photo of an upland sandpiper
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 Obama’s America’s 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 years—and existing programs can’t keep pace.

The project is designed to augment the Service’s 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 willing sellers.

"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 Region—named for the millions of small, glacially formed, water-filled depressions, or "potholes," that dot its landscape—has been called North America’s "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 mixture—over 100 species—of 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 birds."

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 between them.

"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."