A case study of changing land use practices in the Northern Great Plains, U.S.A. An uncertain future for waterbird conservation

Kenneth F. Higgins, David E. Naugle, Kurt J. Forman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

60 Scopus citations


Wetland and grassland habitats of the northern Great Plains are a primary breeding ground for waterbirds in North America. Native mixed grass prairies that were historically used for cattle grazing have met with changing social and economic pressures that put the remaining 40% of this resource at high risk of tillage. In this paper, we describe the current state of our waning rural societies, characterize impacts of land use change on waterbird habitats, and discuss conservation actions to benefit waterbirds. Recent population statistics indicate that a record number of farmers facing low commodity prices are selling their farms and moving to urban centers for employment. Other farmers are shifting from diversified agriculture to monoculture grain farming to take advantage of farm programs that provide incentives to bring marginal land into production. Additional data indicate that concurrent changes in crop types have decreased quality of farmland wildlife habitat while bigger and faster farm equipment and genetically modified crops continue to make farming marginal land less risky. Legislators and administrators should be advised that waterbird habitat loss continues to expand westward. The last chance to sustain the unique grassland-wetland character of the northern Great Plains is to accelerate grassland conservation with short-and long-term stewardship programs and incentives to family ranchers. This philosophy is of vital importance because it also protects wetland habitats that otherwise are vulnerable to drainage when native prairie is converted to cropland. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, this would conserve our prairie heritage for future generations while preserving the private property rights of landowners.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)42-50
Number of pages9
Issue numberSPECIAL PUBL.2
StatePublished - 2002


  • Agriculture
  • Cropland
  • Grassland
  • Land use
  • Nesting cover
  • South Dakota
  • Wetlands


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