Newsroom Midwest Region

Patrolling the prairie potholes: 2017 Ducks Unlimited Wetland Conservation Achievement Award

March 10, 2017

Prairie potholes. Photo by Tom Koerner/USFWS.
Prairie potholes. Photo by Tom Koerner/USFWS.

Ducks Unlimited recognized federal wildlife officers from across the Prairie Pothole Region today for their ongoing efforts to protect America’s prairies and wetlands by presenting the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service with the 2017 Ducks Unlimited Wetland Conservation Achievement Award.

The award was announced at the Ducks Unlimited breakfast during the 82nd North American Wildlife and Natural Resources Conference in Spokane, Washington. The award recognizes unyielding commitment to conserve wetlands and grasslands throughout North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Minnesota, and Iowa.

Ducks Unlimited, Inc. Chief Executive Officer Dale Hall and Chief Conservation Officer Paul Schmidt were joined by Mountain-Prairie Regional Director Noreen Walsh and Midwest Regional Director Tom Melius for the award presentation.

The Prairie Pothole Region of North America was once the greatest expanse of grasslands and small wetlands on earth. The southern reach of the region is in central Iowa and it extends northwest through Minnesota, South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana and into Canada.

Before a massive network of agricultural drain tiles were installed under the fertile soil during the first half of the 20th Century, the area was predominantly covered with small wetlands called prairie potholes, created when glaciers advanced and retreated over the area.

The original density of small wetlands across the region averaged an astonishing 83 wetlands per square mile. Because of these small - often seasonal - wetlands, and the grasslands associated with them, the Prairie Pothole Region is an ideal nursery for waterfowl. It has long been called the Duck Factory of North America.

“This partnership in the Prairie Pothole region is a prime example of meaningful conservation to assure long-term habitat for wildlife and recreational and ecosystem benefits for all,” said Ducks Unlimited Chief Conservation Officer Paul Schmidt. “This could not be accomplished without the dedication of the USFWS Wildlife Enforcement Officers who are so deserving of this recognition.”

Refuge Zone Law Enforcement Officer Brent Taylor was honored to accept the award on behalf of his fellow officers across the country. Based at Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge in Minnesota, Taylor supports easement monitoring across Minnesota, as well as myriad of conservation compliance priorities.

Also present to receive this honor were Wetland District Manager Kathy Baer of the
Audubon National Wildlife Refuge Complex in North Dakota; Federal Wildlife Officer Donald Soderlund of Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge Complex in South Dakota; and Wildlife Refuge Manager Dave Azure, also of Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge Complex.

“Our federal wildlife officers in the Prairie Pothole Region do difficult work. They are charged with safeguarding the investment the American people have made in conservation easements for wetlands, grasslands, and birds,” said Mountain-Prairie Regional Director Noreen Walsh.

“And they do this by working with landowners to provide information, troubleshoot difficulties, and flexibly resolve any health or safety situations. They demonstrate that conservation is as much about communication and collaboration as it is about science. I’m immensely proud of their dedication,” continued Walsh.

As a result of the Small Wetland Acquisition Program of 1958, we have played a pivotal role in conserving these wetlands for almost 60 years. Since its creation, the program has protected nearly three million acres of habitat, mainly in the Prairie Pothole Region. These protected areas are called waterfowl production areas, and they are part of the National Wildlife Refuge System.

“Education is the foundation of helping landowners understand their easement responsibilities. I’d like to thank our officers for going above and beyond as they help folks stay within the law,” said Midwest Regional Director Tom Melius.

Historically, easement compliance was monitored solely by Service biologists working as dual-function officers. To assist these biologists, we began employing a handful of full-time, specialized federal wildlife officers at wetland management districts throughout Minnesota and the Dakotas.

Whether by aircraft, all-terrain vehicle, or on foot, these law enforcement professionals monitor, investigate, and enforce the complex terms of easement contracts with private landowners.

Patience is key. 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 violation.

The time, energy, and persistence are paying off in the Prairie Pothole Region. With every brood of ducks that takes off from a previously drained wetland, we can all take solace. Thanks to the efforts of this coordinated, long-term effort, America’s prairies and wetlands are better protected.

Learn more about how you can help protect the Prairie Pothole Region:

Award recipients with Service and Ducks Unlimited leadership. Photo courtesy of Ducks Unlimited.
Award recipients with Service and Ducks Unlimited leadership. Photo courtesy of Ducks Unlimited.

The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect and enhance fish, wildlife, plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. We are both a leader and trusted partner in fish and wildlife conservation, known for our scientific excellence, stewardship of lands and natural resources, dedicated professionals and commitment to public service. For more information on our work and the people who make it happen, visit

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