Published February 28, 2010, 12:00 AM

Report: Warming climate threatens Prairie Pothole Region

Published in the February edition of the journal BioScience, the research uses a climate model that predicts average temperatures in the Prairie Pothole Region could rise from 2 to 4 degrees Celsius between 2050 and 2100.

By: Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald

A new report shows predictions for a warming climate could be devastating to duck production in the Prairie Pothole Region.

Published in the February edition of the journal BioScience, the research uses a climate model that predicts average temperatures in the Prairie Pothole Region could rise from 2 to 4 degrees Celsius between 2050 and 2100.

Under that scenario, wetlands crucial to duck production would hold water for a shorter amount of time.

“The impact to the millions of wetlands that attract countless ducks to these breeding grounds in spring makes it difficult to imagine how to maintain today’s level of waterfowl populations in altered climate conditions,” Glenn Guntenspergen, a U.S. Geological Survey researcher and one of the report’s authors, said in a news release. “Parents may not have time to raise their young to where they can fly because of wetlands drying up too quickly in the warming climate of the future.”

Widely known as North America’s “duck factory,” the Prairie Pothole Region covers an area of more than 300,000 square miles in the Dakotas, Montana, Minnesota, Iowa and the prairie Canada.

According to Rick Voldseth, an adjunct professor of soil sciences in the School of Natural Resources at North Dakota State University, the impact of rising temperatures would be most apparent in western PPR, which already is warmer and drier than other parts of the region.

“Our projections showed seasonal-type wetlands appear to be the most susceptible and vulnerable to climate warming,” said Voldseth, who also is one of the report’s authors. “Except for the very wettest of years, waterfowl production would be extremely low (in the western PPR),” especially in the 8-degree F scenario.

Voldseth said seasonal wetlands are especially attractive to nesting ducks because they’re generally the first to be ice free when the birds migrate north. Traditionally, ducks will nest near seasonal wetlands and move to larger semi-permanent or permanent wetlands when seasonal potholes dry up.

But if the seasonal wetlands dry too early, ducklings could be more vulnerable to predation and loss of food.

Worst-case scenario, the result could mean lower bag limits or perhaps even closed seasons, Voldseth said.

“In North Dakota and other states, it could mean significantly reduced hunters, reduced duck stamp dollars and reduced conservation numbers,” Voldseth said. “It could go on and on.”

The research suggests eastern parts of the PPR would fare better under the rising temperature model. Problem is, Voldseth said, many of the wetlands in parts of Minnesota and Iowa are already gone.

The new report had to pass the scrutiny of peer review before the findings were published, Voldseth said, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be skepticism.

“People have their belief systems and are going to believe what they want to believe,” he said. “I’m a science-minded person, and there are a large number of scientists from across the globe involved in this research. And to think that it is just a bunch of malarkey, it’s just hard for me to grasp that. But I think people in the scientific world have for the most part accepted there is a human impact, a human factor related to global warming.”

Roger Hollevoet, project leader of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Devils Lake Wetland Management District, said managers already are looking to minimize the impact on wildlife by working to restore wetlands and planting multi-species mixes of native grasses. Such mixes, he said, provide better wildlife habitat and do a better job of storing carbon than conventional farm crops.

Hollevoet acknowledges wet and dry cycles are part of the natural order on prairie landscapes, but if the warm, dry periods do indeed become longer, there’ll be fewer opportunities for waterfowl to bounce back from the bad years.

“Even though we go through droughts sometimes, once the water comes back, we’ve got a good response from waterfowl,” Hollevoet said. “Those are the things that are very concerning to waterfowl managers — how we can maintain recruitment if we start reducing the capacity of the landscape to carry waterfowl pairs.”

Change afoot

Reports such as the new research in BioScience should be viewed as more than just crying wolf, Hollevoet said.

“Socially, I guess it’s up to people if they want to believe climate change is man induced or not, but we do know we produce a lot more emissions into the atmosphere,” he said. “Growing up, we didn’t have these extreme weather events; they weren’t near as common so something is going on out there. What it’s in response to may be the unknown, but we know there seems to change afoot in climate patterns today” compared with 50 to 100 years ago.

Voldseth said there are a “fair number of things” people can do to minimize the risk of the warm, dry scenario outlined in the report.

“The biggest thing would be to reduce greenhouse gases,” Voldseth said. “In terms of remediation, we could try to stop or reduce wetland drainage, intensify wetland management over the whole Prairie Pothole Region and in terms of restoration, continue with restoration efforts in the west.

“Some years under a (temperature) increase there is going to be water, but a lot less than now so those boom years in the western Prairie Pothole Region should be fewer.”

The report includes researchers from South Dakota State University, the U.S. Geological Survey, NDSU, the University of Montana, St. Olaf College, the Desert Research Institute-University of Nevada and the University of Idaho.

On the Web:

Dokken reports on outdoors. Reach him at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 148; or send e-mail to