety
of birds. The cool-season plants green up
early in the spring and provide nesting
habitat for the early arriving migratory
bird species. Warm-season plants grow
later in the spring/early summer and
meet the nesting needs of the laterarriving
There are hundreds of fee title-owned
waterfowl production areas and dozens
of national wildlife refuges within the
Dakota Grassland Conservation Area.
These tracts provide the foundation for
the Service conservation mission, and
the new project will work with private
landowners to preserve the habitat gaps
"The most challenging issue we have to
face is that, while the bureaucratic
process moves along, there are thousands
of acres of native prairie being converted
to a tillage-based cropping system," says
Hoistad. "Current high commodity prices
are making it very attractive to break up
the native sod and begin farming it. Once
that has taken place, the prairie
ecosystem on that tract of land is gone.
That is our challenge: secure additional
funding and protect more acres as quickly
as we can."