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The Prairie pothole region is also known as the "Duck Factory". Photo by Krista Lundgren, USFWS.

BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill settlement funds migrate north

Most of us, if given a choice, would steer clear of potholes. Many migratory birds, however, actively seek out potholes – provided you’re talking about the thousands of temporary, seasonal, and semi- permanent wetlands wetlands known as “potholes” that are found in the prairies of the Northern Great Plains. Despite their importance to wildlife, these shallow wetland “potholes” are often drained, filled, or degraded by development and agricultural practices. With its mission focus on wetlands restoration and conservation, the Service naturally has placed a priority on enhancing, restoring and acquiring bird habitat in what’s known as the Prairie Pothole Region. What might come as a surprise, however, is that projects in the region are being funded with legal settlement money from the 2010 oil spill that took place in the Gulf of Mexico.

On January 29, 2013, BP pled guilty to 14 criminal counts stemming from its actions related to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, including one misdemeanor count of violating the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. As part of the settlement, BP agreed to pay $100 million to the North American Wetlands Conservation Fund (NAWCF) to support projects focused on wetlands restoration and conservation in the United States, Canada and Mexico. According to the agreement, those organizations that apply to NAWCF for some of the $100 million need to show that their projects are “designed to benefit migratory bird species and other wildlife affected by the … oil spill.” The organizations must also match the grants at least dollar to dollar, so in effect, more than $200 million will be spent in this way on species and their habitats affected by the spill.

“A lot of other organizations are putting a lot of money in the Gulf region,” says Mike Kreger, Special Assistant to the Assistant Director for Migratory Birds, “because that’s where the oil spill occurred.” He says the Service, however, is focused on the fact that eligible projects can benefit an affected species at any stage of its migratory cycle in North America. That means settlement money can fund projects in the Prairie Pothole Region, which is concentrated in the Dakotas and is arguably the most productive nesting area for migratory waterfowl in North America.

“The Prairie Pothole Region is what we call ‘America’s Duck Factory,’” Kreger says. “As so many of our birds depend on this Prairie Pothole Region, it’s a good place to put [BP settlement] dollars.”

Of the $100 million in BP settlement money placed in NAWCF, $70 million was earmarked for the United States. As of February 2015, $20 million in grants has been awarded to support 17 U.S. projects. Seven of these are Prairie Pothole Region-related and will receive grants that total $8.5 million.

The Migratory Bird Conservation Commission (MBCC) makes the final decision on how to spend these NAWCF funds. In the most recent round of proposals approved for funding (November 2014), commission members awarded $2 million to a project aimed at protecting 10,074 acres of the Prairie Pothole Region located in North Dakota through conservation easements; the land will be added to the Service’s National Wildlife Refuge System. Another grant, for $1 million, went to a proposal co- submitted by the Service for a project that focuses on the Prairie Pothole Region west of the James River in South Dakota. This grant will permanently protect 3,651 acres of wetlands and adjacent grasslands to be managed as Game Production Areas. Funds will also be used to restore and enhance 4,759 acres of “pothole” wetlands currently at risk of conversion to cropland.

The Service sometimes applies for NAWCF funding for projects, but is more often involved on the other side of the grant process. For example, Director Dan Ashe represents the Service on the North American Wetlands Conservation Council, which reviews proposals and recommends projects for funding to the MBCC. In addition, the Service’s Migratory Bird Program administers those projects the MBCC has selected to receive NAWCF grant money. This work includes processing grant paperwork and regularly monitoring grant projects to ensure they are complying with all regulations.

“The Service is committed to achieving large-scale, sustainable restoration of the Gulf of Mexico,” says Linda Walker, Senior Advisor for Gulf Restoration for the Service. “To do this, you actually need to take a step back, look north and consider the vast area that drains into the Gulf. Awarding BP settlement money for projects in areas like the Prairie Pothole Region can help ensure there are critical food, nesting and resting areas for birds heading for the Gulf not only now, but down the road.”

Contacts

Nadine Siak, USFWS (404)-679-7290; nadine_siak@fws.gov

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. For more information on our work and the people who can make it happen, visit fws.gov. Connect with the Service on Facebook, follow our tweets, watch the YouTube Channel and download photos from Flickr.

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