Prairie Study: USDA Conservation Gets High Marks

A recently completed study concludes that two U.S. Department of Agriculture conservation programs provide benefits on more than 5 million acres of wetland and adjacent grassland habitat in the Prairie Pothole Region, Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer said recently at a White House Conference on North American Wildlife Policy.

The study, "Ecosystem Services Derived from Wetland Conservation Practices in the United States Prairie Pothole Region with an Emphasis on the U.S. Department of Agriculture Conservation Reserve and Wetlands Reserve Programs," was conducted by U.S. Geological Survey researchers with support from the Conservation Effects Assessment Project, a multi-agency effort led by the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (USDA-NRCS). The study is available at http://pubs.usgs.gov/pp/1745/.

"Voluntary conservation efforts have proven benefits to a vast region of significant wetland acres that provide excellent wildlife habitat and benefit local residents," Schafer said.

The study quantified how the establishment and management of prairie wetlands and associated grasslands through the Conversation Reserve Program and the Wetlands Reserve Program have positively influenced ecosystem services in the following ways:

•Improvement in sediment and nutrient control. Soil loss was reduced on 682,048 acres of upland CRP and WRP land by an estimated average of 1.9 million tons per year. •Potential to intercept and store precipitation that would contribute to downstream flooding.

•Improvement in wetland and upland plant community quality and richness.

•Potential to sequester atmospheric carbon in soil and vegetation.

Additionally, study researchers demonstrated an approach to measure the improvement in bird habitat through enrollment in CRP and WRP, the nation's most successful wetlands conservation programs administered on private agricultural land.

Providing critical breeding, nesting, and brood habitat as the nation's "duck factory," the Prairie Pothole Region of the Northern Great Plains covers more than 347,000 square miles and extends from the north-central U.S. to south-central Canada. USGS researchers found that wetland basins and contributing uplands known as prairie potholes also sequester atmospheric carbon in wetland soil.

USGS, USDA-Farm Service Agency and USDA-NRCS studied how USDA wetland conservation practices and farm bill conservation programs specifically affect what scientists refer to as "ecosystem services," such as the natural cleansing of water, and the natural breakdown of waste.

The study also provides baseline data to develop an integrated landscape model that will assist USDA in monitoring changes in ecosystems services that result from conservation practices and programs and from climate change.

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