The Changing Landscape of the Prairie Pothole Region

Aug 12, 2016

There’s been a lot of talk in Iowa about water quality. From failed attempts by the legislature and the governor to come up with new funding, to the state’s largest water utility suing three rural boards of supervisors in northwest Iowa. That area of the state is part of a region called the “prairie pothole”. It stretches from Canada, down through the Dakotas, northern Montana and western Minnesota as well.

In North Dakota, much of this habitat is still intact and conservationists are concerned about the health implications of a landscape looking more like Iowa.

On a morning earlier this summer, Frank Rohwer of the non-profit conservation group Delta Waterfowl and a colleague strung a long chain between their ATV’s and dragged it slowly through the tall grass.

They were looking for duck nests. 

When the chain brushes over a duck, the bird flies from the nest. 

“That was a blue wing teal that just flushed from the chain,” he called out as a startled duck flew off.

Rohwer says his group inventories this breeding ground once a week.  He says the area is intensely farmed for corn and soybeans.  And as a result, Delta Waterfowl is struggling to find the best habitat for eggs to hatch.

“Probably the best way is to have it be like it was when we arrived,” he says. “Have a sea of grass. Well, that’s not going to happen.”

Rohwer says the taxpayer-backed federal Conservation Reserve Program which pays farmers to turn cropland into prairie has been great for preserving grasslands and waterfowl.

But, the federal farm bill has capped that at 24 million acres.  The prairie pothole region has significant losses in its conservation land, so money from hunters helps fund these wetlands.

Rex Johnson is with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, stationed at Ledges State Park in central Iowa.

Iowa is the state with the most extreme loss of prairie pothole habitat, and Johnson says nearly all of it is gone and has been for almost 100 years.

“You can understand why we wanted to do it,” he says. “Because it made life possible. It freed up extraordinary productive farmland and it allowed for the construction of this network of roads. People could suddenly live in this landscape much more easily than they could before. Ok? We just went too far.”

In North Dakota, high prices for corn and soybeans led to more and more farmers ripping up prairie and expanding their crops.  And, Johnson says, federal crop insurance was an incentive for farmers to expand.

After all, corn and soybean prices were high for quite a while.  Even if crops never make it to market, crop insurance still pays out.

“And I don’t think as a people if we knew what we were doing we really want to subsidize the loss of wetlands,” he says.

With more farmland comes more pesticide use.  Studies show neonicotinoid pesticides are detrimental to honeybees that pollinate crops.

Clint Otto, a research ecologist with the Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center in Jamestown, North Dakota, uses honeybees as a model organism to study land use and how it affects people’s lives.

“Between 65 and 80 percent of our US pollination needs are met by honeybees that spend the summer in the northern Great Plains,” he says.

Otto says to think of it as one in every three bites of food a human eats is thanks to the work of pollinators.

“The dinner plate looks lot less appealing when you take pollinators out of the equation,” he says.

Back in Iowa, there are concerns about what turning all this prairie into farmland does to water that flows from farm fields.

The City of Des Moines gets its water from two rivers that experience high levels of nitrates – a fertilizer byproduct that can be harmful to babies and pregnant women.

The city’s water utility is embroiled in a legal fight citing the cost of treating the water for human consumption.

Rex Johnson with the US fish and Wildlife Service says agri-business is structured in a way that rewards farmers who try to maximize profits. But, he says that can create long-term social economic and health problems.

“As these ecological problems start to crop up, as we reach the tipping point, agriculture as an industry, will recognize that it’s in their best interest to start behaving in an ecologically more sensitive manner,” he says.

Some would argue the tipping point has been reached.

In the meantime, some farmers and conservationists in Iowa and the pothole region are working together to see if Midwest farming can coexist with natural habitat and sustain quality public health.

This report was supported by a fellowship with the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources.