Last year, Ashley Dang, a 22–year–old Student Conservation Association intern at the Prairie Wetlands Learning Center in Minnesota, was asked to succinctly describe wetland management districts and waterfowl production areas.

Here’s what she wrote:

The wetlands and surrounding uplands of the American Midwest are places unlike any other. Here, waterfowl glide gracefully across the water, the earthy smell of wetland reeds and grasses drifts through the air, and the clear calls of migrating birds echo overhead.

Areas like these have been designated as waterfowl production areas … separate tracts of land set aside by the federal government to restore and protect vital nesting and breeding wetland habitat for millions of waterfowl. WPAs are grouped into administrative units called wetland management districts, which manage nearby WPAs and cooperate with local landowners to ensure that these vibrant pockets of life continue to thrive …

These “jewels on the prairie” are part of the National Wildlife Refuge System, a system of lands where wildlife comes first. It’s not just wildlife that loves waterfowl production areas; these lands are open to certain types of wildlife–dependent recreation.

Jewels, indeed, especially in an era when prairie conversion to farmland is acute.

There are 38 WMDs, comprising thousands of WPAs, across the Midwest or Prairie Pothole Region (aka “America’s duck factory”).

photo of a shoveler taking flight

Typical WMD land falls into one of three categories: fee–title land owned by the Service; conservation easement land to which a private owner retains ownership; and land conserved under a voluntary agreement with a private owner via the Service’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program.

“Wetland management districts are the first and, I think, best examples of strategic habitat conservation and landscape–level planning in the Fish and Wildlife Service,” says Midwest Region refuge supervisor Jim Leach.

WMDs often are overshadowed within the Refuge System.

“I imagine that if you’re not from the Upper Midwest, WMDs and WPAs mean nothing to you. You can’t know how important they are,” says Larry Martin, the manager at Minnesota’s Fergus Falls Wetland Management District, which comprises 217 WPAs totaling more than 44,000 acres.

A WMD differs from a refuge in several ways, Leach and Martin point out. A refuge generally is one contiguous land base with one border, one set of neighbors and, in the Lower 48 states, relatively short internal distances. A WMD is more cumbersome. A WMD includes fragmented acreage in many WPA units scattered across numerous counties and townships. A WMD must work with hundreds of landowners and neighbors. A WMD has more boundary, enforcement and trespass issues. The driving time from a WMD’s headquarters to a given WPA can be hours.

“The work of managing a traditional wetland management district, I believe—and this is a generalization—is more complex than managing a traditional refuge,” says Leach.

Another important distinction is that, whereas refuges are closed to many public–use activities unless specifically opened, WPAs are open to public recreation, including hunting, fishing, trapping, photography, environmental education and interpretation, unless specifically closed for a particular reason. An estimated 800,000 people visit WPAs annually.

photo of avocets feeding

“WPAs are busy,” says Martin. “On opening day of waterfowl hunting season, hunters sometimes sleep in their vehicle overnight to get to the WPA they want.”

Beyond providing recreation for people and habitat for ducks, wetland birds, grassland birds, raptors and shorebirds, WPAs are important to the Upper Midwest in other ways. Their wetlands and grasslands serve as absorbent sponges that reduce runoff and help in flood control. Their vegetation helps reduce carbon emissions.

But, to Martin—who has worked for the Service for 33 years and as a manager at WMDs for more than 12 years—the value of a WPA, especially at dawn, is more than all of that.

“When I can go out and hear a bobolink sing, it’s exciting,” he says. “It sort of transports you back to what it must have been like before the settlers first came.”

Facts & Figures

  • There are 38 wetland management districts in the Refuge System. They are made up of thousands of waterfowl production areas.

  • With more than 36,000 separate fee and permanent easement tracts covering nearly three million acres, WPAs account for 18 percent of Refuge System lands in the Lower 48 states.

  • More than 95 percent of WPAs are in North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa and Montana.

  • All but two WPAs are in the Midwest or Prairie Pothole Region. The geographical outliers are Oxford Slough WPA in southeastern Idaho, which is managed by Bear Lake National Wildlife Refuge, and Carlton Pond WPA in Maine, managed by Sunkhaze Meadows Refuge.

  • More information:

The SWAP Is Vital

Wetland management districts and waterfowl production areas exist largely because of the Small Wetland Acquisition Program, which was created in 1958 via an amendment to the 1934 Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act.

“This legislation allowed the Service to purchase WPAs. So, without the SWAP, there would be no WMDs or WPAs,” says Fergus Falls WMD manager Larry Martin. “As to conservation in the Upper Midwest, there is no other conservation program like it.”

Relying heavily on survey data provided by Service Habitat and Population Evaluation Team (HAPET) offices in Bismarck, ND, and Fergus Falls, MN, SWAP uses funds from the sale of Migratory Bird Hunting Stamps (Duck Stamps) to acquire land and easements that permanently protect some of the most threatened and productive migratory bird habitat in the country.

“The SWAP has protected nearly three million acres of habitat in its 54 years of existence, but we have a long way to go,” says Martin. “To sustain the Prairie Pothole Region bird populations, the Service’s goal is to permanently protect an additional 12 million acres of high–priority grasslands and wetlands.”