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A colorful landscape with a big lake and a farm house.
Information icon Prairie Pothole area in the Kulm Wetland Management District. Photo by Krista Lundgren, USFWS.

Next Steps for a Healthy Gulf of Mexico Watershed

Prairie Potholes

Landscape at a Glance

A map showing the Prairie Potholes focal area.
Map of the Prairie Potholes focal area by Roy Hewitt, USFWS.

The broad delineation of the Prairie Pothole Region extends across five U.S. states and three Canadian provinces. For our purposes, this focal area includes about one-third (100,000 square miles) of the overall region, specifically the northern plains of Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana. It constitutes one the richest wetland systems on earth, characterized by millions of depressional wetlands known as “potholes.” The complex of highly productive freshwater wetlands and surrounding grasslands are critically important to nesting waterfowl, shorebirds and grassland birds. The area is often referred to as North America’s “duck factory” because it is estimated that about one-third of the continent’s waterfowl breeding population nest within it, many of which spend the winter months in the coastal marshes along the Gulf.

Prairie wetlands along North and South Dakota’s Missouri Coteau (plateau) provide valuable spring and fall stopover habitat for a majority of the endangered whooping cranes in the Wood-Buffalo/Aransas population. In addition, the focal area also provides breeding habitat for a wide diversity of wetland- and grassland-dependent birds, as well as stopover habitat for significant numbers of spring and fall avian migrants and native pollinators such as the monarch butterfly.

A bright green landscape dotted with large lakes and ponds.
Aerial view of depressional wetlands known as “potholes.” Photo by USFWS.

Once a vast grassland system, the Prairie Pothole Region is now an agrarian system dominated by cropland. Changes in land use practices have, for the most part, negatively impacted the availability of foraging and nesting habitat for migratory birds using the region. Many wetlands have been drained or degraded, and wetland losses continue today with technological advances like pattern tile drainage systems. The extensive loss of native prairie with the conversion to row crop agriculture, particularly in the eastern portion of the focal area, has further compromised this region’s ability to provide resources necessary to meet the needs of the vast array of migratory birds that depend upon it sometime during their annual cycle. Despite these losses, millions of wetlands and large tracts of native prairie still remain to make the Prairie Pothole Focal Area “one of the most altered — yet one of the most important — migratory bird habitats in the Western Hemisphere,” as noted in the Prairie Pothole Joint Venture’s 2005 Implementation Plan. The Service believes this illustrates that the fundamental needs of local agrarian communities and wildlife are not mutually incompatible. We believe that by joining partners in addressing factors that impact both, we can advance the interests of both communities and conservation.

Target Species

A brown duck covered partially in snow with a round orange/brown beak.
Northern shoveler. Photo by Tom Koerner, USFWS.

Six duck species (the blue-winged teal, the gadwall, the mallard, the northern pintail, the northern shoveler and the redhead) commonly nest within the Prairie Pothole Focal Area. These six species comprise about 60 percent of the total duck harvest taken by hunters in the five Gulf coast states. The harvest figure identifies an important nexus between duck production in this focal area and winter use by ducks in the Gulf coastal states, and supports the necessity of strategic habitat conservation delivery in both the Prairie Pothole Focal Area and the Gulf coastal zone.

Protecting and restoring wetlands in the focal area will ensure sufficient foraging habitat for 40 species of breeding waterbirds, including the federally listed Interior least tern and whooping crane, as well as species of high conservation concern like the American bittern, the black tern, the horned grebe, the king rail, the yellow rail and the Franklin’s gull (the largest Franklin’s gull nesting colonies in the world are located within this focal area). Additional benefits will include higher quality breeding and/or migration stopover habitat for 37 of the 50 waterbird species that regularly occur in the United States; breeding habitat for 13 of 20 species that nest in the lower 48 states; and important stopover habitat for 30 of 37 Arctic nesting species, including the federally listed piping plover, as well as the American avocet, the long-billed curlew, the upland sandpiper, the willet and the Wilson’s phalarope. Most these species stage on Gulf coastal habitats as they move to and from South America during their migrations.

Grassland bird populations are in a persistent decline that is steeper than that for any other guild of North American bird species. Restoration of all three grassland systems found in this focal area (shortgrass, mixed and tallgrass) will benefit twelve of the 17 native landbird species declining in the focal area, including the Baird’s sparrow and Sprague’s pipit. These two priority grassland bird species migrate to the Gulf Coast but nest within grassland ecosystems of the Prairie Pothole Region.

