Breaking the Prairie

Wildlife habitat in the Prairie Pothole Region is falling to the plow as the United States expands production of corn and soybeans—much of it to help fill our gas tanks.

  • Paul Tolmé
  • Conservation
  • Oct 01, 2018

Neatly plowed farmlands in North Dakota encroach on seasonal prairie potholes, vital habitat for waterfowl and other wildlife.

NEIL SHOOK STANDS BESIDE A DIRT ROAD IN THE PRAIRIE POTHOLE REGION OF NORTH DAKOTA and sweeps his arm across the horizon to show me a landscape transformed by agribusiness. “This all used to be grass as far as the eye could see,” says Shook, manager of the Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge in rural Stutsman County. But instead of green prairie grasses, the land surrounding Shook is now a patchwork of bare dirt, overturned sod, drained wetlands and stubble from last fall’s corn and soybean harvests.

Park Ranger, Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge manager, North Dakota.

A decade ago, this area’s private lands were mostly rangeland: a mix of native and restored grasslands used primarily for cattle grazing and hay production. While flatter and more-fertile regions of the Great Plains had been plowed up long ago, large swaths of grasslands in central North Dakota were considered ill-suited for row crops due to rocky, marginal soils. Then came the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS)—igniting a tectonic shift across the land.

Passed in 2005 and expanded in 2007, the RFS was meant to stimulate a market for biofuels, ostensibly to lower greenhouse gas emissions. It mandated the addition of ethanol (currently made from corn) to gasoline, and of biodiesel (primarily made from soybeans) to petroleum diesel. Chinese demand for soybeans for animal feed also rose, and prices for both commodities spiked, launching a massive conversion of wetlands and grasslands to agriculture.

From 2005 to 2014, more than 160,000 acres of grasslands in Stutsman County alone were converted to crops, according to Shook, who compiled the figures after growing alarmed about the loss of prairie habitat. They call it “breaking” the prairie out here. “First you burn it, then you break the sod with a disc or till, then you seed it,” says Shook. Having spent his career with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service trying to save and restore grasslands, he chokes up when describing the loss of habitat. “This all happened so fast,” he says. “It caught us off guard.” It has also caught myriad species of wildlife in an ever-tightening vice.

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A gadwall hen and her brood ply through wetlands of North Dakota’s Missouri Coteau.

A gadwall hen and her brood ply through wetlands of North Dakota’s Missouri Coteau. This is part of the Prairie Pothole Region, home to about one-third of North America’s nesting waterfowl. As manager of the Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge in North Dakota, biologist Neil Shook (above) worries about the fate of the area’s waterfowl and songbirds as agriculture transforms the land.

The shrinking prairie

“We have seen grassland conversion in virtually every state across the country,” says Tyler Lark, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. From 2008 to 2012, the United States created more than 7 million new acres of croplands, an area larger than Massachusetts, according to a study he co-authored. Another study equates grassland conversion in parts of the U.S. Corn Belt with deforestation in Brazil, Malaysia and Indonesia in the 1980s and 1990s.

Such transformation is easier today, even on marginal lands. Modern equipment allows farmers to clear, plant and harvest vast swaths more efficiently than ever before. Milder winters brought on by climate change and genetically modified corn and soybeans allow these crops to be grown in more northerly climates. And funding for the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP)—which pays landowners to retire lands from farming and replant them with native grasses—has decreased, while prices for commodity crops, particularly soybeans, hit record highs, peaking in 2012 with corn at $8 per bushel and soybeans above $17. (As of July, corn and soybean prices had dropped closer to their historical averages of less than $4 and $9 respectively, due in part to the current trade war and projected bumper crops.)

The lure of potential profits pushed many landowners to break their prairie grasslands. “Cropland is worth more than rangeland,” says Dennis Ova, a farmer in Stutsman County who began planting corn and soybeans because they are profitable. Once a landowner has completed the laborious process of clearing rocks and breaking sod, that land can be rented or sold for more money. Bottom line: The United States now produces more corn and soybeans than at any time in the nation’s history, and about 40 percent of the nearly 15 billion bushels of corn produced annually goes into fuel rather than food or livestock feed. Farmers may feed the world, but in the expanding Corn Belt, they’re also becoming fuel producers to fill our tanks.

