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More corn for ethanol leading to less grassland for prairie birds

MITCHELL, S.D. -- A new report says government incentives for corn-based ethanol are motivating farmers to convert grasslands to cornfields, resulting in declining grassland bird populations in the Prairie Pothole Region, including Minnesota and North and South Dakota.

"If we proceed along the current trajectory without changing federal policies, the prairie pothole will be further degraded and fragmented, and the many services it provides will be impossible to restore," says the report, titled "Corn Ethanol and Wildlife: How increases in corn plantings are affecting habitat and wildlife in the Prairie Pothole Region." The report was published by the National Wildlife Federation and is based on a study conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan.

The report says an additional 4.15 million acres were put into corn production in Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota between 2005 and 2007. About 3.2 million of those acres were in the Prairie Pothole Region, which covers parts of six states and is characterized by grasslands and thousands of shallow, "pothole" wetlands left behind thousands of years ago by retreating glaciers.

The report says the Prairie Pothole Region is a "globally unique" and "nationally important" ecosystem. Up to 75 percent of all North American waterfowl are believed to breed in the region, and roughly 300 of the 800 migratory bird species in North America rely on the region for breeding and nesting, and for feeding and resting during spring and fall migrations, the report says.

When researchers analyzed the relationship between corn plantings and grassland bird populations, the results showed that counties with high increases in corn plantings had declines of nearly 30 percent in populations of sensitive grassland birds between 2005 and 2008. The grassland birds that were included in the study were dickcissels, grasshopper sparrows, sedge wrens, upland sandpipers and western meadowlarks.

Incentives to plant more corn are being offered by the federal government as part of a plan to dramatically increase production of ethanol. U.S. ethanol capacity has grown nearly 200 percent since the passage of the 2005 Energy Bill, the report says, and a Renewable Fuel Standard adopted in 2007 requires ethanol production to increase from 10.57 billion gallons in 2009 to 15 billion gallons in 2015.

"This means corn ethanol production will continue to increase," said the National Wildlife Federation in a news release about the report, "with no end in sight for the destruction of natural habitat in the Prairie Pothole Region."

The report offered four main recommendations to preserve the Prairie Pothole ecosystem: Reconsideration of government mandates and financial support for corn ethanol; protection of prairies and wetlands from conversion to cropland; strengthening of the federal Conservation Reserve Program, which pays landowners to convert marginal cropland to vegetative cover; and additional research.

A representative of the National Corn Growers Association criticized the report in a post on the association's "Corn Commentary" blog. The blog post said the report ignored some key information, such as the increase in national corn bushels per acre from 150.7 in 2007 to 165.2 in 2009. Those numbers, the blog post said, show that farmers are "growing more corn with fewer acres."

"It's time for the opposition to move beyond the arguments that may have been in vogue a few years ago and embrace the new reality," the blog post said.

The Environmental Working Group fired back, saying in a news release that "yield increases haven't been enough to blunt the expansion of corn into wildlife habitat." The E

group also said that the findings should be "a wake up call for sportsmen and the recreation industry."

"Unless there's a shift in ideology with the members of Congress who control funding toward a more sustainable farm policy," said the Environmental Working Group, "wild bird populations will continue their dramatic decline in the Midwest."

Tupper is a reporter at The Daily Republic in Mitchell, S.D., which is owned by Forum Communications Co.