Policy Pulse: NRCS Allowed Prairie Pothole Drainage in North Dakota
According to an Office of the Inspector General report, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) office in North Dakota improperly changed its wetland conservation policy, which reduced the total acreage of wetlands eligible for protection in that state by an estimated 75 percent! Following this change, some farmers were authorized to drain previously protected wetlands while continuing to receive heavily subsidized crop insurance.
The agency’s policy had been that the majority of wetland determinations made before 1996 were inaccurate because they relied on maps that did not show many wetlands. The mid-1990s marked the end of a long period of drought on the prairies, and many wetlands that had been dry for some time were once again replenished. As commodity prices started to skyrocket in 2009, NRCS was confronted with a growing backlog of requests for wetland determinations, which let farmers know whether draining wetlands would affect their compliance with USDA regulations and their ability to receive federal farm program benefits. In response, the agency made procedural changes in 2013 allowing the older, more inaccurate wetland determination maps to be used. According to the Office of the Inspector General, this allowed more wetlands to be drained than should have been –primarily prairie potholes, which comprise more than half the breeding habitat for waterfowl on the continent.
The League strongly opposes continued reliance on such flawed policy and is working with members of the conservation community to protect vulnerable wetlands in the prairie pothole region and across the country.