North Dakota may be a leading agricultural and energy producing state, but it takes the lead in another category treasured by many who love the outdoors – waterfowl production and habitat.
The state is in the heart of the Prairie Pothole Region, AKA the “Duck Factory” of the United States.
The Prairie Pothole Region of the Northern Great Plains stretches into southern Canada, meanders downward into northwest North Dakota across the central and southern portion of the state, and embraces smaller areas in southern Minnesota, northeast South Dakota, northeast Montana, and central Iowa.
It’s the Duck Factory because of what once was historically a vast, seemingly endless expanse of grasslands peppered with wetlands of all shapes and sizes and rolling and not-so-rolling hills. It’s those grasslands and wetlands and potholes that ducks, geese, and other wetland and grassland wildlife species call home.
While the landscape and land use has changed with the times, North Dakota is still an extremely critical cog in the Prairie Pothole Region and the Duck Factory. There is still some grass and despite the ebb and flow of dry and wet years, there are still wetlands.
Both are vital to waterfowl’s survival.
Most of the Duck Factory is smack dab in North Dakota. The topography of the Prairie Pothole Region was created when glaciers once covering this wide swath of the land melted thousands of years ago as the planet’s temperatures rose following an Ice Age.
Like many natural habitats across the world, land use changes decreased the amount of the region’s natural habitat.
In recognizing the ecological importance of wetlands, grasslands, and the relationship to waterfowl and other species, Congress passed the Migratory Bird Conservation Act (the Duck Stamp Act) in 1934. The legislation was driven by the historic Dust Bowl drought of the 1930s, drying up wetlands and cropland alike, destroying communities, farmers, and wildlife alike.
The Duck Stamp Act would change the dire fate of wetland dependent wildlife: The legislation required hunters to purchase Duck Stamps with revenue dedicated to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to buy or lease wetland habitat.
Fast-forward to 1958: Congress amended the Duck Stamp Act to establish the Small Wetlands Program. Recognizing the importance of the Prairie Pothole Region, the new legislation focused solely on that region, allowing the Fish and Wildlife Service to buy land, from willing landowners only, to create Waterfowl Production Areas within the Duck Factory.
Not only does the land benefit wildlife dependent on wetlands and grasslands habitat, it benefits hunters because, by law, WPAs are open to walk-in hunting – and that includes waterfowl hunting.
WPAs are part of the Fish and Wildlife Service National Wildlife Refuge System and managed by Wetland Management Districts within each of the major refuge complexes. In North Dakota, that includes nine WMDs with more than 1 million acres of land in the Waterfowl Production Areas.
Just in northern and central North Dakota alone, there are almost a million acres of WPAs in Benson, Bottineau, Burke, Cavalier, Divide, Grand Forks, McHenry, McLean, Mountrail, Nelson, Pembina, Pierce, Ramsey, Renville, Rolette, Sheridan, Stutsman, Towner, Walsh, Ward, Wells, and Williams counties.
Finding some the WPAs scattered around the North Dakota countryside is an amazing way to look beyond what may seem like a vast expanse of open countryside dotted with agriculture, wetlands, lakes, scattered towns, and pastureland with cattle.
With cooler, snowier weather on the horizon more migrating ducks, geese, and other wetland species will stop, roost, and rest on those WPAs on their southbound journey. It’s a hunting opportunity as well as a chance to marvel at the wondrous instincts of birds as they once again return to their wintering grounds.
PHOTO (CREDIT: PATRICIA STOCKDILL):
*Bellrose WPA: The Bellrose WPA in McLean County epitomizes a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Waterfowl Production Area (WPA) – a mosaic of grass and wetlands. In years of wet and normal conditions the low-lying grassy area on the Bellrose WPA is a valuable, productive wetland providing food and habitat for ducks and an array of other wetland species. In dry years it provides grassy cover for other wildlife, including pheasants. WPAs are open to walk-in hunting under federal law establishing the WPA system.