Northern Great Plains Grassland and Wetland Habitat Falls to the Plow

Vital prairie pothole habitat is disappearing. Reformed farm- and ethanol-subsidy programs—and economic incentives—are needed to leave these crucial lands alone.

In the twilight of a fine day last September, Gary Pearson, a former waterfowl veterinarian with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and now a small-animal vet in private practice, drove me from Audubon’s Alkali Lake Sanctuary in east-central North Dakota to a “kame” (a hill deposited by a retreating glacier) seven miles south of Jamestown.

Lit by our headlights, killdeer flushed from dirt roads. The first stars winked on. And the kame, framed against a violet sky, rose like an island in a vast sea of corn and soybeans.

Only two years earlier it had been an island in another sense, bearing a patch of the nearly extinct 10,000-year-old native prairie that once swept unbroken from the Gulf states into Saskatchewan. Now this patch, too, was gone, its rich array of wildflowers, grasses, forbs, insects, reptiles, birds, and mammals replaced by soybeans. “If we get a big rain, this will all be gullies,” declared Pearson. “It’s a social outrage. We shouldn’t be paying farmers not to plow this kind of terrain; we should be fining them if they do.”

Paying farmers to quit plowing marginal, erodible lands was a strategy conceived under the Reagan administration mostly as a means of stalling overproduction. In the early 1980s Great Plains farms, hit by plummeting crop prices and massive erosion from grassland tilling, began to fail at a rate not seen since the Dust Bowl. By mid-decade, waterfowl and grassland bird populations were at near-record lows. But in 1985 the reauthorized farm bill included what Congress called the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). It paid farmers to remove environmentally sensitive land from production and establish plant cover that prevented soil loss and water pollution.

CRP quickly became the nation’s largest private-lands conservation program and arguably its most successful, converting much of the plains from a black, bleeding desert to stable grasslands that linked vestigial blocks of native prairie. Surging back were scores of grassland passerines, many imperiled, along with pheasants, sharp-tailed grouse, Hungarian partridge, waterfowl, wading birds, shorebirds, deer, and jackrabbits.

But now wildlife production is falling again. So high are the prices of soybeans and corn that farmers can make more money growing these crops even on marginal and highly erodible lands like kames than they collect under CRP. And farmers are doubly motivated to plow and plant these lands because if the crop fails (as it frequently does), they are, more often than not, covered by federal crop insurance. In fact, crop insurance, at an annual cost to U.S. taxpayers of about $14 billion, is the single biggest reason we’re losing prairie potholes, restored grasslands, native prairie, clean water, and soil. The federal government insured $117 billion worth of crops in 2012, including almost all the corn and soybeans grown in the United States. The Obama administration and some Republicans want to shrink the program, but for the moment, powerful agribusiness interests prevail.

The 1985 farm bill contained two effective conservation provisions in addition to CRP—Swampbuster and Sodbuster, which denied crop insurance to farmers who “busted” up wetlands or marginal, erosion-prone terrain. But in 1994 Congress decoupled Swampbuster and Sodbuster from crop insurance, so now farmers have nothing to lose and much to gain by hacking up and planting any and all land, wet or dry. If they pull some kind of a crop from the bottom of a dried-up wetland for three years and it then refills with water, they can collect on a crop-insurance claim. So in dry years they’re motivated to plow up and plant every prairie pothole in sight.

Massive conversion of grasslands and wetlands to row crops is the new normal on the Great Plains, including America’s “duck factory,” the prairie pothole region (mainly in the eastern Dakotas, southwestern Minnesota, north-central Iowa, and eastern Montana). Prairie potholes—fishless, usually temporary, and rich in invertebrates—produce most of North America’s waterfowl. But they’re being drained at an alarming rate. Estimates range from a 50 percent loss in the Dakotas to a 99 percent loss in Iowa. At least 300 species of migratory birds rely on the prairie pothole region. Mainly as a result of crop insurance and the high price of corn and soybeans, America lost 9.7 million acres (26 percent) of its CRP lands from 2008 to 2012. During this period corn planting increased by 13 million acres. And expiring CRP contracts will make 1.6 million more CRP acres available for agriculture in 2014. Meanwhile, Congress is slicing away CRP funds, so 70 percent of the farmers who apply for CRP contracts get denied.

