Day One: Prairie Potholes 101

The Sea of Grass and Water on the Great Plains

 The prairie pothole region (PPR) is a landscape of rolling grasslands pockmarked with seasonal wetlands that once covered much of the Dakotas and parts of Montana, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa. Today, though much diminished, the PPR still produces 50 to 70 percent of North American ducks each year and supports waterfowl, wildlife and water quality across the Great Plains. Over opening-night dinner, the group heard from representative of USFWS and ND Fish & Game about the creation, ecology, degradation and preservation of the region, and got an overview of how what happens in the PPR has impacts that reach beyond its borders.

Day Two: Ethanol, Corn as King, Preserving Prairies

Ethanol: North Dakota’s Other Boom

A little over a decade ago, a combination of high oil prices, lower corn prices, demand for biofuels and government subsidies ignited a boom in corn-based ethanol production. The boom was a boon to small communities and struggling farmers across North Dakota, spurring a push to put more acres into ag. Although on the wane nationally, the ethanol economy is still a vital part of the state and the Dakota Spirit AgEnergy refinery, completed in 2015, is one of five such refineries in the state, producing more than 450 million gallons of ethanol each year, a ten-fold increase since 2005. The group toured the refinery and talked with local officials, farmers and industry reps about the growth of this intersection of the ag and energy economies.

From Field to Silo to Gas Tank: How Corn Becomes Fuel

The Dakota Spirit AgEnergy refinery is the U.S.’s first new ethanol plant to open in more than five years. Part of that delay was due, in part, to new renewable energy mandates that stated any new ethanol plant had to meet certain carbon reduction goals. To accomplish this, the Dakota Spirit project connected to Great River Energy’s nearby coal-fired power plant, where it uses that facility’s waste steam for power. The group got to see how this works, talk about the decision to make this a grain-based, instead of cellulosic ethanol plant, and learn more about other state-of-the-art technologies in biofuel production.  

Losing Ground: Struggling to Conserve PPR Habitat Where Corn is King 

Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge is one of only two Wilderness Areas in the National Wildlife Refuge system in North Dakota. It’s namesake lake and surrounding prairie pothole habitat is home to one of the world’s largest American white pelican colonies, countless other shore birds, waterfowl, upland birds and other flora and fauna. It is also rich in American history – parts of the intact prairie are still studded with ancient tipi rings and large rocks are worn smooth where bison herds once took turns scratching itches. Today, the surrounding remnants of prairie and grasslands not in the refuge’s 4,385 acres are rapidly disappearing, as landowners find that the money they can make by putting land in conservation easements pales in comparison to the price of corn. The group talked to a refuge manager who is watching the landscape changing in front of him, NGOs working to get non-refuge land in conservation and landowners who have decided to keep prairie and others who planted corn. 

 

 

Day Three: Ducks, Policy, Cattle, and Reservation Media

Protecting the Duck Factory: Ducks Unlimited’s Coteau Ranch

Just outside of Wing, North Dakota, Ducks Unlimited owns about 3,000 acres in some of the best duck nesting habitat in the country. Nearby, The Nature Conservancy’s Davis Ranch ensures conservation of another 7,000 acres of the prairie pothole ecosystem. The creation of the working-land refuges was a long and winding road. DU had to navigate restrictive state laws and outright rejection of the purchase from the governor. Finally, supportive local landowners stepped in and donated the land in order to get the deal done. The group got to learn more about this diverse habitat, ongoing conservation efforts, current research, restoration efforts and also take time to hike the rolling hills.

Where Policy Becomes Reality: How the Farm Bill, State Regulations and Politics Play Out on the Land

Of course much of what shapes the landscape we see before us starts with policies and regulations crafted in the halls of the statehouse in Bismarck or all the way out on Capitol Hill. Fellows met with representatives of Ducks Unlimited, The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, NRCS, Audubon Dakota, ND Game & Fish, The Nature Conservancy and Delta Waterfowl to discuss of the wonkier side of land conservation. 

