No Room For Ducks

A duck hunter discovers the local implications of global population growth.

© Michael Furtman 2006



Pushed by a warm south wind, the mallard pair flew over a living prairie, the tan grasses bent low from winter’s snow. Sparkling wetlands glinted to the horizon, each filled with the melted remains of what had blanketed the plains just weeks before.  

As the ducks passed, they wheeled above those creatures that could not leave the prairie when winter’s winds had howled down from the Arctic. Churning herds of bison, feeding on the first green shoots, their red calves newly dropped and kept safe by mother’s bulk. White-rumped antelope, wisping across the plains like the winds on which the ducks flew. Cottonwoods along the rivers, thin spires of smoke rising from the pointed roofs of the people of the plains, the dogs, the ponies, all thankful that another spring had come. 

And still on the mallards moved until the hen led her partner to a familiar marsh, flew around its perimeter, circling lower and lower until, finally, she cupped her wings and dropped her leathery feet to the water’s surface with a hissing splash. Seconds behind her was her mate, skidding in to her left. They were home. 

The hen had flown across continents and returned to this slough as if drawn by a magnet. Woven into each DNA molecule was a long ancestral memory, every instruction complete, every tool refined. Now, nothing was more important than passing on those genes to a new generation. 

Decades have passed. Today, the urge to return home is the same for new generations of ducks, except that what they now see as they fly over the prairies is far different. Ducks returning north now see the glare of cities below, landscapes crisscrossed with highways, tilled fields instead of grasslands, and only a few remaining prairie potholes of those that once were uncountable. The potholes that remain are frequently tilled near to their edge, leaving but a narrow swath of potential nesting cover that is actually a death trap. Those narrow rims are so easy to hunt that a one-eyed fox with a head cold could find every hen and egg in a short outing. 

The times have changed, and so has the landscape. Gone now to feed a hungry world.


“Don’t Farm Ducks” 

I first grasped just how things had changed as my pickup hummed through Saskatchewan, my black Labrador, Rascal, on the front seat next to me. There was nothing to see outside the windows except wheat stubble, bare earth, and blowing dust.It was the autumn of 1989. I had decided to follow the duck migration from the prairie pothole region of Canada to their wintering grounds in the Gulf Coast. It was, as it is for nearly every duck hunter, a dream trip. As wonderful as the trip was, it was also an eye-opener. Every waterfowl enthusiast has heard of the fabled prairie pothole region, the portion of the Great Plains with high densities of wetlands, where as much as 80 percent of North America’s ducks are born. We’ve seen the pictures—rolling prairie, its tall grass rippling in the breeze, reed-rimmed wetlands sparkling in the sun. 

That picture is historically correct. And it is what every hen duck that flies north looks for. These birds, genetically programmed to seek such oases, need these places to nest and rear their offspring. 

But the truth is that it is all but gone. In Saskatchewan—the province that once produced an estimated 75 percent of all mallard ducks—only 4 percent of original prairie remains in good ecological condition. The situation is not any better in the other prairie pothole states and provinces. 

Of course, ducks don’t need just grass to nest in; they need water as well. It was the mix of numerous small wetlands and vast seas of grass that made this region the “duck factory” of fame. But Saskatchewan has lost 40 percent of its wetlands, and half of what remains is in bad shape. That’s the good news. Minnesota, on the southern end of the prairie pothole region, has lost 90 percent of its prairie potholes; Alberta, 60 percent; and the list goes on. It is as if we were out to get rid of those pesky ducks. 

That wasn’t the plan. 

The plan was to feed a growing human population, and that meant converting the once seemingly endless prairie to crop fields. To make farming these fields easier, the wetlands had to go. One bright evening during my trip, I saw smoke billowing on the prairie. I turned up a side road and pulled up to the edge of a dry pothole. It was ablaze. On the downwind side sat a huge tractor with its plow, ready to sweep the adjacent already-tilled upland into the lowland as soon as the fire ceased. I stopped the truck and got out to take a photograph. The farmer leapt into his pickup and raced across the field to me. I stood there wondering what he wanted, and when he screeched to a stop next to me, he rolled down his window and asked in not-too-polite terms just what I thought I was doing. 

“Taking a photo,” I said. “Don’t leave much room for ducks, do you?” 

Tobacco juice squirted from his clenched mouth as he looked me over. 

“Don’t farm ducks. Farm wheat. Now get the hell outta here,” he replied.





