Prairie Pothole Region: At the Current Pace of Acquisitions, the 
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Is Unlikely to Achieve Its Habitat
Protection Goals for Migratory Birds (27-SEP-07, GAO-07-1093).	 
                                                                 
The 64-million-acre Prairie Pothole Region in the north-central  
United States provides breeding grounds for over 60 percent of	 
key migratory bird species in the United States. During much of  
the 20th century, the draining of wetlands and the conversion of 
prairie to cropland has reduced bird habitat. Under the Small	 
Wetlands Acquisition Program, the Department of the Interior's	 
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (the Service) aims to sustain	 
remaining migratory bird populations by permanently protecting	 
high-priority habitat. Some habitat is temporarily protected	 
under the Department of Agriculture's Conservation Reserve	 
Program. In this context, GAO examined (1) the status of the	 
Service's acquisition program in the region, (2) the Service's	 
habitat protection goals for the region, and (3) challenges to	 
achieving these goals. To answer these objectives, GAO examined  
Service land acquisition data and projected rates of habitat	 
loss.								 
-------------------------Indexing Terms------------------------- 
REPORTNUM:   GAO-07-1093					        
    ACCNO:   A76768						        
  TITLE:     Prairie Pothole Region: At the Current Pace of	      
Acquisitions, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Is Unlikely to  
Achieve Its Habitat Protection Goals for Migratory Birds	 
     DATE:   09/27/2007 
  SUBJECT:   Agricultural programs				 
	     Conservation					 
	     Cost analysis					 
	     Easements						 
	     Environmental protection				 
	     Land management					 
	     Migratory birds					 
	     Program evaluation 				 
	     Program management 				 
	     Real estate purchases				 
	     Real property acquisition				 
	     Strategic planning 				 
	     Waterfowl						 
	     Wetlands						 
	     Wildlife						 
	     Wildlife conservation				 
	     Program goals or objectives			 
	     FWS Small Wetlands Acquisition Program		 
	     Land and Water Conservation Fund			 
	     Migratory Bird Conservation Fund			 
	     USDA Conservation Reserve Program			 

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GAO-07-1093

   

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United States Government Accountability Office: 
GAO: 

Report to the Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related 
Agencies, Committee on Appropriations, House of Representatives: 

September 2007: 

Prairie Pothole Region: 

At the Current Pace of Acquisitions, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 
Is Unlikely to Achieve Its Habitat Protection Goals for Migratory 
Birds: 

FAO-07-1093: 

GAO Highlights:

Highlights of GAO-07-1093, a report to the Subcommittee on Interior, 
Environment, and Related Agencies, Committee on Appropriations, House 
of Representatives. 

Why GAO Did This Study:

The 64-million-acre Prairie Pothole Region in the north-central United 
States provides breeding grounds for over 60 percent of key migratory 
bird species in the United States. During much of the 20th century, the 
draining of wetlands and the conversion of prairie to cropland has 
reduced bird habitat. Under the Small Wetlands Acquisition Program, the 
Department of the Interior�s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (the 
Service) aims to sustain remaining migratory bird populations by 
permanently protecting high-priority habitat. Some habitat is 
temporarily protected under the Department of Agriculture�s 
Conservation Reserve Program.

In this context, GAO examined (1) the status of the Service�s 
acquisition program in the region, (2) the Service�s habitat protection 
goals for the region, and (3) challenges to achieving these goals. To 
answer these objectives, GAO examined Service land acquisition data and 
projected rates of habitat loss. 

What GAO Found:

Since the inception of the Small Wetlands Acquisition Program in the 
late 1950s, the Service has acquired and permanently protected about 3 
million acres of wetlands and grasslands in the Prairie Pothole Region, 
primarily using Migratory Bird Conservation Funds. The Service has 
purchased outright almost 700,000 acres and acquired permanent 
conservation easements on more than 2.3 million acres that are 
privately owned.

To sustain bird populations in the region, the Service�s goal is to 
acquire and permanently protect as much as possible of an additional 12 
million acres of �high-priority� habitat�at-risk acreage capable of 
supporting a high number of breeding duck pairs per square mile. The 
goal acreage consists of 1.4 million acres of wetlands and 10.4 million 
acres of grasslands. According to the Service, achieving this goal is 
necessary to sustain the region�s current population of 4.2 million 
breeding duck pairs and to ensure that enough habitat is maintained 
during wet years, when duck populations boom. 

