Cooperatove Conservation Project

Conserving Prairie Ranches, Ranchers, and Grassland Birds

Ranchers Working to Conserve Prairie Habitats

Location: Midwest/Northern High Plains Region: Montana North Dakota South Dakota

Project Summary: A landscape-level project that uses purchased conservation easements to conserve native grasslands and wetlands vital to ranchers and grassland birds.
Click for Full Size
A duck nest located in the native grassland of North Dakota. (Photo by James K. Ringelman)
Resource Challenge
Ranchers and grassland birds both depend on healthy grass and water.  Populations of grassland birds have experienced greater declines than any other avian group. Moreover, ducks and other waterfowl are the focus of great interest, with many of their populations below desired levels. Loss of grasslands and wetlands, and the resulting habitat fragmentation, are behind these population declines.
Despite the recent upturn in cattle prices, ranchers in the Dakotas and Montana face financial hurdles. New drought-tolerant, herbicide resistant crop varieties, efficient farm implements, high commodity prices, and the financial safety net afforded crop producers have stimulated the conversion of grassland to cropland. Consequently, grassland available to ranchers is increasingly scarce and expensive.
Ducks Unlimited (DU), the USDI Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), and other partners in the region have joined with ranchers who want to protect their wetlands and grasslands for livestock, wildlife, and future generations.
Examples of Key Partners
DU, FWS, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks, North Dakota Game and Fish Department, North Dakota Natural Resources Trust, ranchers of the Dakotas and Montana.
Results and Accomplishments
Ducks Unlimited and the FWS use simple conservation easements to protect critical prairie resources. Ranchers who enter into perpetual grassland easements are paid an amount equal to the difference between the value of their land as pasture and the potential value as cropland. Thus, ranchers realize much of the equity in their land without the need to plow grasslands. In exchange, they agree not to plow or otherwise destroy the grass, and to wait until after July 15th (the primary nesting season) to cut hay. Grazing and other uses are allowed. Landowners selling wetland easements are also fairly compensated, and agree not to drain, fill, or alter the wetland basin. However, when small wetlands become dry, as occurs naturally, farmers may plant crops in the wetland basin if they so desire.  

More than 1,400 ranch families have partnered with wildlife conservationists to protect critical wetlands and grasslands in the Dakotas and Montana. More than 22,000 wetland easements have secured 8.75 million acres of critical breeding habitat for waterfowl and other wildlife. Many of these provide watering sources for livestock and hay for ranchers. Some 2,300 grassland easements, mostly on native prairie, have secured 570,000 acres of habitat for birds and pasture for ranchers. 


Simple, purchased easements allow property to remain in private ownership as working land, yet retain critical resource values.

Project Contact
James Ringelman
Director of Conservation Programs
Ducks Unlimited, Inc.



To request additions or corrections to this case study email the Administrator