The Free Press, Mankato, MN

January 12, 2014

Cross: Grassland preservation a DNR future priority

By John Cross jcross@mankatofreepress.com
The Mankato Free Press

---- — Once upon a time, Minnesota was blessed with a wide variety of habitats ranging from dense forests to wide open, grass-covered prairies.

It’s really not too hard nowadays to find a forest.

But it’s getting increasingly difficult to find a parcel of prairie grass.

Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr told a standing-room-only crowd at the opening session of the DNR’s annual two-day Roundtable meeting in Bloomington on Friday that grassland preservation and restoration are going to be a major focus for his agency for years to come.

Landwehr said to stakeholders, DNR staff and a handful lawmakers that of the 18 million acres of native prairie that once covered most of western and southern Minnesota, only about two percent still remain.

In addition, the continued loss of Conservation Reserve Program acres as contracts expire have resulted in an unprecedented loss of grassland habitat for game species like deer, pheasant, ducks and many other non-game species in farmland areas.

“In a good year, we manage to gain from 20,000 to 40,000 acres of grasslands in areas like WMAs, WPAs,” Landwehr said. “However, at the same time we’re also losing 150,000 acres of CRP so even with our best efforts, we’re losing 100,000 acres.”

“You can see the direction it’s going and it’s not the right direction,” he said.

That view was bolstered by a presentation given by Kurt Forman, a private land coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in North and South Dakota.

He said that between 2008 and 2011, more than 23 million acres of grassland in South Dakota

was converted to row crops.

At one point, South Dakota landowners enrolled 1.7 million acres of farmland in CRP. However, at the same time, about 1.8 million acres of grasslands that had previously never been farmed were converted to cropland. “In spite of the CRP sign-up, we actually lost acres.”

Of particular concern, he said, is the Missouri Coteau region, a vast area of grasslands that has traditionally been used for grazing livestock and an important part of North America’s duck factory.

Even though it comprises only about 7 percent of North America’s duck breeding area, as many as 21 percent of the continent’s ducks are produced there.

Forman said the rush to plow up the Missouri Coteau of the Dakotas has been spurred by high commodity prices and a federal crop insurance program that removes much of the risk for landowners who choose to convert land more suitable to livestock grazing to more profitable cropland.

To that end, Forman said the USFW has begun to work to provide incentives for family ranchers to keep livestock operations viable instead of turning to potentially more lucrative row crops.

Landwehr said that the preservation and expansion of grasslands in Minnesota ultimately will come down to money.

He said programs already exist and crews with the expertise to restore the state’s grasslands are organized. “What we don’t have right now is the money,” he said.

“It’s an urgent problem and we’ll need to put our shoulders to the wheel for decades,” he predicted.

“Preserving grasslands isn’t for us. It will be for the long term, 50 or 60 years down the road.”

The Roundtable meetings, which were started 25 years ago, bring conservation groups, lawmakers and DNR staff together every January together to discuss conservation issues.

The two-day meetings frequently have been springboards for future policy, program and regulation changes.

John Cross is a Free Press staff writer. Contact him at (507) 344-6376 or by e-mail at jcross@mankatofreepress.com.