At the current pace of acquisitions, it could take the Service around 
150 years and billions of dollars to acquire its 12 million goal acres. 
Some emerging market forces, however, suggest that the Service may have 
only several decades before most of its goal acreage is converted to 
agricultural uses. The pace of acquisitions could be increased 
marginally by using existing funds more efficiently or substantially by 
providing additional resources. The Service has purchased some 
expensive habitat in South Dakota. On the basis of GAO�s analysis, the 
Service could have acquired about an additional 8,500 acres of high-
priority habitat in South Dakota in fiscal year 2006, over and above 
the 16,169 acres that it did acquire, by more effectively targeting low-
cost, high-priority habitat. However, with about $17 million per year 
for land acquisitions in the Prairie Pothole Region, the Service�s 
limited resources pose a substantial challenge. Another way to address 
this challenge is to explore additional resource alternatives, such as 
increasing the price of the federal Duck Stamp (these funds are placed 
in the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund), reauthorizing a wetlands 
loan, or providing additional funds from the Land and Water 
Conservation Fund. Each of these alternatives would require 
congressional action, such as H.R. 2735 and S. 272, which have been 
introduced in the 110th Congress.

Image: The Prairie Pothole Region:

This image contains two maps: a map of the United States and a map of 
Montana, North and South Dakota, Minnesota, and Iowa. Both maps contain 
shaded areas that depict the extent of the Prairie Pothole Region in 
the United States.

Source: Prairie Pothole Joint Venture.

[End of image]

What GAO Recommends:

GAO suggests that Congress consider several alternatives as it 
deliberates on resource levels for habitat protection in the region. In 
addition, GAO is recommending that the Service focus more on acquiring 
the least expensive, high-priority habitat. The Department of the 
Interior did not provide comments in time for them to be included as 
part of this report. 

[hyperlink, http://www.gao.gov/cgi-bin/getrpt?GAO-07-1093].

To view the full product, including the scope and methodology, click on 
the link above. For more information, contact Robin M. Nazzaro at (202) 
512-3841 or [email protected] 

[End of section]

Contents:

Letter:

Results in Brief:

Background:

The Service Has Acquired and Permanently Protected about 3 Million 
Acres of Migratory Bird Habitat in the Prairie Pothole Region Since 
1959:

The Service Aims to Permanently Protect as Much as Possible of the 12 
Million Acres It Has Identified as High-Priority Habitat:

At the Current Pace of Acquisitions the Service Is Unlikely to Achieve 
Its Habitat Protection Goals, but Options Exist to Increase the Pace of 
Acquisitions:

Conclusions:

Recommendation for Executive Action:

Matter for Congressional Consideration:

Agency Comments:

Appendixes:

Appendix I: Scope and Methodology:

Appendix II: Detailed Methodology for GAO's Optimization and Spatial 
Analysis:

Appendix III: GAO Contact and Staff Acknowledgments:

Tables:

Table 1: Land Acquisitions in the Prairie Pothole Region under the 
Small Wetlands Acquisition Program, 1959-2006:

Table 2: Expiration Dates for Conservation Reserve Program Contracts in 
the Prairie Pothole Region:

Figures:

Figure 1: U.S. Portion of the Prairie Pothole Region:

Figure 2: Prairie Potholes in Burke County, North Dakota (May 1999):

Figure 3: Wetland Drainage in 50 Square Miles of Jackson County, 
Minnesota (1892 to 1992):

Figure 4: Predicted Duck Pair Densities in the Prairie Pothole Region:

Figure 5: Conversion of Native Grassland to Cropland in a High-Priority 
Habitat Area of Sandorn County, South Dakota (c. 2007):

Figure 6: Matrix of Cost in Relation to Habitat Value of Grassland 
Easements Acquired (Number, Average Cost, and Acreage) in South Dakota, 
(Fiscal Years 2002-2006):

Figure 7: Estimated Habitat Value per Dollar for Grassland Easement 
Acquisitions in South Dakota (Fiscal Years 2002-2006):

Figure 8: Methodology for Habitat Value per Dollar Matrix:


[End of section]

United States Government Accountability Office: 
Washington, DC 20548: 

September 27, 2007:

The Honorable Norman D. Dicks: 
Chairman: 
The Honorable Todd Tiahrt: 
Ranking Member: 
Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies: 
Committee on Appropriations: 
House of Representatives: 

