Wind sweeps almost continuously across the Dakotas, ruffling the prairie grass and the many ponds in North Dakota’s Prairie Pothole Region. The “potholes” are thousands of shallow wetlands created as the Ice Age glaciers retreated 10,000 years ago. In this virtually treeless landscape, they provide year-round habitat for a surprisingly rich mix of plants, animals, and insects—and vital breeding grounds for more than half of North America’s migratory waterfowl. Hunters call this complex of wetlands and grasslands “the duck factory.”
It’s disappearing. Rising corn and soybean prices have spurred landowners to drain the wetlands and plow the prairie, switching from grazing livestock to planting crops. That has released into the atmosphere huge amounts of carbon that had been stored in the soil and in the deep prairie grass roots. It has also disrupted waterfowl migration and breeding. Ducks Unlimited, a wetlands and waterfowl conservation organization founded in 1937, stepped in to stem the losses.
Ducks Unlimited espouses a vision of “wetlands sufficient to fill the skies with waterfowl today, tomorrow, and forever.” Hunters founded the organization. It continues to support waterfowl hunting, “when conducted in an ethical and sustainable manner, as a legitimate and acceptable use of a renewable resource.”
More broadly, its members love the outdoors and care about preserving its splendor. Ducks Unlimited representatives began contacting North Dakota landowners in an elevated part of the Prairie Pothole Region called the Missouri Coteau. (“Coteau” means “ridge” or “hill” in French.) They offered to buy the rights to carbon offset credits in exchange for perpetual grassland easements from the landowners. Ducks Unlimited transferred the easements to the US Fish and Wildlife Service. It is reselling the carbon offsets through the Bonneville Environmental Foundation of Portland, Oregon, to recoup some of what it paid the landowners.
In the first five years of the Prairie Pothole project, Ducks Unlimited secured easements covering 123,083 acres of grasslands and wetlands. That has kept an estimated total of 39,384 metric tons (43,413 US tons) of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions from the atmosphere. Preservation of the wetlands has also meant thousands, maybe millions more waterfowl “filling the skies.”