Prairie Pothole Region:

At the Current Pace of Acquisitions, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Is Unlikely to Achieve Its Habitat Protection Goals for Migratory Birds

GAO-07-1093: Published: Sep 27, 2007. Publicly Released: Sep 27, 2007.

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The 64-million-acre Prairie Pothole Region in the north-central United States provides breeding grounds for over 60 percent of key migratory bird species in the United States. During much of the 20th century, the draining of wetlands and the conversion of prairie to cropland has reduced bird habitat. Under the Small Wetlands Acquisition Program, the Department of the Interior's U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (the Service) aims to sustain remaining migratory bird populations by permanently protecting high-priority habitat. Some habitat is temporarily protected under the Department of Agriculture's Conservation Reserve Program. In this context, GAO examined (1) the status of the Service's acquisition program in the region, (2) the Service's habitat protection goals for the region, and (3) challenges to achieving these goals. To answer these objectives, GAO examined Service land acquisition data and projected rates of habitat loss.

Since the inception of the Small Wetlands Acquisition Program in the late 1950s, the Service has acquired and permanently protected about 3 million acres of wetlands and grasslands in the Prairie Pothole Region, primarily using Migratory Bird Conservation Funds. The Service has purchased outright almost 700,000 acres and acquired permanent conservation easements on more than 2.3 million acres that are privately owned. To sustain bird populations in the region, the Service's goal is to acquire and permanently protect as much as possible of an additional 12 million acres of "high-priority" habitat--at-risk acreage capable of supporting a high number of breeding duck pairs per square mile. The goal acreage consists of 1.4 million acres of wetlands and 10.4 million acres of grasslands. According to the Service, achieving this goal is necessary to sustain the region's current population of 4.2 million breeding duck pairs and to ensure that enough habitat is maintained during wet years, when duck populations boom. At the current pace of acquisitions, it could take the Service around 150 years and billions of dollars to acquire its 12 million goal acres. Some emerging market forces, however, suggest that the Service may have only several decades before most of its goal acreage is converted to agricultural uses. The pace of acquisitions could be increased marginally by using existing funds more efficiently or substantially by providing additional resources. The Service has purchased some expensive habitat in South Dakota. On the basis of GAO's analysis, the Service could have acquired about an additional 8,500 acres of high-priority habitat in South Dakota in fiscal year 2006, over and above the 16,169 acres that it did acquire, by more effectively targeting low-cost, high-priority habitat. However, with about $17 million per year for land acquisitions in the Prairie Pothole Region, the Service's limited resources pose a substantial challenge. Another way to address this challenge is to explore additional resource alternatives, such as increasing the price of the federal Duck Stamp (these funds are placed in the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund), reauthorizing a wetlands loan, or providing additional funds from the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Each of these alternatives would require congressional action, such as H.R. 2735 and S. 272, which have been introduced in the 110th Congress.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Matter for Congressional Consideration

    Matter: Determining the resource level that is appropriate to devote to acquiring migratory bird habitat in the Prairie Pothole Region is a policy decision that rests with Congress and the President. How much time the Service has to protect this high-priority habitat will largely depend on how much of the land stays temporarily protected by Agriculture conservation programs. The two legislative proposals that have been introduced in the 110th Congress would provide the Service with hundreds of millions of additional resources for land acquisitions in the region. However, several billion dollars will likely be needed for the Service to achieve its goal. We present this information to Congress as it deliberates whether and to what extent additional resources should be provided to the Service to acquire high-priority habitat in the Prairie Pothole Region. Congress may wish to consider this information as it debates H.R. 2735, regarding whether and to what extent the price of the Duck Stamp should be increased; S. 272, regarding whether and to what extent to reauthorize a wetlands acquisition loan; and whether and to what extent additional funds may need to be provided from the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In April 2009, H.R. 1916 was referred to the Committee on Natural Resources. This bill was proposed to amend the Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp Act to provide for a revised schedule of price increases for the "Duck Stamp." According to committee staff, GAO's report entitled, "Prairie Pothole Region: At the Current Pace of Acquisitions, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Is Unlikely to Achieve Its Habitat Protection Goals for Migratory Birds" was one of the key sources of information in drafting the bill.

    Recommendation for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To help ensure that the Service acquires as much high-priority habitat as possible with its available funds, the Secretary of the Interior should direct the Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to fully integrate the Service's recently developed scientific models with consideration of land prices, with the goal of maximizing the acquisition of the least expensive high-priority habitat when deciding which lands to acquire in the Prairie Pothole Region, while balancing that goal with the continued need to acquire high-priority habitat throughout the region.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's (FWS) region 6 office developed guidance that addresses the criteria identified in the GAO findings and demonstrates how FWS will continue to maximize available funding to acquire land with the lowest cost but highest biological value. This guidance has been incorporated into the FWS easement manual for use in FY 2010.

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