Wildlife and Habitat Management: The Joint Venture Concept of the North American Waterfowl Management Plan

March 30, 2009 by  

By Robert A. Langager


Migrating Snow Geese

Migrating Snow Geese

Migratory waterfowl have traveled the North American continent for thousands of years. They have awed many who have seen their great winged migrations. Waterfowl inspire many to watch them, hunt them, and study them intensely. As a resource, waterfowl and other birds generate nearly $20 billion in economic activity and create more than 234,000 jobs in the U.S. alone (Ducks Unlimited, 2004). However, over the past century, waterfowl numbers have declined to alarming lows. The primary culprit in the decline, as with most wildlife population declines, is habitat loss. Aggressive agricultural practices and policy during the 1960s and 1970s resulted in a drastic loss of wetlands. In 1986 the United States and Canadian governments took action to reverse the decline with the signing of the North American Waterfowl Management Plan (NAWMP). The Plan is a 15 year $1.5 billion agreement with the goal to restore waterfowl populations to 1970s levels through habitat conservation and restoration. The Plan is innovative in that it calls for the formation of partnerships, known as joint ventures, between government agencies, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and the private sector to achieve its goals. This paper will describe the conditions that led to the formation of the Plan, a summary of the Plan, the uniqueness of the partnerships formed through the Plan, and an overview of one of the joint ventures, the Prairie Pothole Joint Venture.
Conditions Leading Up to the Formation of the North American Waterfowl Management Plan

The early 1970s are used as a benchmark to measure waterfowl populations. Populations of some species were near all-time highs. However, within a decade, waterfowl populations would plummet to near all-time lows. Dramatic habitat losses coupled with a long-term drought on the Great Plains were the primary causes of such declines. Losses of habitat and their associated wildlife not only impact the environment but also carry an economic impact as well. Activities related to wetland habitat and wildlife, such as hunting and bird watching, generate billions of dollars in economic activity every year.

A lot of wetlands are being burned off this spring like this one in S. Barnes County

A lot of wetlands are being burned off this spring like this one in S. Barnes County

Wetlands are among the most biologically diverse and productive environments in nature. However, many also see them as a nuisance and an impediment to development and agriculture. Wetlands have been drained in North America for urbanization, industry, and agriculture. The loss of wetlands to agriculture accelerated rapidly in the 1970s when United States agricultural policy shifted to dominate the world’s grain markets. Produces were encouraged to farm from “fencerow to fencerow.” Land that had not previously been in production fell under the plow. Of the estimated 221 million acres of wetlands originally in the lower 48 states, only 104 million acres remain, an aggregate loss of over 53 percent (Dahl, 1990). Iowa has lost over 89 percent of it wetlands, California 91 percent (Gerlach, 1995). With the exception of New Hampshire, Alaska, and Hawaii, no state has lost less than 20 percent of its original wetlands (Dahl, 1990).

Canada’s wetlands did not fare much better. Since settlement, 65 percent of Atlantic tidal and salt marshes, 70 percent of the lower Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River shoreline marshes and swamps, up to 71 percent of prairie potholes and sloughs, and 80 percent of Pacific coast estuarine wetlands are estimated to have been converted to other uses (Wetlands International, 1996)

Waterfowl depend on wetlands and their upland habitats for breeding, migrating, and wintering. Waterfowl managers in the US and Canada recognized that the recovery and perpetuation of waterfowl populations depends on the long-term protection, restoration, and management of habitat on an ecosystem basis (NAWMP, 1986). To accomplish these goals on a continent-wide scale called for an ambitious, comprehensive, and revolutionary plan. The led to the creation of the North American Waterfowl Management Plan, which was signed in 1986 by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior and the Canadian Minister of the Environment.
Summary of the North American Waterfowl Management Plan

The North American Waterfowl Management Plan (NAWMP) was established in 1986 to protect waterfowl in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. It is rooted in the earlier understandings stemming from the 1916 Convention for the Protection Migratory Birds signed by the United States and England, on Canada’s behalf, and by subsequent treaties with Mexico and other countries in 1936 (Gerlach, 1995). The Plan focuses on habitat management from the breeding grounds in Canada and the northern Great Plains, through the migration routes within the United States, and to the wintering grounds of the southern U.S. and Mexico. The habitat to be managed is mainly wetlands, upland nesting cover, and the grasslands along the migratory flyways (Gerlach, 1995). The Plan establishes a fifteen-year framework for international cooperation for wetland restoration and waterfowl population increases (Graziano 1993).

Pheasants are another species that benefits from the NAWMP (photo credit ND Game & Fish)

Pheasants are another species that benefits from the NAWMP (photo credit ND Game & Fish)

Although the NAWMP is primarily designed for waterfowl, it also helps many other species by improving and preserving the habitat that supports them. The Plan is not only beneficial to animal and plant life but to human life as well. Benefits of wetland conservation include: floodwater retention, decreased soil erosion, carbon sequestration, improved soil and water quality, and reduced runoff of fertilizers pesticides and other pollutants. The improvement of the quality of human life through recreation and aesthetic benefits are also advantages of the Plan.