Many pollinator populations (e.g., bees, wasps, butterflies, bats and birds) are in serious decline for a variety of reasons, including habitat loss, insecticide use and climate change. The important contribution pollinators provide to the economy and environmental health is recognized in the recent White House National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and other Pollinators. This strategy has set goals of restoring and/or enhancing seven million acres of habitat over the next five years through federal actions and public-private partnerships across the United States and increasing the Eastern population of monarch butterflies to 225 million over that period. The restoration and enhancement of grasslands and croplands enrolled in the USDA’s conservation reserve program within the Prairie Pothole Focal Area will greatly contribute to that goal.

Two tiny silver fish in an open hand.
Juvenile Topeka shiners. Photo by Aleshia Kenney, USFWS.

While the focal area is best known for its “pothole” wetlands, the Missouri River and associated prairie drainages provide important habitat for two endangered fish, the pallid sturgeon and the Topeka shiner. Today farming practices and/or dams have greatly impacted both species across their range. Conversion of native prairie coupled with loss of lands enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program to row crops has contributed increased sedimentation and nutrient loadings that is degrading critical stream habitat as well as adding to the nutrient loads entering the Mississippi River and subsequently the Gulf. Implementing projects to improve water quality and restore stream habitat will benefit both federally listed species as well as benefit other aquatic species.

While migratory birds that overwinter on the Gulf Coast are the primary target for many of the proposed actions in this focal area, implementation of these actions will be beneficial to other species as well. For example, we place an overall emphasis on restoring or enhancing grassland and wetland habitats in order to meet the needs of numerous waterfowl species. Those actions will also benefit ring-necked pheasants, sharp-tailed grouse, greater prairie chickens and white-tailed deer through additional cover and foraging opportunities. Similarly, we promote the use of decision support tools to facilitate strategic habitat conservation of grassland and wetland habitats for breeding redheads. Execution of on-the-ground actions prioritized by these tools may also benefit other animals such as upland game species, and amphibians (e.g., northern leopard frog), reptiles (e.g., Eastern garter snake, Eastern painted turtle), insects (pollinators including various species of moths and butterflies), and other mammals (e.g., muskrat, mink, raccoon, red fox, coyote and striped skunk) by providing habitat important to various life history stages of these species.

High Priority Actions Based on the Service’s Vision

Restore and enhance grassland and wetland habitats in areas identified as important for the recovery of high priority fish and wildlife species.

Next Steps

A black breasted duck with gray back and a red head and eyes.
Redhead. Photo by Woody Woodrow, USFWS.
  • Deliver programs that continue to build upon the goal to perpetually protect 1.4 million acres of high priority wetlands and 10.4 million acres of priority grasslands to support about 10 million breeding ducks, with an emphasis on blue-winged teals, canvasbacks, gadwalls, lesser scaups, northern pintails and redheads.
  • Purchase habitat conservation easements from willing private landowners to conserve wetland and grassland habitat.
  • Protect (through fee acquisition or conservation easements) existing or restored wetland and grassland habitat that provide stopover and foraging habitat for migrating whooping cranes.
  • Identify opportunities and develop programs that protect, restore and/or enhance grassland habitats for the benefit of pollinators, with special consideration given to achieving the continental goal for monarch butterflies. Protect existing or restored grassland corridors associated with prairie drainages to meet objectives and potentially reclassify to threatened or delist the Topeka shiner and the pallid sturgeon in those waters listed as critical habitat for the two species.

Use existing maps and models developed by the Service’s Habitat and Population Evaluation Team (HAPET) to estimate biological benefits realized by the funded conservation actions.

Next Steps

  • Apply existing abundance and probability of occurrence models to protected and/or restored wetland and grassland habitats to estimate the biological benefits realized by completed conservation activities.
  • Develop models to assess benefits of conservation actions that would occur if Gulf restoration dollars were sent to the region. Such models may be based on those that currently exist to estimate biological benefits realized from both the Service’s easement and Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program. Models developed by the the USGS and revised to include diving ducks by the Service’s HAPET office are used and USGS to estimate the waterfowl breeding pair abundance for wetlands of known type, location and size in the Prairie Pothole Region. These models can be adapted and used to estimate biological benefits for Gulf restoration efforts.
  • Additionally, probability of occurrence models for migrating whooping crane and several species of breeding shorebirds and grassland passerines have been developed by the HAPET office and, similar to the waterfowl pair models, can be used to estimate the biological benefits of protected and/or restored grassland and wetland habitat. Use of these models also has relevance to estimate the biological benefits of protected or restored grassland and wetland habitat for those species also dependent upon restoration efforts.

Use recently developed decision support tools to facilitate strategic habitat conservation of grassland and wetland habitats for breeding redheads.

Next Steps

  • Deliver voluntary conservation assistance programs (e.g., those offered by other federal/state agencies or NGOs) to help interested private landowners restore and enhance wetland and grassland habitat. Actions could include restoration of hydrology, seeding of perennial vegetation, and supplying infrastructure to enhance grassland habitat used for grazing.

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