Strategic Habitat Conservation

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Landscape Conservation in Action

Strategic Conservation in Action - Bringing Back the Birds

A Strategic Approach to Wetland Conservation in the Prairie Pothole Region

Photo by Stan Bousson_Photo by Stan Bousson
Photos by Stan Bousson

The Prairie Pothole landscape of the upper Midwest and southern Canada was formed 10,000 years ago with the retreat of the glaciers.  The 300,000 square-mile region covers portions of western Minnesota, Iowa, the Dakotas and central Canada. The Region’s eastern wetlands and grasslands are among the most endangered habitats in North America. Due to intensive farming and drainage, more than 99 percent of the native grasslands and 50 percent of wetlands have been lost in the region.

Conservationists, waterfowl hunters and migratory bird experts call the expanse of thousands of scattered shallow wetlands, or “potholes”, the “Duck Factory” of North America because more than 50% of the continent’s waterfowl may be produced here during favorable periods.  More than 200 species of migratory birds use the region for breeding, and it serves as a critical stop over area during migration.

A team of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service researchers and biologists have been dedicated to developing strategic guidelines for restoring and preserving this critical habitat to ensure sustainable populations wetland and grassland wildlife for the future.
The Habitat and Population Evaluation Team (HAPET), stationed in Fergus Falls, Minnesota, conducts scientific evaluation and monitoring projects to support strategic conservation efforts in the Prairie Pothole Region. The team collects and analyzes scientific data that informs on-the-ground conservation action not only for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, but also partner agencies including the U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, state natural resources agencies, and non-governmental organizations.

“HAPET provides cutting-edge research that can be adapted and expanded upon to estimate breeding potential in certain habitats for other species, like those that are threatened or endangered,” said Tom Melius, Midwest Regional Director of the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Among many other scientific activities, HAPET biologists use a scientific model to estimate duck-pair potential, or breeding potential, within 40-acre tracts of land. Using models based on data collected from annual waterfowl surveys, the team is able to estimate production potential of a landscape, both before and after wetland and grassland restoration.

“I refer to this as a landscape potential project,” said Rex Johnson, Fergus Fall HAPET Office Field Supervisor. “We examine the potential of a specific tract of land for successful waterfowl breeding, which helps us as an agency determine where we should be focusing our restoration and management efforts.”

The HAPET also evaluates the potential of the landscape for other wetland and grassland dependent species including shorebirds, secretive marsh birds such as bitterns and rails, and grassland nesting songbirds. Special surveys are used to develop landscape models for some species, including migratory shorebirds and grassland songbirds, while existing data and expert knowledge has been tapped to locate and map important areas for other species in the absence of survey data. The HAPET has been instrumental in working with partners to develop new surveys and methods of monitoring non-game migratory birds.

“We essentially can determine where the pair values are highest, and can analyze the cost to benefit ratio between actual land values, habitat restoration costs and forecasted waterfowl production rates,” said Dan Hertel, HAPET biologist.

The National Wildlife Refuge System uses the data analysis provided by HAPET to strategize land acquisition opportunities. Refuge Supervisor Jim Leach testifies to the importance of this data for Refuges located in the Midwest Region: “From this technology, our Refuges stay informed on which pieces of land are most valuable in terms of waterfowl breeding habitat, which can then guide our decisions on the piece of land that is going to give us the biggest conservation return.”

 In particular, the Service’s Small Wetlands Acquisitions Program benefits breeding waterfowl through the acquisition of small wetlands and associated upland habitats. These Waterfowl Production Areas, or WPAs, in addition to conservation easements, are selected for restoration and conservation efforts, based on the integrity of their existing wetland complexes, landscape context, and predicted nesting success.

In late spring, the HAPET coordinates a survey of waterfowl pairs and wetland conditions on more than 200 4-square-mile plots, including more than 1800 ponds. The survey generates the Breeding Pair and Production Estimate Report, which evaluates how National Wildlife Refuge lands are doing in terms of supporting waterfowl production.

The upper Midwest is known for its strong outdoor ethic – hunting, fishing and outdoor recreations are important elements of the Midwestern lifestyle. The HAPET team not only contributes to science-based conservation, but also contributes to the long-term sustainability of the outdoor tradition that defines the region.

“We want to ensure that generation after generation can continue to participate in the outdoor hobbies they enjoy, whether that be photographing wildlife, hunting, birding, or just being immersed in natural surroundings,” Johnson said.

In addition to assessing waterfowl production capabilities on certain tracts of land, HAPET biologists also determine the effect of on-the-ground management activities predicted to benefit others birds of concern. For example, HAPET researchers are leading a study that examines the effects of woody vegetation removal on grassland nesting birds.

“We survey the number of birds in a particular area prior to and after tree removal activities,” HAPET researcher Diane Granfors said. “Grassland birds are declining more rapidly than any other bird group, so understanding the effectiveness of tree removal is critical.”

HAPET also contributes to the region’s conservation ethic by providing opportunities for children to become “citizen scientists.” HAPET bands upwards of 1,000 ducks annually, and recruits the help of students to get the job done. Duck banding alongside HAPET biologists engages children in the principles of natural resources management and scientific design, while giving them a hands-on opportunity to learn wildlife biology.

“The natural resource profession will be responsible for addressing the conservation issues affecting the Prairie Pothole Region for many years into the future,” Johnson said. “Educating future generations on how sound science can help save a species is critical. They will have our jobs one day, and the more experience we can provide them early on the better.”

Restoration of the wetlands and grasslands of the Prairie Pothole Region remains a top priority for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. As a practitioner of strategic conservation, the HAPET works closely with multiple conservation partners to expand the knowledge base to address conservation challenges in the Prairie Pothole Region. From strategic planning and evaluation for migratory birds, to monitoring for wetland waterfowl, the HAPET conducts key data collection and analysis to help inform landscape level decision making by other Service and partner programs.

“Efficiently restoring habitat complexes demands a targeted and coordinated approach to conservation,” Johnson said. “The technical assistance that HAPET provides to the Service and its partners strengthens our scientific credibility. The data that comes out of this office directly benefits the species and habitats that require our efforts to survive.”


Last updated: September 8, 2009