The North American Waterfowl Management Plan uses specific population and habitat goals as its basis. These objectives are: to secure protection for an additional six million acres of habitat in thirty-four geographic areas, which are the most important breeding, wintering, and staging areas to waterfowl; to restore duck populations to 62 million breeders which would produce a fall flight of 100 million birds, which is similar to 1970s levels; and to achieve specific population levels for geese, swans, and ten principal species of ducks (Graziano, 1993).

The vision of the North American Waterfowl Management Plan is not only ambitious, but also costly. The price tag for habitat protection alone is $1.5 billion (Williams, 1999). In order to achieve these lofty and expensive goals, the Plan envisioned regionally based partnerships called “joint ventures.” The joint venture concept calls for cooperation and partnership between all levels of government and private organizations. In reality, the NAWMP is a “partnership of state, federal, provincial, tribal, territorial, and private organizations, all of which are dedicated to protecting and improving migratory bird habitat and restoring duck populations” (Graziano, 1993).

The NAWMP has seen some updates since it was first signed in 1986. In 1988 the U.S., Canada, and Mexico signed the Tripartite Agreement “to develop and design conservation strategies for migratory birds that might lead to a coordinated management plan between the three countries” (NAWMP Update, 1994). The vision of the Tripartite Agreement was realized when the North American Waterfowl Management Plan was updated and expanded in 1994 to include Mexico as a signatory and full partner, making it truly continental in scope (Williams, 1999). In 1998 the Plan was updated again, reaffirming the Plan’s strategic focus, emphasizing its biological foundations, and advocating a vision for conservation through planning, implementation, and assessment in an adaptive approach to waterfowl conservation (Williams, 1999). The 1998 update calls for improvements in habitat monitoring and better understanding of the relationships between habitats and populations.
The Joint Venture Concept: A Partnership Approach

The fact that the North American Waterfowl Management Plan is such an ambitious undertaking, encompasses such an international scope, carries such a hefty price tag, and ranges across regionally and geographically different areas requires a different and unique approach to obtaining its management goals. The Plan acknowledges that the efforts to achieve waterfowl population objectives go far beyond the capability of government wildlife agencies and require and unprecedented partnership with public and private organizations from a wide range of society (NAWMP, 1987).

The Plan identifies 34 four areas of major concern and, of those, twelve joint ventures began in the U.S. and Canada. These are: the U.S. Prairie Pothole; Central Valley Habitat; Lower Mississippi Valley; Gulf Coast; Atlantic Coast; Lower Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Basin; Playa Lakes; Upper Mississippi River-Great Lakes Region; Rainwater Basin; Pacific Coast; Canadian Prairie Habitat; and Easter Habitat joint ventures (Graziano, 1993). In addition, two species-based joint ventures, both international in scope, were organized for the black duck and arctic goose (Graziano, 1993).

Partnerships are necessary for the NAWMP to succeed. The joint venture concept’s goals are to: provide funding for the Plan; bring in sufficient personnel and organizational capabilities to accomplish the varied and complex tasks associated with each joint venture; to include the largest possible number of wetland areas, those owned by private landowners; to bring the best available science to the task; and to advance the NAWMP’s intentions through outreach and education (Graziano, 1993).

The partnerships created through the joint ventures help to increase the success and stability of the undertakings because of redundancy in leadership and advocacy. If one partner fails or withdraws, others will be there to keep the project going.

The cost-sharing principle is built into the primary funding source of the NAWMP, the North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA). The NAWCA, passed in 1989, states that each congressionally appropriated dollar must be matched by one non-federal dollar (Graziano, 1993). These non-federal funds come from non-governmental organizations such as The Nature Conservancy and Ducks Unlimited. While the NWACA requires a 1:1 dollar match, that ratio is often exceeded as joint venture partners contribute more than what is required in the statute. What is particularly new and exciting about the NAWMP is the amount of corporate funding. The largest corporate contribution to date is $3 million from Dow Chemical Company (Graziano, 1993).

Joint venture partnerships are also essential to the NAWMP because they provide diversity in expertise and capability that is not available through one organization or agency. One group can provide technical expertise in wetlands restoration, while another can raise funds, another in lobbying efforts, while yet another can provide outreach and education to landowners.

