A recently completed study concludes that two USDA conservation programs provide benefits on more than 5 million acres of wetland and adjacent grassland habitat in the Prairie Pothole Region, said Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer at a White House conference on North American wildlife policy.

“Voluntary conservation efforts have proven benefits to a vast region of significant wetland acres that provide excellent wildlife habitat and benefit local residents,” Schafer said.

The study quantified how the establishment and management of prairie wetlands and associated grasslands through the CRP and WRP have positively influenced ecosystem services in the following ways:

Improvement in sediment and nutrient control.

Soil loss was reduced on 682,048 acres of upland CRP and WRP land by an estimated average of 1.9 million tons per year. If these annual soil loss reductions remain unchanged, it is estimated that more than 23 million tons of soil have been saved since the acres were enrolled in CRP and WRP.

Potential to intercept and store precipitation that would contribute to downstream flooding.

Wetland catchments would intercept precipitation on approximately 1.1 million acres of CRP and WRP lands.

Improvement in wetland and upland plant community quality and richness.

Potential to sequester atmospheric carbon in soil and vegetation.

Wetland catchments on CRP and WRP lands can potentially sequester an estimated 244,960 tons of soil organic carbon.

Additionally, study researchers demonstrated an approach to measure the improvement in bird habitat through enrollment in CRP and WRP, the nation’s most successful wetlands conservation programs administered on private agricultural land.

The study, “Ecosystem Services Derived from Wetland Conservation Practices in the United States Prairie Pothole Region with an Emphasis on the U.S. Department of Agriculture Conservation Reserve and Wetlands Reserve Programs,” was conducted by U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) researchers with support from the Conservation Effects Assessment Project (CEAP), a multi-agency effort led by the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (USDA-NRCS). The study is available at http://pubs.usgs.gov/pp/1745/.

Providing critical breeding, nesting and brood habitat as the nation’s “duck factory,” the Prairie Pothole Region of the Northern Great Plains covers more than 347,000 square miles and extends from the north-central U.S. to south-central Canada. USGS researchers found that wetland basins and contributing uplands known as prairie potholes also sequester atmospheric carbon in wetland soil.

USGS, USDA-Farm Service Agency (FSA) and USDA-NRCS studied how USDA wetland conservation practices and farm bill conservation programs specifically affect what scientists refer to as “ecosystem services,” such as the natural cleansing of water, and the natural breakdown of waste.

The study also provides baseline data to develop an integrated landscape model that will assist USDA in monitoring changes in ecosystems services that result from conservation practices and programs and from climate change. The model will be developed through the CEAP wetland component. CEAP assesses the effects of existing conservation programs and practices, develops new conservation science and supports the translation of that science into practice. Additional information about CEAP can be found at http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/technical/nri/ceap/.

CRP is the nation’s largest private-lands conservation program with more than 33 million acres enrolled. FSA administers CRP on behalf of USDA’s Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC) and NRCS provides the conservation technical assistance necessary for the landowners to conserve, maintain, and improve their natural resources.

Through CRP, farmers and ranchers enroll eligible land in 10- to 15-year contracts. Participants plant appropriate cover in association with establishing wetlands, establishing grasses and trees in crop fields and installing buffers along streams. These conservation practices help prevent soil and nutrients from running into regional waterways and affecting water quality. The long-term vegetative cover also improves wildlife habitat and soil quality.

NRCS administers WRP as a voluntary program and provides technical and financial assistance to help landowners establish and manage wetland ecosystems. The goal of the program is to achieve, for the funds expended, the greatest wetland functions and values, along with optimum wildlife habitat, on every acre enrolled in the program. This conservation incentives program offers landowners an opportunity to establish long-term conservation easements that benefits wildlife and sustain other wetland ecosystem services.