North Dakota and South Dakota

Dakota Grassland Conservation Area

The Prairie Pothole Region provides critical breeding habitat for half of North America’s waterfowl including the canvasback, a large diving duck.

“A perfect storm is brewing right now, and we could lose millions of acres of grassland as a result,” said Doug Shaw, Nature Conservancy Assistant Director in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota.

Shaw is talking about the collision of events driving The Nature Conservancy’s efforts to help accelerate protection of millions of acres of native prairie and wetlands in the Prairie Pothole Region of eastern North Dakota and South Dakota in the next 10 years.

“Record-breaking prices for corn, global food and biofuel demand, low interest rates and improved crop technologies are just a few of the reasons that eastern North and South Dakota are experiencing the highest rates of grassland conversion in North America and some of the highest in the world,” Shaw added.

Most of North Dakota and South Dakota’s original prairie has already been lost and what remains is disappearing at an extraordinary rate. In 2011, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) established the Dakota Grassland Conservation Area (DGCA) to protect 1.7 million acres of grassland and 240,000 acres of wetland habitat in a 10-million-acre region east of the Missouri River.

The DGCA is a new kind of conservation area that relies on purchasing perpetual conservation easements from private landowners. The easements prevent conversion, plowing and drainage of the land but allow grazing, haying and traditional ranching uses.

The Conservancy has been working in North Dakota’s Missouri Coteau and the Prairie Coteau region of South Dakota for many years. We own and manage more than 20,000 acres and have worked with private landowners to protect thousands of additional acres of grassland habitat.

“We have science, land management and policy expertise that we’ve honed in our 50-plus years of grassland conservation in these two states and Minnesota,” Shaw said. “We are bringing that expertise to the Dakota Grasslands Conservation Area to help the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Ducks Unlimited and other partners make this conservation effort a success.”

Two of the factors slowing the initiative down are a lack of human and financial resources. More “boots on the ground,” as Shaw puts it, are needed to do the property evaluations, baseline documentation and other leg work involved in purchasing a conservation easement. Up to $50 million a year in funding is needed for the next 10 years to purchase the easements and stay ahead of grassland conversion at its current pace.

Resources have begun to flow to the DGCA in the form of $30 million of Duck Stamp revenue and $2.5 million in federal Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) dollars that were re-programmed from other U.S. projects due to the urgency of the threat of grassland loss. It’s a good start, but more will be needed according to Shaw.

The Conservancy will help address these needs and advance the DGCA in the following ways:

• Hire Nature Conservancy staff and locate them in USFWS and/or Natural Resources Conservation Service offices in South Dakota to help purchase conservation easements.
• Work with legislators and other decision-makers to ensure that funding from LWCF and other federal and state sources flows to the DGCA. We’ll also explore the role private capital could play in the project.
• Provide USFWS with science support to further prioritize the prairies and wetlands within the 10-million-acre region that should be protected.
• Help coordinate efforts among public and private partners to facilitate this cross-boundary effort and ensure we have the human and financial resources deployed where they will be most effective.

“The Dakota Grasslands Conservation Area is our best opportunity to protect intact grasslands at a scale that will truly make a difference for large mammals, grassland birds and waterfowl like ducks for which the Prairie Pothole Region is famous,” Shaw commented. “We must ensure this initiative is successful, and with Conservancy members’ and donors’ support, I’m confident we will.”