Partnerships with Private Conservation groups such as The Nature Conservancy and Ducks Unlimited not only have been important in securing funding and organizing the logistics of the North American Waterfowl Management Plan, but they also play an important role in outreach and education. Many of these conservation groups also have in-house communications teams that produce high-quality publications that are sent to supporters and those interested in the NAWMP in the United States, Canada, and Mexico (Graziano, 1993). These publications educate about the successes and goals of the various joint venture projects and help in advancing the mission and gaining support for the NAWMP.
International Partnerships in Action: The Prairie Pothole Joint Venture

The heart of the Prairie Pothole Region in ND

The heart of the Prairie Pothole Region in ND

To further examine the international aspects of the NAWMP we shall take a closer look at one of the original joint ventures from the 1986 version, the Prairie Pothole Joint Venture (PPJV). The Prairie Pothole Region (PPR) stretches between the United States and Canada. It is found in the northern Great Plains of the Dakotas, Minnesota, Iowa, Montana, and southern Saskatchewan and Manitoba. This ecosystem is significant in that it is mainly grasslands with millions of lakes, ponds, and marshes. It is also very fragile and degraded as the most productive habitats are the small temporary and seasonal wetlands that are very susceptible to drought and the farmer’s plow. The PPR is the most important waterfowl producing regions on the continent, producing almost half of the ducks in North America (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 1989).

The goals of the 1986 version of the Prairie Pothole Joint Venture call for the permanent protection and improvement of 1.1 million acres and the short-term protection of an additional 5 million acres of habitat on private land through the use short-term conservation easements with private landowners (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 1989). Other targets of the 1986 PPJV include: managing existing land to increase waterfowl production and other wildlife and wetland issues; develop and sustain habitat on private land; develop a communication and education program that will inform and educate private landowners and targeted audiences about the multiple values of wetlands; protect additional habitat using fee title acquisition and perpetual easements; and to strengthen and enforce Federal and State laws and regulations concerning wetlands (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 1989).

The plan to finance 1986 Prairie Pothole Joint Venture called for 25 percent of the funding to come from Canadian interests and the remaining to come from U.S. interests. The Plan notes, however, that “this should not be construed as a commitment of the United States to finance activities in Canada” (NAWMP, 1987). The shared cost of the plan was estimated to be $37 million per year for the first 15 years and were to be shared by Federal, State, local, and Provincial agencies, private organizations, and individuals dedicated to achieving the objectives of the PPJV (U.S. Prairie Pothole Joint Venture Update, 1995).

In order to undertake a project of such magnitude, potential issues with partners, landowners, and the public needed to be addressed. The PPJV calls for exploration of these issues: to build a spirit of cooperation and trust between partners; to change existing waterfowl management policy from habitat management on public land to management on both public and private lands; to find funding for the non-traditional approaches of paying landowners for wildlife conservation; to build trust between landowners and wildlife agencies; and to change public attitudes about wildlife management and find a balance with agricultural economics (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 1989).

The future of conservation lies with the landowners

The future of conservation lies with the landowners

Perhaps the most difficult issues to address are the attitudes and concerns of the farmers and landowners. Their livelihood depends on the land and they tend not to like being told what to do by government agencies. However, in order to attain the goals of the PPJV, private landowners must be included as they hold the greatest portion of land required for protection. Their concerns must be addressed and attitudes changed. The primary means of appeasing and compensating landowners is through the use conservation easements from programs such as the Conservation Reserve Program, Wetland Reserve Program, Swampbuster, and to reimburse landowners for crop degradation from increased waterfowl populations.

The importance of the PPJV was reaffirmed with the 1994 update of the North American Waterfowl Management Plan and its importance was recognized in the update in the following statement: “The highest priority continues to be the mid-continent prairie breeding grounds in the United States and Canada” (U.S. Prairie Pothole Joint Venture Update, 1995). The PPJV partners had raised nearly $140 million and protected 1.9 million acres of habitat in the first seven years of the project. This is especially significant in that this work was accomplished in a sparsely populated region lacking financial resources.

As partners in the PPJV continue to work to achieve their goals, they must continue to form new partnerships to maintain their funding and momentum. Agricultural interests are beginning to recognize the importance of the PPJV and have begun providing direct support for habitat projects. The enhancement of soil and water quality through wetland restoration benefits those who usually oppose such programs. Winning the support of the agricultural sector is an indicator of the Plan’s success and outreach.
A Look Ahead

The NAWMP’s future was secured with the reauthorization of the North American Wetlands Conservation Act as part of the 2002 Farm Bill. The Bill provides $40 billion in funding over ten years to reauthorize the NWACA partnership programs, enhance fish and wildlife partnership programs, and to develop new, cooperative conservation programs (The White House, 2004). The success of the unique partnerships formed through the joint venture concept has not only imitated by other programs, but has also insured that the NAWMP will be a reality for the next decade.

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Ducks Unlimited. Waterfowl Fact Sheet. http://www.ducks.org/about/faq/faq_conservation.asp#Impact. 2004.

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http://www.ramsar.org/about_wetland_loss.htm. 1994

Willams, Byron. “Evaluation of Waterfowl Conservation Under the North American Waterfowl Management Plan.” Journal of Wildlife Management. Vol. 63. No. 2. 1999. 417-436.

The White House. Fact Sheet: President Announces Wetlands Initiative on Earth Day.
http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2004/04/20040422-1.html. 2004


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