Grazing Cattle and Growing Ducks: Life on a ‘Working Landscape’   

Wildlife conservation and human industry aren’t always mutually exclusive. Grazing is a good example. Using cattle as a proxy for the bison that once roamed these lands, state agencies and non-profit groups are working with local ranchers to implement grazing regimes on the landscape that promote healthy nesting habitat for ducks and enhanced biodiversity. The group visited a working cattle ranch to hear about efforts from landowners, environmental groups and resource managers to promote sustainable uses of the PPR and build a working landscape. 

Covering the Environment on the Reservation

The Fort Berthold reservation is home to the Three Affiliated Tribes of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara. Bordering the Missouri River and boasting nearly a million acres, the reservation is also home to McLean National Wildlife Reserve, Lake Sakakawea, the third-largest manmade lake in the country, and a huge amount of the oil and gas reserves in the Bakken formation. The group hear from the editor of Buffalo’s Fire, an independent news site dedicated to open and truthful reporting about natural resource and wildlife issues on tribal lands, where media are often influenced, if not outright controlled, by tribal government. 

 

Day Four: Pothole Preservation, O&G Development, Brine Spills

Lostwood National Wildlife Refuge: Preserving Prairie Pothole Habitat in an Oil Boom

Managing a national wildlife refuge is hard work. Managing one in the middle of a giant oil and gas boom is a whole different story. Since 2005, refuge managers at Lostwood National Wildlife Refuge (LNWR) have watched as 7,000 wells have gone into production within the greater LNWR complex. 900 of those wells are on easements that have been set aside to preserve Prairie Pothole habitat. While managers, for the most part, can’t tell companies where to drill, they can negotiate to minimize impacts to the 14,469 acres of mixed grass prairie – the largest tract of this kind of habitat in the National Wildlife Refuge system. The group headed to headquarters for a briefing before getting out into the field to see where these often-competing land-uses intersect and how agencies, landowners and industry are reaching compromises to keep both oil and gas and wildlife in production.   

Studying the Wildlife Impacts of Oil and Gas Development in the PPR

As oil began to be pumped out of the Bakken, a whole lot of machinery, activity and, well, humanity moved into what was previously a sparsely populated area of wide-open spaces. Now, as that boom begins to wane, infrastructure like roads, well pads and pipelines stays behind. Little is currently known, however, about what this all means for both resident and migratory wildlife and birds. The journalists visited with some scientists at their research field sites and heard about how they’re studying impacts and how the O & G industry goes about trying to minimize them. 

Brine Spills: Mitigating and Preventing a Pernicious Problem

While oil spills are a more commonly known risk of extracting and transporting oil and gas, fewer people are aware of the impact of brine spills, a byproduct of fracking. This fluid contains elevated levels of dissolved salts, other contaminants and radium. These spills can be more pernicious and difficult to clean than “standard” oil spills, as brine can make its way into the groundwater. The group visited the site of a fairly recent brine spill that occurred on land within the Lostwood NWR complex, and learned both about brine spill remediation and how companies work to prevent spills in the first place.  

 

 

Day Five: Journalism, Outdoor Economies

Constant Versus Context: Covering the Environment in the Digital Age

In the digital world today, journalists have traded their role of gatekeepers for one of sifters and winnowers – finding facts in a deluge of information. Led by digital-media trainer Mike Scott, the group had the opportunity to explore the brave new world of digital media and identify some useful tools that can help journalists investigate issues, tell stories better and get the results out to a wider audience. 

Telling Environment Stories Better

During a boat ride around Devils Lake, the group had an opportunity to dig in to a discussion on reporting our beat. Environment and resource stories are some of the hardest to fit into the usual journalism mold. Or, as our esteemed founder always put it, “they don’t break, they ooze.” We had a chance to explore some of the difficulties of doing “good” environment, energy and resource journalism; brainstorm ideas for how to cover some of the stories we encountered on our trip; examples of clear, nuanced and powerful storytelling; and tips and tricks for getting the most out of our own reporting and writing.

More Than Corn and Cows: The Outdoor Economy of Prairie Pothole Ecology

Earlier in the trip, we heard about landowners taking advantage of high corn prices and others grazing cattle on the prairie pothole landscape. But the PPR is valued by human economies for other reasons as well – notably the hunting, fishing and outdoor activities it provides. Tourism in North Dakota is a $3.6 billion industry and much of that tourism is around outdoor pursuits. Fellows were joined at dinner by local outfitters, hunting guides, city officials and resort owners for a discussion about the PPR’s value to the rural economy and how these groups work to protect the habitat that supports their respective industries.

