NSAC's Blog

New Report Finds that Wetland and Grassland Destruction is Common

July 3, 2014

On Tuesday, July 1, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) published a new report on the status of wetland and grassland loss in the Prairie Pothole Region (PPR) of the upper Midwest and Plains States.


The report finds that between 1997 and 2009, net wetland acreage declined by roughly 6,200 acres per year.  Emergent wetlands (those with exposed, up-right vegetation) and shrub wetlands declined by an estimated 95,340 acres and 46,080 acres, respectively, over the 12-year period.  In contrast, forested wetland acres increased by 61,280 acres.

According to the report:

Emergent wetlands lost to upland land uses (agriculture and development) between 1997 and 2009 accounted for 39 percent of all losses.  Small-sized farmed and temporary wetlands experienced substantial losses.  Farmed wetlands were very vulnerable to drainage for agricultural crop production because they were usually small, in close proximity to existing farm field operations and could be easily drained, usually without penalty under existing regulations.  Temporarily flooded and farmed wetland basins were lost to agriculture even during periods of abnormally high water conditions.

As with the destruction of natural wetlands, wetland restoration is also very common in the Prairie Pothole Region.  According to the report, “Between 1997 and 2009, an estimated 87,690 acres (35,500 ha) of emergent wetland was restored from agricultural lands.  These restored wetlands averaged 5.8 acres (2.4 ha) and were seasonally or semi-permanently flooded areas.”  Unfortunately, however, “the results of these wetland restoration efforts were overshadowed by the loss of 125,400 acres (50,770 ha) of emergent wetland converted to upland agriculture.”

Like emergent wetlands, temporary wetlands (those that come and go) are particularly threatened by conversion to agriculture or development.  These wetlands “are a major component of the wetland ecosystem both in terms of function and area, comprising an estimated 49 percent of all remaining wetland basins in 2009, and losses of temporary and farmed wetland area approached 133,000 acres (53,700 ha) between 1997 and 2009.”


The FWS report also examines grassland loss trends in the PPR.  “Between 1997 and 2009, grassland area declined by an estimated 568,040 acres (229,980 ha) or 2.6 percent,” the report states.  “Grassland area declined by 805,000 acres (325,910 ha) in the western prairie states of Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota.  Minnesota and Iowa gained grassland area (236,960 acres or 95,935 ha) over the period of this study.  Ninety-five percent of the area lost from grassland was reclassified as agriculture.”

Unfortunately, given the extent of current data collection, it is impossible to determine how many of these acres were converted from native prairie versus non-native prairie.  These grassland acres are important not only for the wildlife habitat benefits they provide, but also for their “ability to directly impact [the condition and landscape function of] up to 32 percent of the remaining wetlands that were either within or directly adjacent to grassland areas.”  Recall that a recent report by USDA’s Farm Service Agency found that in just one year (2011-2012), nearly 400,000 acres of non-cropland were broken out for crop production.

Policy Implications

The new findings on wetland and grassland loss are relevant to two new Farm Bill conservation provisions, known as “conservation compliance” and “Sodsaver,” and to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Proposed Rule seeking to clarify the scope of the Clean Water Act.

Conservation Compliance –For the first time since 1996, the 2014 Farm Bill reattached basic conservation requirements to federal crop insurance premium subsidies.  In return for these subsidies, farmers are now prohibited from draining or filling wetlands, and must implement a conservation plan on highly erodible land.  Just this week, USDA’s Risk Management Agency (RMA), which administers the Crop Insurance program, directed Approved Insurance Providers to amend crop insurance policies to include a conservation compliance certification requirement.  By June 1, 2015, farmers will have to certify that they are in compliance with the conservation requirements in order to receive crop insurance premium subsidies.  Reattaching conservation compliance to crop insurance was a top priority for NSAC during the three-year Farm Bill debate.  The new rules will play an important role in reducing the rate of wetland loss in the PPR and across the country.

Sodsaver — In addition to conservation compliance, the 2014 Farm Bill included a “Sodsaver” provision to discourage the conversion of native grassland to crop production.  The Sodsaver provision, which was another top NSAC priority during the farm bill campaign, reduces the crop insurance premium subsidy by 50 percentage points on native prairie that is tilled for the production of an annual crop in Minnesota, Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, and Nebraska.

Native prairie is generally not well suited for crop production, even when tilled, and is thus considered marginal land.  By reducing the risk of planting to marginal land, the crop insurance program makes it easier for farmers to justify bringing native grassland into crop production.  The new Sodsaver provision will limit the extent to which taxpayers subsidize risk reduction through federal crop insurance.  This was a major win for NSAC and conservation groups during the Farm Bill debate and is critical for grassland conservation efforts in the PPR, given that, as the FWS study demonstrates, 95 percent of the grassland lost was reclassified as agriculture.

As part of the Sodsaver provision, the Farm Bill directs USDA’s Farm Services Agency (FSA) to collect and report data on the change in cropland acreage in six covered states.  We will be urging FSA to focus specifically on changes to native prairie acreage, given that such data are sorely lacking.

Clean Water Act –In April 2014, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a Proposed Rule to clarify the jurisdictional scope of the Clean Water Act (CWA).  This rule is an important step toward ensuring the protection of our nation’s wetlands, streams, and other waters.  The CWA is the nation’s primary tool for protecting wetlands that are connected in some way to other bodies of water, such as rivers or streams, so there is no doubt that without the Act, the rate of wetland loss in the PPR would be far higher.

That said, the FWS study found that “an estimated 49 percent of the wetlands lost between 1997 and 2009 were geospatially isolated wetlands.”  Geospatially isolated wetlands are generally not covered by the CWA because they are not connected to other water bodies.  As the report explains, “in the PPR, where the transitory nature of surface water allows even some of the deepest emergent marshes to dry sufficiently and have an established history of cropping, there are very few prairie wetlands on private lands that appear to have any federal protection status either through CWA (because they are likely to be considered ‘isolated’) or through other exemptions in the Farm Bill legislation (because of past cropping practices).”

Given the findings of the FWS report, we believe strongly that all three policies — Conservation Compliance, Sodsaver, and the CWA — are critical tools that work together to protect wetlands and grassland across the country.

Categories: Commodity, Crop Insurance & Credit Programs, Conservation, Energy & Environment, Farm Bill

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