Mouths To Feed 

How much of the prairie would still be intact if the duck factory wasn’t being used to feed a hungry world? The picture is clear: The demands of an ever-increasing human population are the greatest threat to ducks. When there are mouths to feed, North America’s farmers are up to the task, even when those mouths are half a world away. 

Although the prairies of Minnesota, Iowa, and South Dakota were largely converted to grow corn and soybeans, the pothole regions of North Dakota and the prairie provinces grow mostly wheat and barley. In Canada, nearly 80 percent of that grain is exported. Of the remaining 20 percent, more than half is used to feed livestock. 

According to the Canadian Census Division, as of 1996, exports of Canadian-grown wheat are shipped around the world, with the largest market found in Asia. Other important destinations are South America and the United States. In all of these places, human population or per-capita consumption is going up. 

In 2003, North Dakota’s farm cash receipts were $3.7 billion and agricultural exports were estimated at $1.8 billion, putting the state’s reliance on agricultural exports at 47 percent. The population of this great state is less than 800,000 people, and falling. Most of its grain exports go to Pacific Rim countries, as does 60 percent of the grain grown in the prairie portion of Montana.  

Despite today’s conservation ethic and our knowledge of what prairie wildlife needs to survive, the conversion of the prairie’s remaining grasslands to farmland has not ended. The conservation group Ducks Unlimited recently reported that a whopping 144,000 acres of grassland were tilled and planted in the South Dakota portion of the prairie pothole region in the last 20 years—a rate of 2 percent annually—and has accelerated in the last four years. If the recent increase in pace continues, more than half of the remaining grasslands will be gone in 15 years. “We’ve seen a lot of grassland conversion to crops since 2000,” Scott Stephens, DU director of conservation planning in Bismarck, N.D., told reporter Chris Niskanen in the St. Paul Pioneer Press last year. “This area has been cranking out broods of pintails, teal, and gadwall for 10,000 years, and now it’s going away.” 

Until recently, most of this land supported cattle husbandry—a land use much friendlier to ducks and other grassland wildlife. Thanks to new hybrid crops, lands once thought unsuitable for farming are suddenly more valuable. Ranchers, many of whom are growing old, are willing to sell. And farmers are willing to buy.  


South of the Border 

Problems for ducks caused by a growing human population aren’t just relegated to the northern breeding grounds. Southern wintering areas are also affected. These are the places ducks go to choose mates and build up the energy reserves needed for the flight north and for producing eggs. 

California’s Central Valley, once a huge wetland complex, has been drained and converted to cropland. Central and South America, where many ducks spend winter, are experiencing both high population growth and massive land-use changes. The American South’s great rivers have been channelized or rimmed with levees, behind which the hardwood bottomland forests—which used to flood in winter and provide critical waterfowl habitat—have been logged off and converted to cropland. Even the mighty Mississippi, which not only is important waterfowl habitat, but whose discharge of silt built the vast coastal marshes of the Gulf of Mexico, has been channelized and leveed, its wealth of silt no longer reaching the Gulf. Critical coastal wetlands have shrunk to near nothing, and the duck species dependent on these wetlands are in trouble. 

Take the case of the northern pintail duck. The coastal marshes of Texas once held the greatest concentrations of wintering pintails in the Central Flyway. But then came the Intracoastal Waterway—a canal carved through the marshlands to ferry foodstuff to the port of Houston and facilitate the exploration of oil and gas in the Gulf. Saltwater intruded on the freshwater marshes, and the marshlands died. Inland, the remaining wetlands were leveled and converted to rice fields. For a while, the flooded rice fields, though artificial, provided at least some wintering habitat. But not for long. 

“We’ve seen a 60 percent decline in rice acreage in the last 20 years, and there probably will be fewer acres in the future,” says Bart Ballard, an assistant professor at Texas A&M-Kingsville. “This is a significant loss of habitat in an area that was primarily prairie wetlands. The land-leveling practices that converted wetlands to rice fields mean that if these fields aren’t flooded for rice, they no longer return to wetlands. We’ve also lost a great amount of freshwater marsh along the coast. Where are these pintails going to go?”  

A few years ago, Ballard, an avid waterfowler, noticed that the birds he was shooting were slight of build compared to those of previous years. The coastal wetlands and rice prairies east of Houston and in southwestern Louisiana used to hold some of the largest wintering pintail populations. After the disappearance of rice fields and the destruction of native coastal marshes, pintails switched to wintering in Laguna Madre, where they feed on the rhizomes of shoal grass. Laguna Madre (or “Mother Lagoon”) spans 250 miles along the Gulf Coast, from Texas to the Mexican state of Tamaulipas. A mosaic of grasslands, freshwater ponds, and coastal marshes, it is critical habitat for 1 million wintering ducks. 