Converting land for crops is a scene being repeated across the Prairie Pothole Region, one of the greatest wetland ecosystems on the planet. When the glaciers retreated 10,000 years ago, they left behind an undulating and pockmarked landscape that encompasses portions of Iowa, Minnesota, North and South Dakota, Montana and three Canadian provinces. About a third of this ecosystem—approximately 100,000 square miles—is in the United States. Windswept and frigid in winter, the region bursts to life in spring as prairie grasses green the hills and melting snow and rain fill millions of permanent and seasonal wetlands, or potholes, that dapple the landscape in blue.

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Northern shovelers in flight, La Baie du Febvre. Quebec. Canada.

Driven by the urge to mate, northern shovelers soar toward breeding grounds during spring migration. On a lek in Montana, a male sharp-tailed grouse (below) seeks a mate. Both these species of game birds—and scores of songbirds and other wildlife species—depend on pothole wetlands and grasslands for food, water, shelter and rest.

Decline of the duck factory

Hunters call it “the duck factory.” Roughly 60 percent of North America’s ducks nest in the Prairie Potholes, including gadwalls, pintails, wigeons, wood ducks, canvasbacks, shovelers and teals. “The bottom line for ducks in the prairies is that we need lots of shallow wetlands with abundant grassland nesting cover nearby,” says Johann Walker, director of conservation programs for Ducks Unlimited in the Great Plains. Even the smallest wetlands provide nourishing invertebrates and seeds. “People think of ducks in large flocks, but they are highly territorial when nesting. Ten one-acre wetlands will carry three times as many ducks as one 10-acre wetland.”

Many other waterbirds, including geese, swans, egrets, plovers and sandpipers, also thrive in the Prairie Pothole Region. More than half of the continent’s pied-billed grebes, American bitterns, black terns and marbled godwits call the region home. One of North America’s largest colonies of American white pelicans nests at Chase Lake, and species such as Ross’s geese and whooping cranes stop to rest and feed before winging northward to Canada and the Arctic.

Sharp-tailed grouse, North of Malta Montana.

Beyond the wetlands, grasses and forbs support a huge range of game birds and songbirds. The Prairie Pothole Region is home to about 100 grassland bird species—from bobolinks and meadowlarks to warblers and waxwings—and hosts the continent’s largest populations of Baird’s sparrows, Sprague’s pipits and chestnut-collared longspurs.

“In the cattails at water’s edge there will be red-winged blackbirds and yellow-headed blackbirds, plus marsh wrens and common yellowthroats,” says Jill Shaffer, a grassland bird ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center in Jamestown, North Dakota. “In the wet meadow zone just beyond will be sedge wrens, Wilson’s phalaropes and Wilson’s snipes. As you proceed upslope into the grasslands you will find clay-colored sparrows and Savannah sparrows, and on the dry ridge tops beyond will be grasshopper sparrows. All of this within the sweep of an eye or turn of the head.”

Yet this avian diversity is now at risk. The Prairie Pothole Joint Venture, a partnership between federal and state agencies, conservation groups and researchers, calls the region the most endangered waterfowl breeding habitat in the United States. Walker points to Iowa as a cautionary tale. Prior to large-scale wetland draining for croplands, he says, Iowa’s section of Prairie Pothole habitat had enough habitat for 2 million breeding pairs of ducks. Today, Iowa’s remaining potholes support fewer than 200,000 pairs.

The decline in grassland birds is equally stark. According to a report by the North American Bird Conservation Initiative, roughly a third of all North American grassland bird species are in steep decline, mainly due to habitat loss. Before the land-conversion boom, North Dakota, for example, had more than 3 million acres of CRP land, according to R.J. Gross, an upland game biologist with North Dakota Game and Fish. Today the state has only about 1 million acres, he says, and that decline has corresponded to a steep drop in the harvest of ground-nesting game birds such as sharp-tailed grouse and pheasants. “You can’t blame farmers. They have to make a living,” says Gross. “But take away the grasslands and it’s tough for birds to survive.”

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Sharp-tailed grouse hunter, Prairie Potholes in background, Missouri Coteau, Kenmare, North Dakota.

Hunting for sharp-tailed grouse in North Dakota, a sportsman crosses mixed-grass prairie near seasonal potholes, prime terrain for both waterfowl and grassland birds. Because the region is so vital for birds—and bird hunting—sporting groups are fighting to save it. The distinctive song of the western meadowlark (below) is fading as numbers of this ground-nesting bird decline. Wise land use could help save this and many other species across the prairie.