Pearson, an avid sportsman, came to North Dakota in 1967 largely because of the prolific game. “Hunting got better in the 1990s,” he told me. “And it was good until three years ago, when CRP loss got critical. The first thing we need to do is stop subsidizing overproduction. Farming has become about the biggest welfare operation in the country. Farmers were doing well three years ago. So now, when crop prices are even higher, why do we have to plow up even more land? We need to take the economic incentives out of draining wetlands and plowing up native prairie and CRP grasslands. We need Aldo Leopold’s land ethic.”


With crop insurance, the evaporation of CRP compensation, and soaring prices for soybeans and corn, farmers have a strong incentive to till every square inch of their land. Prices for both crops are driven up by global food demand. But for corn a bigger influence has been the ethanol mandate of the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act, which requires the amount of ethanol in gasoline to be increased from 4.7 billion gallons in 2007 to 36 billion by 2022. That’s why the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that at least 35 percent of the 2013 corn crop went to making ethanol. Consequences for wildlife have been devastating.

“Energy independence” was only the alleged reason for the ethanol mandate, rammed through by Corn Belt Democrats. The real reason was a gravy train for their constituents, as President Obama’s Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, freely admitted a decade ago while serving as Iowa’s governor. Asked by Paul Rogers of the San Jose Mercury News why northeasterners should be forced to spike their gasoline with ethanol when the science clearly shows ethanol is bereft of environmental benefit, the governor replied: “Because it helps farmers from my state expand their markets.” Rogers failed to get a positive response when he inquired if the governor would therefore support a law requiring everyone in Des Moines to buy a computer to help people in Silicon Valley expand their markets.

Corn ethanol requires more energy to make than it delivers (see “Drunk on Ethanol,” Incite, July-August 2004; audm. ag/Ethanol2004). Corn requires prodigious amounts of fertilizer and pesticides (made from and with fossil fuels); the farm machinery used to plant, grow, and harvest it requires vast quantities of fossil fuel, and still more is needed for the refining process.

In other words, by the time you’ve paid extra to burn ethanol in your car, you’ve underwritten a net energy loss. You’ve also polluted air and water more than if you had filled up with straight gasoline. With the production of each gallon of ethanol you get at least 10 gallons of sewage-like effluent, which requires wastewater treatment at additional energy expense. Fertilizers, pesticides, silt, and soil wash from the converted grasslands into creeks, polluting the Mississippi River system with a witches’ brew that helps create a bacteria-infested, algae-clogged, anaerobic “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico. (In 2013 the dead zone covered an area larger than Connecticut.) A study by Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs found that producing and burning ethanol creates 93 percent more greenhouse gases than producing and burning fossil fuel. Plowing grasslands releases carbon stored in soil even as it destroys the land’s future ability to sequester carbon. What’s more, corn production generates nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 300 times as potent as carbon dioxide.

Busting restored CRP grasslands, native prairie, and wetlands to make ethanol is like chipping giant sequoias for garden mulch. “Cellulosic ethanol” rendered from grass would be great for wildlife and energy independence, but there’s been scant progress in making production efficient and economical. Ethanol plants are set up for corn, and Corn Belt politicians like it that way.

Still, as Audubon Dakota executive director Marshall Johnson notes, “There are no villains” farming or ranching on the Great Plains. “I know this guy who didn’t want to plant his CRP land,” Johnson says. “He told me this: ‘I’m not gonna get a good crop off it, and I don’t like the way a bad crop looks. But I gotta do it—I don’t have a competitive conservation alternative.’ Most farmers want to do the right thing by their land. The demand for CRP is tremendous. It’s not that the demand is down; it’s that the program isn’t fully funded and commodity prices are up. What we’re trying to do is get some resources on the table for conservation.”