Before European settlement, the 64-million-acre Prairie Pothole Region 
was one of the largest grassland-wetland ecosystems in the world. Even 
today, the remaining intact acreage, which is spread across parts of 
Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota, provides 
breeding grounds for more than 60 percent of key migratory bird species 
in the United States. Prairie wetlands, or "potholes," are freshwater 
depressions and marshes that were created by glaciers thousands of 
years ago. Often seasonal and smaller than 1 acre, prairie wetlands 
provide critical habitat for almost 200 migratory bird species, 
including some--like the piping plover and whooping crane--that are 
threatened or endangered. Throughout the 20TH century, the draining of 
wetlands and the conversion of native prairie to cropland dramatically 
reduced available breeding habitat for migratory birds. A 1988 report 
to Congress by the Secretary of the Interior found that only about 7 
million of the original 20 million acres of prairie wetlands then 
remained. Losses due to agriculture have only increased in the 2 
decades since then. Iowa, for example, has less than 1 percent of its 
original prairie wetlands left. Consequently, alarming declines in the 
populations of many migratory bird species occurred in the latter half 
of the 20TH century across the United States and Canada--mallards 
declined from 8.7 million to 5.5 million, pintails declined from 6.3 
million to 2.9 million, and blue-winged teal declined from 5.3 million 
to 3.8 million--reaching their lowest levels in the 1980s.

Under the Small Wetlands Acquisition Program, the Department of the 
Interior's (Interior) U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (the Service) aims 
to sustain remaining migratory bird populations over the long term by 
acquiring critical breeding habitat in perpetuity. To fulfill this aim, 
the Service protects habitat referred to as "waterfowl production 
areas"--95 percent of which are in the Prairie Pothole Region--through 
two mechanisms: fee-simple acquisitions (buying a piece of land) and 
minimally restrictive easements (which allow farming or grazing once 
certain conservation measures are in place). Minimally restrictive 
easements cost the Service, and taxpayers, less than fee-simple 
acquisitions, since most land-use rights are retained by the landowner, 
and they allow the Service to stretch limited funds to acquire more 
priority habitat. The Small Wetlands Acquisition Program in the Prairie 
Pothole Region is administered by staff in the Service's region 3 and 
region 6. Region 3 covers the Minnesota and Iowa portions of the 
Prairie Pothole Region, while region 6 covers the Montana, North 
Dakota, and South Dakota portions of the Prairie Pothole Region.

During the early years of the program, the focus was on protecting 
wetlands through minimally restrictive wetland easements. In region 6, 
farmers grow crops on land that may have 100 wetlands per square mile. 
If such wetlands are drained, farmers can more easily work the fields 
with large equipment, and additional land becomes available for 
planting. Minimally restrictive wetland easements protect wetlands 
while allowing private landowners to retain ownership of their land and 
to continue farming. In exchange for a one-time, lump-sum payment, 
landowners agree not to drain, fill, or level wetlands on their 
property. Beyond acquiring wetland easements, since September 1989 the 
Service has also used the program to acquire easements on associated 
grassland acreage. These grassland easements increase the program's 
overall effectiveness by also protecting the grasslands surrounding 
already-protected prairie pothole wetlands from conversion to cropland 
or land with other agricultural uses. For example, grassland easements 
provide migratory birds with suitable nesting habitat and cover from 
predators, such as foxes and raccoons. Similar to wetland easements, 
grassland easements are minimally restrictive, in that they allow 
haying after the migratory bird nesting season.

In deciding which lands to acquire, the Service uses biological 
criteria and technologies, such as satellite imaging, to develop models 
that help focus its conservation efforts. These models predict the 
number and location of breeding duck pairs in reference to the location 
and abundance of wetlands and grasslands in the Prairie Pothole 
Region.[Footnote 1] The Service uses these predictions to target 
acquisition areas that are currently capable of supporting a high 
number of breeding duck pairs. Most of these areas are in the Service's 
region 6. In region 3, where more land has been converted to 
agriculture, the Service uses the models' predictions to target areas 
that, although largely used for agricultural purposes, have the highest 
potential to be restored to provide habitat for migratory birds, 
according to region 3 officials.