Paved with good intentions

The RFS—which the National Wildlife Federation initially supported—was supposed to help lower greenhouse gas emissions (some claim ethanol burns cleaner than gasoline) and stimulate demand for more-sustainable, advanced biofuels made from nonfood crops, including native grasses, wheat straw, wood chips and algae. Such nonfood sources wouldn’t destroy habitat or require irrigation, fertilizers or tilling, and would free food crops for human consumption. But the RFS failed to meet those goals, says David DeGennaro, NWF’s biofuels policy analyst.

The private-sector investment needed to produce such advanced biofuels on a large scale has not materialized. More worrisome, studies indicate that the loss of grasslands (which store carbon) and the energy and water-intensive industrial processes needed to produce ethanol from corn starch are worsening greenhouse gas emissions—by some estimates equal to 20 million additional cars on the road each year. Meanwhile, increased agricultural runoff and erosion are feeding toxic algal blooms and causing fish kills and dead zones from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico.

Alarmed by such trends, NWF in 2016 published “Fueling Destruction: The Unintended Consequences of the Renewable Fuel Standard on Land, Water and Wildlife.” It raised the alarm that “the staggering scale and swift rise of this massive biofuel industry has had profound impacts to the environment as farmers cleared land, drained wetlands, and applied more fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation water to maximize their production.” Echoing that alarm, in July the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a report to Congress confirming that conversion of land for ethanol has destroyed millions of acres of wildlife habitat and reduced soil and water quality. “The report is a red flag warning us that we need to reconsider the ethanol mandate’s scope and its focus on fuels made from food crops,” says DeGennaro.

Shifting toward solutions

Western Meadowlark calling, Montana.

Working with its state affiliates and other conservation organizations, NWF is seeking bipartisan solutions to address the crisis. In June, the Federation’s president and CEO, Collin O’Mara, addressed a U.S. House subcommittee to urge revision of the RFS and promote “advanced, cleaner, and more-sustainable fuels that benefit our environment and economy—fuels that put a stop to the alarming damage we’re seeing to our wildlife habitat, water and climate.”

To that end, NWF and other conservation groups are urging Congress to adopt legislation introduced this year called the GREENER Fuels Act. The bill promotes the use of nonfood crops for advanced biofuels and phasing out the corn ethanol mandate by 2030. It would also create a fund to restore and protect private lands converted to crops for ethanol production.

Some landowners are also taking steps to save habitat. In Stutsman County, for example, cattle rancher Sheldon Schlecht has planted 74 acres of trees—everything from spruce and chokecherry to cottonwood—noting that trees provide a break from wind and snow in winter; boost soil health and water quality; and provide food and shelter for pheasants, grouse and a host of other species. “I see neighbors tearing out tree rows and planting corn and soybeans,” he says, “but without the trees, wildlife won’t make it.” Schlecht has also put 2,500 acres of pasture into permanent conservation easements because “wildlife is pretty important to our family.”

Back on the prairie with Shaffer, I watch her raise her binoculars at the sound of a western meadowlark, North Dakota’s state bird. Once a common sight, they’re now hard to find. We examine a boulder with smooth edges. It’s a bison rubbing rock, an artifact from an era when bison ruled these grasslands. Nearby we stop beside a circle of stones: a Native American tepee ring. The Prairie Pothole Region is strewn with such historical sites, now being lost to the plow.

Eventually we pause beside a tract of land that was covered in grass last year but has since been plowed from fencerow to fencerow. It is, effectively, a biological desert for the migratory species that have evolved with the Prairie Pothole grassland and wetland ecosystem. “Imagine a bobolink that has flown all the way from South America and it encounters this,” Shaffer says. “What options does it have? It must keep moving.”

Cover Crop Champions


Promoting wise farm policy

Concerned about impacts the Renewable Fuel Standard’s ethanol mandate has on wildlife, water and climate, National Wildlife Federation President and CEO Collin O’Mara testified in June before a U.S. House environment subcommittee, advocating for “more-sustainable, cleaner biofuels.” In the heartland, NWF’s Cover Crop Champion program helps teach farmers (such as this group in Wisconsin) about how cover crops can reduce erosion and improve soil health and water quality.

Paul Tolmé wrote about U.S. national monuments in the June–July 2018 issue.

More from National Wildlife magazine and the National Wildlife Federation:

Working Lands as Wild Lands »
Vanishing Voices »
NWF Wildlife Guide: Prairie Potholes »
Soaring Sustainability: Historic Flight on Low-Carbon Jet Fuel »
New Research: Ethanol Mandate Contributing to Climate Change »
Our Lands: Farm Bill »


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