Global warming will hurt ducks in western prairies

WILLMAR -- If even the most conservative models for global warming prove true, North America's prairie pothole "duck factory" will be moving eastward into western Minnesota.

WILLMAR -- If even the most conservative models for global warming prove true, North America's prairie pothole "duck factory" will be moving eastward into western Minnesota.

Minnesota hunters who now migrate west each fall to the Dakotas for their favorite sport could find the roles reversed as early as 2050. "Instead of taillights, it would be headlights,'' said Dr. W. Carter Johnson, who is a professor of ecology at South Dakota State University in Brookings.

There is one problem with the potential east-ward shift: "We have lost our wetlands,'' said Johnson, who spoke Wed-nesday in Willmar at the third annual forum on shallow lakes.

Johnson and a team of researchers made national news last year with the publication of their work. It showed how global climate change could alter the prairie pothole region of North America by the year 2100. It has led to renewed calls for restoring and protecting wetlands in the prairie pothole region of western Minnesota.

Johnson told a crowd of 275 at the Holiday Inn and Willmar Conference Center that he and his fellow researchers did not expect the extent of change that their computer modeling would show.


The region covers 1,000 square kilometers from eastern Alberta and western Saskatchewan, Canada, to the eastern Dakotas, western Minnesota and northwestern and central Iowa. It produces 50 to 80 percent of the continent's ducks. Computer models on global warming predict that the average temperature in this region will rise by 3.6 to 6.1 degrees Celsius by the year 2100.

The researchers used their computer model to consider what the most conservative of the predicted temperatures changes -- a 3-degree Celsius increase -- would do to the wetlands in the region.

The models showed the greatest loss of wetland habitat would occur in the western and northern portions of the prairie pothole region. Global warming will cause greater temperature increases and precipitation changes in this part of the region than in the eastern and especially, the southeastern corner where Minnesota is located.

In the western region, wetlands that now produce ducks in six or eight of every 10 years would provide suitable nesting habitat only in perhaps one of every 10 years, according to Johnson.

"These are quite vulnerable,'' he said of the western wetlands.

The models also show that the conditions most favorable for duck reproduction would shift eastward into western Minnesota. There would be a marked decline in the ability of wetland complexes now found in the eastern Dakotas and Manitoba to provide nesting habitat.

These areas are currently considered the "duck factory'' of the prairie pothole region.

Johnson said the prairie pothole duck factory would either shift eastward, "or disappear altogether.''


Based on the findings, Johnson is recommending that we "hedge our bets'' on the future of the prairie pothole region and do more to restore and protect the wetland complexes found in western Minnesota.

He added that while the dramatic changes projected by the computer models were more than he expected, they should not come as a surprise. Wetlands are "very sensitive systems,'' he said.

Western Minnesota was once rich in wetlands, but the region's ability to once again host large numbers of breeding pairs of waterfowl is in question.

Nearly 90 percent of the historic wetlands in western Minnesota have been drained, according to information also provided at the conference.

The two-day conference is sponsored by the Minnesota River Board with several partners including state agencies and outdoors groups.

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