Despite the Service's concerted efforts, migratory bird populations in 
the Prairie Pothole Region currently face mounting threats. Although 
the Service protects only about 5 percent of acreage in the region, in 
the past it could rely on the likelihood that much of the unprotected, 
available migratory bird habitat was unthreatened because it was either 
unsuitable for agricultural production or temporarily protected by 
Department of Agriculture (Agriculture) conservation 
programs.[Footnote 2] In addition, land prices then were relatively 
low, enabling the Service to acquire a fair amount of land each year 
with limited funds. In the past 10 years, however, land prices have 
risen from about $70 per acre in some parts of the region to more than 
$280 per acre. Moreover, with the advent of genetically modified crops 
and new cropping technologies, landowners can convert much native 
grassland that was previously unsuitable for agricultural uses to crops 
such as corn and soybeans, according to Service realty officials. In 
addition, although Agriculture's Conservation Reserve Program 
currently protects approximately 10 million acres of the region's 
grassland, contracts on about 3.5 million acres are set to expire by 
2010. With the growing popularity of ethanol as a fuel and per-acre 
rental rates for corn exceeding $60 in some areas, landowners receiving 
$40 per acre in these areas under the Conservation Reserve Program have 
a substantial incentive to allow their conservation contracts to expire 
so that they can convert their land to agricultural production.

During the last century when migratory bird populations came under 
threat, Congress took several actions to increase migratory bird 
numbers and slow the trend of converting prairie wetlands to 
agricultural uses. The Migratory Bird Conservation Act of 1929--the 
first federal statute authorizing habitat acquisition--authorized the 
acquisition of land and water to protect migratory birds.[Footnote 3] 
The migratory bird fund was established in 1934 by the Migratory Bird 
Hunting Stamp Act.[Footnote 4] The fund's three principal sources of 
revenue--the sale of federal Duck Stamps purchased by hunters, refuge 
visitors, birders, and other wetland conservationists; import duties on 
arms and ammunition; and 70 percent of certain refuge entrance fees--
produce roughly $44 million annually for land acquisitions, generally 
all of which is expended in the year it is made available. Congress 
amended this act in 1958 to create the Small Wetlands Acquisition 
Program, which authorized the Secretary of the Interior to acquire 
waterfowl production areas that provide necessary habitat for waterfowl 
and other migratory birds.[Footnote 5] Three years later, to prevent 
the serious loss of important wetlands and other waterfowl habitat, 
Congress passed the Wetlands Loan Act, which authorized appropriations 
of up to $105 million to the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund as an 
advance against future Duck Stamp sales.[Footnote 6] In support of the 
legislation, Interior stated that time was "running out" in the race to 
preserve migratory birds because wetland drainage and the conversion of 
grasslands to cropland were reducing available natural habitat. 
[Footnote 7] In 1976, Congress raised the wetlands loan ceiling to $200 
million, and in 1986, Congress forgave the loan.[Footnote 8] Congress 
also has provided additional monies through other sources for land 
acquisitions in the region, such as grants under the North American 
Wetlands Conservation Act and funds from the Land and Water 
Conservation Fund. More recent legislative proposals in the 109th and 
110th Congresses have proposed raising the price of the Duck Stamp and 
reauthorizing a new wetlands loan.[Footnote 9]

In this context, we examined (1) the present status of the Service's 
Small Wetlands Acquisition Program in the Prairie Pothole Region, (2) 
the Service's habitat protection goals for the region, and (3) 
challenges to achieving these goals.

To examine the present status of the Service's Small Wetlands 
Acquisition Program, we analyzed Service fee-simple and easement 
acquisition data in the Prairie Pothole Region, dating from program 
inception in 1959. We also visited three Service realty acquisition 
offices in Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota and reviewed fee 
and easement acquisition records. To examine the Service's habitat 
protection goals, we reviewed Service strategic planning documents for 
the Prairie Pothole Region. We visited the Service's Habitat and 
Population Evaluation Team offices in Minnesota and North Dakota to 
discuss how the Service developed spatial models to identify high-
priority habitat. We also obtained the Service's breeding-duck density 
models and compared them with the location of recent Service 
acquisitions. To examine challenges the Service faces in achieving its 
habitat protection goals, we compared the Service's land acquisition 
rates with grassland conversion rates obtained from Agriculture. We 
also analyzed data on lands protected by Agriculture's Conservation 
Reserve Program. Using these sources, we developed a hypothetical model 
of the amount of time and money necessary for the Service to achieve 
its goals, as well as the amount of habitat that may be converted in 
future years. The projections are mathematical calculations that are 
based on certain assumptions. We cannot predict, however, the 
likelihood that any of these assumptions will continue into the future. 
We also developed another model to identify whether opportunities 
existed for the Service to use its resources more efficiently when 
acquiring grassland easements in South Dakota. In addition to the 
Service's easement acquisition data and habitat spatial models, in this 
second model we also used the Service's list of landowners willing to 
sell an easement to the Service and land prices associated with parcels 
in the Service's high-priority acquisition areas. We used this 
information to compare the grassland easements that the Service 
purchased in fiscal year 2006 in South Dakota with what it potentially 
could have purchased. In addition, we examined recent legislative and 
other proposals for providing additional resources to the Service for 
habitat protection in the Prairie Pothole Region. We assessed the 
reliability of the data provided by the Service by comparing these data 
with information published in the Service's annual lands report, 
reviewing fee and easement acquisition records, and observing easement 
violations and subsequent corrective actions required of landowners. On 
the basis of these and other steps, we determined that these data were 
sufficiently reliable for the purposes of this report. Appendix I 
presents a more detailed description of our scope and methodology. Our 
work was conducted in accordance with generally accepted government 
auditing standards, including an assessment of internal controls, from 
September 2006 through August 2007.

