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From Grand Forks Herald 9-21-03

A story in the fall issue of the Delta Waterfowl Report should be required reading for anyone who loves ducks and the prairie pothole habitat that is so crucial to their future.

The ramifications make the nonresident waterfowl debate in North Dakota pale in comparison.

Written by Dan Nelson, "The Great American Plowout: Farm Subsidies Jeopardize Continent's Best Duck Habitat" sheds light on a scary trend that is forcing ranchers in the Dakotas to enroll in the federal farm program to make ends meet.

That means plowing up grassland habitat and turning it into cropland. For cash-strapped ranchers who don't have the luxury of government programs, that means a source of income. But for ducks and other wildlife that depend on grassland and wetland habitat, it means disaster.

As Nelson explains in his story, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service program offers an alternative by giving ranchers the option of enrolling their land in a perpetual easement. It's a win-win proposition: Ranchers still can graze cattle on their land, and they get paid for agreeing never to break the ground. They can hay the land, as long as it's after nesting season. In the process, ducks and other wildlife benefit, and some of the country's best breeding habitat is preserved. That's a good investment.

In the Fish and Wildlife Service's Region 6, which includes the Dakotas and six other Western states, field staffers work with ranchers interested in enrolling in the program. North Dakota, for example, has three appraisers and a realty assistant in Bismarck and two appraisers in Minot.

Money's tight, of course, and demand outstrips funding and field staffers' ability to accommodate requests in a timely way.

And it could get worse.

That's because earlier this year, Interior Secretary Gale Norton decided consolidating real estate functions into a central office would be the way to go. In other words, a rancher in the heart of prairie pothole country would have to deal with a bureaucrat in Washington instead of field staff in Bismarck or Minot to secure an easement.

The scenario is rife with potential problems.

In response to Norton's announcement, the Fish and Wildlife Service's regional office in Denver on July 8 issued an impact statement, saying habitat protection under a centralized system would decline by 50 percent to 80 percent - reducing annual easements across the region from about 120,000 acres to somewhere between 24,000 and 60,000 acres.

Why? Because appraisals would take longer to complete - 6 to 12 months longer - and farmers and ranchers would become frustrated. Human nature being what it is, they'd grow tired of dealing with the hassles and opt, instead, to plow up or sell the land just to pay the bills.

In an effort to exclude the Fish and Wildlife Service from the central real estate umbrella, several regional staffers decided to circulate a petition and present it in Washington. That didn't sit well with higher-ups in the Department of Interior, and since then, the Herald has learned, Fish and Wildlife Service director Steve Williams - who, by the way, is a UND graduate - issued a "gag order," prohibiting service employees from discussing the consolidation of real estate functions. Violations, he said, would be considered insubordination and grounds for dismissal.

That's not exactly a vote of confidence for the professionals working to improve wildlife habitat.

Congress still must approve funding to "reprogram" real estate functions. The Senate Subcommittee on Interior Appropriations is set to consider the plan sometime in the next few days.

There's a glimmer of hope on that front because Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., is chairman of the committee, and North Dakota Sen. Byron Dorgan is the ranking Democrat. Both, hopefully, understand what easements can mean to ranchers' bottom lines - and wetland and grassland habitat.

Meantime, conservation groups such as Ducks Unlimited, Delta Waterfowl and Pheasants Forever have been pressuring committee members not to fix what isn't broken. Sportsmen who care about ducks and habitat should follow suit. You can contact Dorgan by e-mail at [email protected]; his Washington office at (202) 224-2551; and his Grand Forks office at 746-8972.

Tell him a centralized real estate office is a bad idea. Worst-case scenario, it could destroy the service's ability to take easements on some of the best waterfowl habitat on the continent.

That's a lot more serious than a vehicle with Minnesota license plates parked outside a North Dakota duck slough.
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