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Dakota Grassland Conservation Area

A recent visit from U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar to South Dakota helped to bring some much needed attention to the plight of the disappearing prairie grasslands. Salazar met with state officials and conservation groups to discuss the Dakota Grassland Conservation Area, a proposed federal project aimed at protecting wetlands and grasslands in the Prairie Pothole Region.

Prairie wetlandsThe Prairie Pothole Region, which extends from the Canadian prairies of Saskatchewan and Alberta down into South Dakota and parts of Iowa, is an area of highly productive land used by wildlife, ranchers and farmers alike. The “potholes” are literal depressions in the land – a relic of retreating glaciers from the distant past – which have since filled with water. These seasonal wetlands are important habitats for migratory waterfowl, with some research suggesting that the lands are used by over 50% of all North American migratory birds. In addition to being important waterfowl habitats, the prairie potholes are also home to a diverse set of plant and aquatic life.

The Dakota Grassland Conservation Area proposal seeks to preserve habitat by purchasing easements from willing sellers on approximately 2 million acres of prairie habitat. Easements are legal agreements in which a private owner agrees to limit use or development of an area of land. Under the proposed initiative, easements would allow farmers to use the land for grazing or haying, but would prevent more destructive activities such as plowing or draining.

During his visit, Salazar met with Ducks Unlimited, whom he applauded for supporting the proposed program. Ducks Unlimited estimates that almost 194,000 acres of prairie have been lost or degraded since 1984 and have committed to invest $50 million over ten years towards the project. The remaining funds for the project would come from previously committed government conservation dollars.

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