One of Johnson’s priorities is promoting “bird-friendly beef ” fed on grass, a far healthier food than corn-fed, hormone-laced feedlot beef. “We have farmers who are trying to keep their grass alive and conservationists who would love to see more grass,” he says.


Johnson and I drove from Jamestown, in the heart of the Drift Prairie (the transitional mixed-grassland zone west of the eastern tallgrass prairie), out and up along the Missouri Coteau—the ancient ridge pushed up as the Missouri River Valley was forming. Ahead of us, the Coteau’s mosaic of prairie potholes, grasslands, shrubs, and sparse tree cover rose to the horizon.

The Coteau contains the best and biggest remnants of undisturbed Great Plains because the land is less suitable for row crops than prairies to the east. On his iPhone Johnson brought up a Google Earth photo that showed the Drift Prairie as mostly monotone, cut by a few roads, creeks, and crop lines. The adjoining Coteau, by contrast, looked like it had taken a round of 12-gauge birdshot; each perforation was a prairie pothole.

Well into the Coteau—in Woodworth, North Dakota—we visited the 4,385-acre Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge, where we met its manager, Neil Shook. He led us to a wall map of Stutsman County, on the Coteau’s eastern edge and half in the Drift Prairie, to show us grassland loss since 2005. In 2005 the county had 436,000 acres of native prairie and 196,000 acres of CRP land. By May 2012 it had lost 19,000 acres of prairie and 92,000 acres of CRP land. “In 1994,” Shook said, “we found an average of 2.5 duck nests per acre. When you figure in all the lost shorebirds and grassland passerines, that’s a huge hit—a lot of birds that aren’t going to be around anymore. Much of this land that has gone under the plow doesn’t have farmable soil; it should be grazed or hayed.”

With that, Shook produced two photos of a nearby farm—the first showed rich grasslands embracing prairie potholes. The second, taken after the grasslands had been plowed up in 2012, revealed an eroding wasteland. “This spring,” he said, “we had all this runoff. Now silt is filling up these wetlands.”

A farmer came to Shook in 2012, told him that his CRP contract had expired, and asked if there was another conservation program he could get into. There wasn’t. “Now all his grass is gone,” said Shook. “And every wetland is drained except for one big one that all the water, soil, fertilizers, and pesticides run into. The small wetlands are where the waterfowl form pair bonds and where the ducklings get their invertebrates. That’s extremely important.”

At one of the refuge’s waterfowl production areas, Shook showed us habitat compromised by lack of grazing and fire. North American prairie plants evolved with bison and fire, which pruned old growth that would otherwise have turned to smothering mats of duff. Fires never sterilized the earth because fuel didn’t have a chance to build up. And bison never stayed long enough in one place to do damage; they just moved on. As much as funding and manpower allow, Shook is replicating these processes with prescribed burns and well-managed cooperative grazing agreements with local ranchers.

From a hill overlooking the blue, duck-dappled expanse of Chase Lake, I watched a sharp-tailed grouse beat and glide west until it was a pencil dot on azure. Grasshopper sparrows and horned larks buzzed from the roadsides. In a section ungrazed for 50 years, we hiked over a thick carpet of plant litter that felt like a quaking bog. It was rife with invasives such as silverberry, buckbrush, Kentucky bluegrass, smooth broom, and Canada thistle. But on burned and grazed sections we encountered a profusion of natives, including purple coneflower, yellow coneflower, blanket flower, purple prairie clover, prairie smoke, green needle, and little bluestem, all close to firm prairie soil. As part of a birding festival, a group comes out here every year, and participants were recently undone by the presence of cows. “Isn’t that bad for wildlife?” they asked Shook. He set them straight by showing them what he had shown Johnson and me.

“In North Dakota agriculture and environmentalists are butting heads all the time,” said Shook. “With crop production I can understand that. With cattle ranching I can’t. We have the same goals. We both want healthy grass.”


