We’ve got short memories these days. Short attention spans. Short reservoirs of patience. News lives and dies in the span of about 18 minutes anymore. We vote people in, vote them out. If we don’t see immediate results? We move on.
Conservation, on the other hand, is a long-term game, a game that evolves as the land does — slowly, thoughtfully, little by little, painfully even. It’s a hard game to play in such a frenzied and political atmosphere and an even harder one to see results from. Even still, conservationists are seeing progress. Every day, one could argue. Bit by bit that needle moves forward and the heritage hunters and anglers have enjoyed for decades is protected for the better.
Keeping that in mind, we set out to make a list. Not a long-ranging list, but one that fit in with the spirit of our times. In the last 10 years — and mind you, even 10 might seem long, but it’s not — what have we done right for waterfowl?
Here, in no particular order, is what we found.
1. Farm Bill
In 2014 Congress passed what many called a “good” farm bill. “Good” might not seem like high praise, but in this particular political negotiation circus, “good” is, well, pretty good. While there was much consternation over the final product, there were also many bright spots. Just before it passed the Senate, Frank Rohwer, Delta Waterfowl president, noted in a release, “The farm bill contains key elements that Delta Waterfowl and the conservation community have banded together to support. The long debate clarified the importance of maintaining conservation compliance and Swampbuster as top priorities to sustain the habitat base on the prairie breeding grounds, and as fundamental drivers of continental duck populations.” The Swampbuster provision helped keep more than 1 million (about 70 percent) small and temporary wetlands in North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana safe — and given the vast production of waterfowl those areas have been responsible for in the past decade, that was a critical component. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimate that those wetlands are critical for the nesting and breeding of about 32 percent of waterfowl.
2. Duck Stamp
This year, the federal government raised the price of the duck stamp from $15 to $25 — a great boost to waterfowl across the country without a doubt. The last time the price of a duck stamp increased was in 1991, and we can all agree that a lot has changed since then, including the stretch of a dollar. “The additional duck stamp funding provided by waterfowl hunters and other conservationists will not only conserve critical waterfowl habitat, but will also help ensure the future of our waterfowling traditions,” said Ducks Unlimited CEO Dale Hall in a release when the bill was signed. Also important was where the dollars went. In a nod to the importance of the prairies to the biological cycle of waterfowl, the director of the Fish and Wildlife Service shifted where those funds would be spent, noting that 70 percent of duck stamp dollars would go to addressing challenges of the prairie pothole region. “The cost of conservation has gone up,” says John Devney, vice president of U.S. policy for Delta Waterfowl. He says when he moved to North Dakota in 1998 a conservation easement averaged about $800 per acre. Today, that same easement runs about $3,000 per acre. “The buying power with a $15 duck stamp was drastically hampered.”
3. A Shift In Priorities
For years, the major priorities for conservationists, conservation organizations and agencies have been the resource and the land. We were so focused on the numbers — the science, the production, the acres, the dollars — we failed to remember why we were doing it. And the short answer? The people. In the past decade we have seen a number of conservation organizations ramp up their efforts to connect people to conservation. Even the federal government is getting involved, including language in their North American Waterfowl Management Plan to get people thinking about conservation. And in the end, a shift like this can only be beneficial. If people don’t connect to resources, they lose their connection to the value of having such things.
4. Good Population Management
The numbers say it all. Waterfowl are booming. True, a large part of that has to do with habitat and weather conditions. Water has been readily available in the prairie regions in the past 10 to 15 years, and while prairie Canada has seen a significant and continuing loss of wetlands, the Dakotas have more than made up for that loss. Matt Haugen, conservation specialist with Ducks Unlimited, said the liberal hunting seasons of the past decade speak volumes to the management community. “[They] make sure they are on top of their game,” he says. “And they’re keeping populations abundant and healthy for the most part.”