U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service pilots Brian Lubinski and James Ward spend hundreds of hours every year patrolling the prairie.

Ward, who flew for the Bureau of Land Management in Utah before joining the Service’s wetland acquisition office in Huron, SD, likes to say he traded the “purple mountain majesties for the amber waves of grain.”

Tucked into those amber waves of grain are countless prairie potholes—little ponds, marshes and lakes that ancient glaciers created.

The Service protects thousands of these spots by paying landowners a lump sum to preserve them permanently. The easements mean these wetlands can’t be burned, drained, ditched or filled, although they may be farmed if they dry up naturally. Lubinski and Ward fly over to make sure the agreements are honored.

Easements cover about 1.5 million acres of wetlands in the Upper Midwest, many in Refuge System wetland management districts. Duck Stamps purchased by hunters and other conservationists are an important source of money to finance the easements, which protect habitat for geese, swans, cranes and many species of ducks—including mallards, blue–winged teal, green–winged teal, goldeneyes, hooded mergansers, gadwall and pintails.

Lubinski and Ward’s work has grown more important as grain and soybean prices have soared and farmers are tempted to squeeze extra crops onto protected wetlands. Climate change may have also prolonged dry spells that make it easier to get heavy ditch diggers into marshes.

New technology is making monitoring cheaper, faster, easier and safer. Service officers combine digital photography with satellite positioning and GIS (geographic information system) tools to capture and analyze information in new ways.

Lubinski, a wildlife biologist/pilot based in the Midwest Region office in Bloomington, MN, says he used to fly with two officers who used paper maps and visible landmarks to find easements. Now he flies alone, navigating with GPS (global positioning system) and a computer programmed with a flight plan that takes the guesswork out of his route.

Technology also makes it possible to survey the easements from a higher, and therefore safer, altitude. His digital photos link to GPS technology that can find exactly where every pixel is. Special software enables officers on the ground to scrutinize anomalies. Officers also can check photos from previous years to detect changes.

Lubinski flies his twin–engine Partenavia Observer over his area in the fall. He finds potential problems on 5 to 10 percent. When officers find what looks like an easement violation, they first check the records to see if a special exception has been granted. Then they investigate the area and visit the landowner. When biologist Lubinski has enforcement questions, he contacts Midwest Region refuge zone officer Brent Taylor.

Ward, a federal wildlife officer/pilot, goes on many of these visits himself when he’s not flying his Cessna 182. Though the encounters can get confrontational, complaints are usually resolved voluntarily. The landowner agrees to a restoration timetable, and Service officers help make sure everything is done right the first time.

Every year a few cases are turned over to the Justice Department, but Service officers say the goal is better wetlands, not victories in court.

The technology they use is changing quickly. Service officers have tried ground–penetrating radar that can help detect underground drainage work. And Jeffrey Lucas, law enforcement representative for the easement enforcement team at Refuge System headquarters, says the Service is investigating whether a four–pound unmanned aerial vehicle—that is, a drone—could do some of the aerial surveys in the future.

John Pancake is a freelance writer who lives in Goshen Pass, VA.