Spurred by his observations, Ballard conducted a study to evaluate the condition of these ducks. What he found is disturbing. 

“When they arrive in Texas, pintails weigh about the same as they do in other wintering areas,” Ballard says. “But while here, they lose about 20 percent of their body mass. We found that, because of habitat quality, they’re only getting about half the calories of pintails in other wintering areas.” 

Similarly, the numbers of the bluebills—scaup, to biologists—have plummeted in the last decade. Biologists now believe that one major cause of their reproductive failure is that the quality of the remaining wetlands is so poor that hens can’t build enough energy reserves or obtain the nutrients to successfully produce a brood. Where once they could stop and refuel in wetlands brimming with high-protein invertebrates, bluebills now visit wetlands that are polluted and barren thanks to cropland runoff. 


The Root Cause 

That these land-use changes are bad for wildlife is no surprise to the generations of biologists who have worked to combat the problem. Hunters are constantly barraged with appeals to contribute money to acquire habitat, and much good work has been done by conservation groups and wildlife agencies. 

But no one wants to talk about the root cause: population growth. 

Almost no one, that is. The late Frank Bellrose did not shy away from it. Bellrose was one of the world’s best-known waterfowl biologists. He had seen the changes firsthand over his long life and career. “What it comes down to is this,” he said to me when I stopped at his Illinois home during my migration trip. “We’ve fallen victim to government programs that promote habitat destruction. We’ve got that feed-the-world mentality. As long as the government guarantees the price of crops, I doubt that prairie farmers will do anything meaningful to benefit wildlife. 

“How long will it be before there are so many people in this world that nothing we do will make a difference?” he asked. “As long as the human population continues to grow unchecked, I’m pessimistic. When ducks and people compete, the ducks always lose.” 

Bellrose said that money that would otherwise be spent on crop subsidies should be spent on government programs to return cropland to grassland—such as the Conservation Reserve Program under the federal Farm Bill. 

“There are things we can do, should do,” he insisted. “We can save some of it.” 


There Is Hope 

If the scenario seems gloomy, that’s because it is. But as wise as Bellrose’s words were, he fell into the same trap that many of us do—assuming that continued population growth is a given. 

Of all the pro-hunting conservation groups, the Izaak Walton League of America has led the way in confronting the issue of population growth and sustainability. Its work on population growth dates back to 1970, when members passed the first policy addressing it. The League’s Sustainability Education Program director, Jim Baird, points out that there has been success both in slowing population growth and in educating hunters and sportsmen how they can make a difference. 

“It is important that we see these things in the larger context,” says Baird. “Duck hunters, like most people, tend to look in their backyard—‘our’ ducks, ‘our’ wetlands. But the ducks belong to the continent, and the continent belongs to them. Maintaining duck populations means dealing with problems that are happening in states, even countries, thousands of miles away.”  

Baird adds that there are now 40 years of success in slowing population growth—success that we can build upon. Since President Eisenhower’s time, the United States has contributed money and assets to international programs that provide basic services and information to couples in developing countries. Education is also a key factor in population growth. Wherever we’ve undertaken efforts to educate girls and women, birth rates decline as literacy rates increase. 

“The kinds of programs and services we’re talking about are voluntary,” says Baird. “We’re not asking anyone—the people contributing the funds, or the people receiving the programs—to do anything that would violate their consciences. We’re simply trying to support commonsense solutions that we know eventually lead to a more sustainable future.” 

Unfortunately, the U.S. financial support for these programs has been dwindling for the last decade, just as the need for them has increased. “This is where sportsmen can make a real difference,” says Baird. “Hunters are well known for contributing more than their fair share for conservation. I suggest that they take their actions one step further—let Congress and the President know that these international healthcare and education programs are important to them, and that they want them funded fully.” 

Population growth doesn’t have to be a given. But it will be if we don’t talk about it, talk about remedies, and take some action. 

Feeding a hungry world has meant the nearly complete destruction of what once was an ecosystem rivaled perhaps only by Africa’s Serengeti. The bison, elk, antelope, wolves, and grizzlies of America’s prairies have dwindled. Ducks are one last vestige of a land that is disappearing. 

Each spring, ducks still wing north, looking for that complex of grass and water that their species need. Whether they find grasslands, wetlands, or grain fields depends on us. 




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