Third–generation South Dakota cattle rancher Wade Weiszhaar wants to preserve his family’s way of life, maintain his family’s livelihood and conserve the prairie landscape his family cherishes.

That makes him an ideal participating landowner in the Dakota Grassland Conservation Area.

The conservation area identifies 1.7 million grassland acres and 240,000 wetland acres to be protected across the prairie of eastern South Dakota and North Dakota. Since its establishment as part of the National Wildlife Refuge System in September 2011, the conservation area has acquired 119,578 grassland and wetland acres, all via perpetual conservation easements.

“Landowner interest is very high,” says Harris Hoistad, a refuge manager within the Dakota Grassland Conservation Area. “We have a list of people waiting for us to work on their easement offer, and the infusion of Migratory Bird Conservation Commission funds has helped to get us off to a great start. We have a long way to go to reach the goals of the project, but we are making progress.”

Weiszhaar is one reason for the progress. More than half his land is in grassland/wetland conservation easements. The Weiszhaar Ranch in north–central South Dakota covers about 13,700 acres. Of those, 2,600 acres are farmed for corn, alfalfa, wheat and soybeans, primarily to feed the ranch’s 3,500 cattle. The remaining 11,100 acres are native prairie range—7,000 of them in easements.

“Corn at $7 and soybeans at $14” per bushel, Weiszhaar says, is a major economic incentive for fellow Dakotans “to turn this land upside down and farm it. They’re breaking it up at an alarming rate. Once native range is broken up, it’s not native range. We would love to see the land stay the way it was hundreds of years ago. We understand that we need farming in our country, too, but it seems like it’s going overboard.”

The Dakota Grassland Conservation Area is designed to slow that rapid conversion of native prairie to agriculture. It augments the U.S. Fish and Service’s 55–year–old Small Wetlands Acquisition Program to conserve habitat in the Prairie Pothole Region. The region—named for its millions of small, water–filled glacial depressions, or “potholes”—is known as North America’s “duck factory.” Its grasslands and wetlands are vital to millions of migratory birds, grassland nesting prairie songbirds and waterfowl.

The conservation area is an overlay of nearly all wetland management districts in the Dakotas. Hoistad compares it to a refuge where the land is owned by another agency but the Service also has a property interest. Think Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge overlaying Kennedy Space Center in Florida. “Except in this case,” Hoistad says, “our existing refuge land interests are being added to by the acquisitions of the conservation area project.”

Last year, Service Director Dan Ashe redirected Migratory Bird Conservation Fund money toward the Prairie Pothole Region. The Dakota Grassland Conservation Area uses money from that fund, Ducks Unlimited, the North American Wetlands Conservation Act and the Land and Water Conservation Fund to acquire easements from landowners like Weiszhaar.

Why is slowing the conversion to agriculture and conserving prairie so important to him?

First, Weiszhaar says, “the beef cattle operation is going to be a thing of the past if this keeps up … and we love raising beef for the American consumer.”

Second, it’s about “the vastness, the openness, the sea of grass that seems like it just goes on forever,” he says. “The rolling hills and the prairie potholes seem like they were just meant for this part of the country, and we’d sure love to maintain that. If we take care of the land, the land takes care of us.”