Crops, Ducks and Climate Change: Impacts of Grassland Conversion and Climate on Waterfowl Habitat in the Northern Great Plains

The northern Great Plains – one of the most diverse, intact grasslands left on the planet – provides habitat for a variety of sagebrush and grassland birds, some of which are threatened or of special conservation status, including the long-billed curlew, piping plover, mountain plover and greater sage-grouse. The prairie pothole region at the eastern boundary of the northern Great Plains is the most productive waterbird area in North America, producing up to 6.5 million ducks each year.

Conversion to cropland in western South Dakota. Photo by Day’s Edge Productions.

Conversion to cropland in western South Dakota. Photo by Day’s Edge Productions.

In collaboration with the Plains and Prairie Potholes LCC, the University of Wyoming, World Wildlife Fund and Ducks Unlimited produced a model of the likelihood of converting grassland to cropland and potential impacts on waterfowl populations in the northern Great Plains. The model projects that under current economic and climate conditions, grassland in North Dakota is most at risk of being converted.

By 2030, if crop prices continue to increase, North and South Dakota will lose three million acres of additional grassland, while grassland acres in Montana, Wyoming and Nebraska will remain relatively constant.

Removing all government payments decreases the average probability of conversion by an average of three or 30 percent in areas dominated by cropland. Under climate change, the likelihood of conversion increases in areas with a high chance of conversion and decreases in areas with a low chance of conversion.

Climate change may shift 10 to 20 percent of the waterfowl that previously settled in North Dakota to Montana and South Dakota.

Pintail. Photo by Cliff Wallis.

Pintail. Photo by Cliff Wallis.

“Across all the climate and economic scenarios we considered, grassland habitat and waterfowl production are most at risk in North Dakota,” said lead author Dr. Ben Rashford with the University of Wyoming. Under all climate change scenarios, North Dakota will still hold a significant percentage of breeding waterfowl. However, if climate change shifts some waterfowl westward, the importance of wetlands in Montana and South Dakota may also increase in the future. Thus, devising a strategy that will protect waterfowl across the wetland habitats of the northern Great Plains will be essential to ensuring resilience in a changing future.

This recently completed research provides relevant data for decision-makers who must balance the need to produce food and fuel with the desire to protect habitat for important grassland and wetland species.

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Plains and Prairie Potholes LCC

The fundamental objective of the Plains and Prairie Potholes LCC is to increase conservation delivery by reducing scientific uncertainty related to landscape level stressors which are important to our partnership. We will meet this fundamental objective by leveraging partner expertise to promote coordination, dissemination and development of applied science that will support landscape level conservation.

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Rick Nelson
LCC Coordinator