Tucked into folds of rippling grassland, thousands of small wetlands dot the Lostwood National Wildlife Refuge in western North Dakota. The refuge preserves an 11,000-hectare (27,000-acre) remnant of North America’s Prairie Pothole Region, a vast nursery for the continent’s waterfowl that once stretched from northern Iowa to southern Alberta. The pothole wetlands were formed by melting ice blocks deposited when glaciers retreated across North America 10,000 years ago, but development over the past two centuries has destroyed nearly two-thirds of them. Wildlife managers in the Dakotas are racing to protect those that remain from a new wave of farm expansion and oil exploration. Their status under the federal Clean Water Act, however, is ambiguous, which leaves the fate of many potholes at the mercy of voluntary conservation by landowners.
When landowners decide to “break” prairie to make way for row crops, they first burn their fields then treat them with herbicides before planting a crop like no-till soybeans. “I remember during the first Gulf War seeing images when Saddam lit all of those oil wells,” said Neil Shook, refuge manager at Chase Lake. “That’s the image that happened here in 2012. There were plumes of smoke everywhere. It happened so quick. It was overnight. What had existed for decades on this landscape was just gone.” He recalls one stretch of prairie where sharp tailed grouse would gather each year in a lek to perform courtship displays. After the prairie was broken, “I saw the grouse dancing on soybeans,” Shook said. Native prairies are essential to the productivity of prairie potholes, providing cover for the nests of grassland birds and waterfowl, which can lay their eggs more than 3 kilometers (2 miles) away from a wetland.
This story originally appeared on Circle of Blue and was supported by a fellowship from the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources. View the full slideshow here.