Conservation Practices Virtual Education Series: Ducks Unlimited
Ducks Unlimited (DU) is a non-profit conservation organization focused on conserving wetlands for the benefit of North America’s waterfowl populations. DU is a continental organization, having conservation programs in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. The primary goal of DU is to ensure that there is sufficient habitat in the landscape to support growing waterfowl populations into the future. This is achieved through two mechanisms: wetland restoration and enhancement, and preservation.
On the Delmarva peninsula (Delaware, Maryland, Virginia), there are two primary deliverables: wetland restoration on publicly owned properties (for example, working with federal government national wildlife refuges, state wildlife management areas) and programs that work with private landowners to restore wetlands and improve habitat on properties.
DU is an accredited land trust, but within the Eastern Shore geography, relies on the partnership of other land trust organizations (such as Eastern Shore Land Conservancy) to provide land protection, while DU contributes funding for such work. Other partners routinely working with DU include The Nature Conservancy (TNC), Lower Shore Land Trust (LSLT), Washington College (WAC), and Natural Resources Conservation District (NRCS). If there’s an organization that is interested in wetland conservation, DU is willing to work with them. A huge compliment of funders also partner with DU – government funders, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, or otherwise private funders and donors.
In order to be involved with a DU program, pre-requisites vary from state to state, and are based upon partnership opportunities, habitat needs, and what stressors pressure the landscape and its migratory waterfowl populations. On the Eastern Shore of Maryland, there is a multi-faceted private lands program: a Farm Bill Biologist, employed by DU, works with NRCS and their county offices in order to help landowners explore opportunities available to them for wetland conservation activities. In this sense, DU’s role is to work with landowners, visit their farms, and complete assessments to determine if there is an opportunity for restoration – then connect those landowners with NRCS, who could then carry out the wetland conservation project.
The other facet of this private landowner program is dependent on DU finding recurrent funding sources. When funding is available, DU is able to implement their own, “in-house” land restoration program that is similar to the Farm Bill Biologist route, but DU completes the project start-to-end. The cost to a landowner for this type of service varies upon the source of the funding available to conduct this type of service. Regardless of whether a landowner works start-to-finish with DU or pursues NRCS, there are plenty of options for funding.
When working through DU’s independent program, there are a few requirements, including that the site has feasible restoration opportunities, through features such as soil and topography that is gathered by either a site visit to collect applicable data or by looking through mapping systems and other online resources.
With DU’s program, typically 5 acres are required to be restored, which can be either continuous or consisting of various smaller acres that total 5 acres on a single property. Through the NRCS partnership, there is typically not a size requirement. However, when pursuing restoration through NRCS, there is a ranking system for projects. If 10 projects come through the door in a given year, for example, the projects are ranked against each other and NRCS determines which one receives funding. In this sense, the size of the project does come into play in terms of ranking.
Additionally, dependent on funding source, some of these restoration opportunities require follow-up visitation to or monitoring on restored properties. Working with a restoration project solely through DU does not require monitoring, though projects typically do involve a 15-year agreement to keep and maintain the land as wetlands. There is no structured annual monitoring for this, but DU does ask the landowner to allow access to the property in order to confirm that the project is still in the agreed upon state. One thing for sure is that DU will not access the property without an advanced notice to the landowner and ensuring permission to do so. If working through NRCS, this can look rather different. Most contracts through NRCS last 15 to 20 years, and can require either annual monitoring or a single, one-time inspection. Some of the restoration programs through NRCS do implement a conservation easement, which requires its own annual monitoring for perpetuity.
A start-to-finish DU program takes about one year to implement. If funding is secured and an opportunity is found to implement the funds through restoration, then the timeline from site assessment, to survey, to design, to permitting, to contracting, and finally construction typically takes one year to complete. Working through NRCS, the project may also get done in one year under perfect conditions, but in observation, typically takes longer (especially if additionally pursuing an easement).
The perceived benefits of enrolling in wetland restoration through Ducks Unlimited are typically dependent on the interest of the landowner. Habitat benefits that come through restoring degraded landscapes back to functioning wetlands could be one primary benefit that a landowner experiences, while others may be interested in the broader ecosystem benefits in terms of benefiting the health of the Chesapeake Bay at large. Additional benefits include storm water storage, flood reduction, sediment and nutrient reduction to larger bodies of water, carbon sequestration, and cleaner drinking water. Some people pursue wetland restoration as an economic driver – NRCS programs can pay rental payments for landowners to take agricultural land out of production and restoring it to wetlands, which is usually commiserate with costs it takes to rent land out to produce it agriculturally.
In addition to benefits, landowners might want to consider potential drawbacks as well. If the land is agricultural, then converting into wetlands might give up revenue that might be coming off that cropland. DU traditionally looks for land to restore that were historically wetlands, which often leads to marginally productive cropland. Giving up more productive or prime agriculture to wetland restoration would not only have a drawback to agricultural integrity, but also might not be in economic interest to a landowner. Wetland restoration also does require management strategies and activities, even in the most passive scenarios. In order for a wetland to function, there has to be implementation of management strategies, and DU often does wetland work that does require more management than passively designed wetlands. The recurring management, however, helps landowners maximize the benefit out of their restored landscapes.
Jake McPherson recognizes that DU’s main constituent base is comprised of waterfowl hunters, but wishes to express that DU exists to benefit the resource. It is DU’s desire that people who don’t hunt, and maybe don’t even agree with hunting, understand that the work they do has benefits way beyond just waterfowl. A great amount of the land that is under public preservation was acquired with funding from hunting license sales, for example. One does not have to be a duck hunter to support this, as the idea is that people are putting money towards habitat conservation. Ducks Unlimited appreciates the support of non-hunters just as much as they do the waterfowl hunters. The Eastern Shore is unique to the work of DU in the sense that waterfowl hunting culture exists here on the Delmarva because the ducks are here: The Chesapeake Bay area is a terminus for ducks in their migratory pathway during the non-breeding season. They breed in Canada and they pick up in the fall to migrate south for the winter. Many of those birds stop on the Delmarva Peninsula and in the Chesapeake Bay region to spend their whole winter. They may spend a portion of spring before they head back to the breeding grounds for the summer. Granted, some of them do continue on to location further south, but a huge proportion of them winter on the Delmarva. So, this landscape is referred to as a migratory landscape and a wintering landscape, meaning that support is needed for the birds that decide to stay here, habitat wise, and the birds that are just passing through. The Chesapeake Bay is one of, if not the most important, landscape features for migratory waterfowl in the Atlantic Flyway. DU wishes to make sure that they are continuing to ensure that there is sufficient habitat, both in terms of quality and quantity, on the landscape to support those birds indefinitely. This region is unique in that there is a large diversity in the types of birds that both arrive and winter here. There may be a big hunting culture present, but that wouldn’t exist on the Eastern Shore if the birds weren’t here in the densities that they are. It’s important that Ducks Unlimited can continue to support them.