In Jamestown, Johnson and I stopped in at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center—the great bastion of research on the Great Plains. There we caught up with David Mushet, Clint Otto, and Chip Euliss, who depressed us with their charts and graphs revealing how grassland and wetland birds and amphibians respond negatively to grassland loss, and how future population declines are expected. They also shared that honeybees, already plummeting nationwide, were suffering significantly greater winter mortality on croplands than on grasslands. “To the best of our knowledge, this is the first time an insect has been shown to have a stressed immune-system response to landscape quality,” remarked Otto.

Euliss added this: “My view of a perfect world is to have 100 people on a hill looking down on a prairie landscape and each appreciating it for a different reason. That’s what this team is trying to accomplish.”

We heard similar sentiments from Stephen Adair, who directs Ducks Unlimited’s Great Plains regional office, in Bismarck. “North Dakota produces more ducks than any other state,” he said. “Once farmers start to grow crops on wetlands, they’re not inclined to stop. North Dakota had a million acres open to hunters. Now that habitat is vanishing. Our deer tags are way down; we haven’t had a pronghorn season in three years. The pheasant count this year is down 30 percent. Sharp-tailed grouse and Hungarian partridge are down 30 percent. We’re especially worried about northern pintails and [greater and lesser] scaup. There used to be a lot of freshwater shrimp in the potholes; now scaup body weights are down. And in winter they feed on clams at the mouth of the Mississippi, where they may be further damaged by the dead zone. If we don’t do something, we could look like Iowa. And it’s not just hunting and birding that are threatened; it’s the whole economy that these activities support.”

But a solution is in the works. While the oil fracking boom in western North Dakota has taken an appalling toll on wildlife, the windfall from oil taxes has created an opportunity by leaving the state with an enormous surplus. Now Ducks Unlimited, Audubon, the National Wildlife Federation, The Nature Conservancy, Pheasants Forever, and the North Dakota Natural Resources Trust are promoting a 2014 ballot initiative called the Clean Water, Wildlife & Parks Amendment, which would dedicate 5 percent of the oil extraction tax to conservation, enabling grants for conservation measures such as wildlife partnership contracts.

“This is ground zero for our effort to protect and restore waterfowl in the northern Great Plains,” said DU’s Adair. “It’s voluntary. It will empower existing conservation forces and use tax dollars without growing government. We’ve seen time and time again that farmers and ranchers are really open to conservation on their land where it makes sense.”

When I asked Adair to comment on the loud opposition from radical, anti-environmental outfits like the Farm Bureau that label the initiative a “land grab,” he offered this: “Grants would be determined by the governor, the attorney general, and the agriculture commissioner. So this notion that they’re going to take big parcels from farming is ridiculous, just a scare tactic. That’s one of the Farm Bureau’s favorite fundraising strategies: ‘These crazy enviros want to buy up the whole state, so we can’t let them get a foot in the door.’ ”

I was feeling better about the future of Great Plains wildlife when I left North Dakota than when I had arrived. But on my way back to Fargo, the sight of the raging Sheyenne River reminded me of the work that lies ahead. In late summer prairie rivers aren’t supposed to be in flood. The fauna they sustain and the plant communities they drain evolved with and require seasonal drought. But with all the plowed potholes, polluted runoff shoots directly into Devil’s Lake, the state’s largest natural water body, and thence into the Sheyenne via overflow outlets. In 1993 the lake covered 44,230 acres. Since then it has more than quadrupled in surface area, devastating ecosystems all the way to the Red River—flooding and eroding grasslands, riparian forests, and 161,000 acres of cropland, at a cost to the state’s economy of at least $200 million.

Instead of flinging crop-insurance payments at farmers in an effort to compensate for such flood damage (and thereby causing more of it), our federal government should prevent that damage by encouraging wetland and grassland restoration. So should North Dakotans—by voting in the Clean Water, Wildlife & Parks ballot initiative.

This story originally ran in the January-February 2014 issue as "The Edge of Insanity."