 

Day Six: Nest Checks and Rising Lakes

Duck, Duck, Goose: Counting Birds and Checking Nests in the PPR

After a week of talking about prairie pothole conservation, the journalists finally got an in-the-field look at how resource managers see if their efforts are panning out – by flushing birds off of nests and checking for viable eggs. the group headed out to the Nikolaisen Waterfowl Production Area (WPA) to discuss the current condition of waterfowl populations across the PPR, learn why methyl mercury contamination in managed wetlands occurs and why it’s a concern. We also visited some restoration sites and saw first hand what it takes to get severely degraded habitat back into suitable shape to support both water quality and wildlife production. 

Underwater: The Astonishing Rise of Devils Lake and the Potential Impacts Downstream

A feature left behind by the glaciers 10,000 years ago, Devils Lake is a terminal lake, located in the lowest point of a closed drainage basin. Its geologic placement makes for some remarkable hydrology – scientists say that it is “not unusual” for the lake to fluctuate 20 to 40 feet over the course of a few hundred years. Most of these fluctuations, however, occurred before humans entered the picture. In the last twenty years, Devils Lake has risen thirty feet, eating away farmland and habitat, overtaking highways and chasing communities to higher ground. (Both the Woodland Resort and the USFWS’s Devils Lake Wetland Management District headquarters were moved uphill)

In fact, Devils Lake has grown from a small, shallow pool to the third-largest natural lake west of Minnesota. Such a marked increase has people looking for what’s to blame and, indeed, over the last few decades, thousands of acres of wetlands have been converted into agriculture – with farmers often adding tiled drainage systems to their fields to get excess water off the land faster. While the loss of wetlands certainly hasn’t helped the cause, researchers say that it’s not what’s behind the rapidly rising waters. The latest science on the rise of Devils Lake indicates that the majority of the change can be explained by a sustained period of above average precipitation. While area residents grapple with this “new normal,” downstream communities worry that the lake will reach an elevation where its waters spill over into the Sheyenne River and, eventually, the Red River, creating flood and water quality issues downstream. Fellows got a view of the levees keeping the city of Devils Lake dry, and visited the east end outlet, a pumping station that sloughs water out of the lake and into the Sheyenne River. 

 

Day Seven: Pollinators and Bluestem

From the Bird to the Bees: Promoting Pollinator Health and Biodiversity in the PPR

Much has been made about the critical role pollinators play in human food production, but critters that scatter plant DNA are just as important in sustaining biological diversity in natural ecosystems. The group gamely donned bee suits and leaned in for a closer look at the granddaddy of all pollinators: the beleaguered but epically determined honeybee. 

PPR Conservation on the Other Side of the (State) Border – Minnesota’s Prairie Conservation Plan and Abundance in the Bluestem

 In 2008, Minnesota voters passed an amendment to the state Constitution called the “Clean Water, Land and Legacy” amendment. The Legacy Amendment hiked state sales tax rates by three-eights of one percent through 2034. The result is an annual funding stream of $100 million or more. Taking advantage of this mandate and a reliable funding stream, a group of ten conservation groups and state and federal agencies came up with the Minnesota Prairie Conservation Plan. Historically, tallgrass prairie covered 18 million acres of the Minnesota landscape, stretching from what is now Manitoba to Iowa. Today, only about 235,000 acres survive – often in tiny tracts of land that were in terrain too difficult to farm. But, what Minnesota lacks in prairie pothole quantity, it hopes to make up for in conservation initiative. We’ll visit The Nature Conservancy’s Bluestem Prairie Scientific and Natural Area, one of the “crown jewels” in Minnesota’s scant string of “core” prairie habitat. Fellows heard about the plan from its architects, saw how the plan is leading to real-world restoration projects and talked with researchers about the importance of this preserve as both a migratory stopover and home to seventy resident species of birds – from greater prairie chickens and sandhill cranes, to marbled godwits and upland sandpipers.