Results in Brief:

Since 1959, the Service has acquired and permanently protected about 3 
million acres of wetland and grassland habitat in the Prairie Pothole 
Region under its Small Wetlands Acquisition Program, primarily through 
monies from the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund. Of the protected 
land, the Service has acquired about 6,200 tracts through fee-simple 
acquisitions covering almost 700,000 acres and over 28,000 perpetual 
easements covering more than 2.3 million acres of privately owned land. 
About 60 percent of the perpetual easements are wetland easements 
protecting more than 1.4 million acres of wetlands; the remaining 40 
percent are grassland easements protecting about 900,000 acres of 
grasslands. To acquire habitat, the Service used fee simple for most of 
its Prairie Pothole Region acquisitions in the Service's region 3 and 
easements for most of its acquisitions in the Service's region 6. Over 
the past 48 years, the Service has acquired more than 95 percent of 
both the fee and easement tracts using monies from the Migratory Bird 
Conservation Fund. In the last 3 years, the Service has allocated, on 
average, $16 million per year from this fund to Prairie Pothole 
acquisitions. Other funding sources include grants provided through the 
North American Wetlands Conservation Act (less than $700,000 annually, 
on average) and the Land and Water Conservation Fund (less than 
$200,000 annually over the last 2 years). Upon acquisition, the fee-
simple acquisitions and the easements are managed by the Service's 
wetland management districts.

To sustain duck populations and to counter emerging threats, the 
Service aims to acquire as much existing high-priority migratory bird 
habitat in the Prairie Pothole Region as possible. To this end, its 
current acquisition goal is to permanently protect about 12 million 
additional wetland and grassland acres. The Service defines high-
priority wetlands as temporary and seasonally flooded small wetlands, 
and others smaller than 1 acre, that are embedded in areas supporting 
more than 25 duck pairs per square mile. The Service defines high-
priority grasslands as grasslands that are larger than 55 acres and 
accessible to more than 25 duck pairs per square mile. According to the 
Service, its habitat protection goals are to permanently protect an 
additional 1.4 million acres of high-priority wetlands and an 
additional 10.4 million acres of high-priority grasslands. On the basis 
of scientific models, the Service estimates that the 64-million-acre 
Prairie Pothole Region--using both protected and unprotected lands--can 
support an annual population of about 4.2 million breeding duck pairs. 
Approximately 1.1 million (27 percent) breeding pairs currently use 
wetland and grassland habitat protected by the Service. Reaching the 
Service's habitat acquisition goal of 12 million additional acres would 
enable it to permanently protect habitat capable of supporting an 
additional 1.5 million breeding duck pairs. (The Service does not 
consider wetlands and grasslands now providing habitat for the 
remaining 1.6 million duck pairs to be "at risk" because it believes 
these acres will not be converted to agricultural uses.) The recent 
development of the Service's sophisticated scientific models, which 
predict the density of duck pairs and the location of grasslands, were 
integral to developing these goals. According to Service biologists, 
these acreage targets must be met to sustain migratory bird populations 
and to ensure that enough habitat is maintained during wet years, when 
duck populations boom.

At the current pace of acquisitions, and assuming that the land would 
be available indefinitely, it could take the Service around 150 years 
and billions of dollars to acquire the 12 million acres of wetlands and 
grasslands it has identified as critical for sustaining migratory bird 
populations--on the basis of one hypothetical scenario we developed. 
The Service plans to continue to use both fee-simple and easement 
acquisitions toward achieving its goal. The land will not be available 
for acquisition indefinitely, however, and some emerging market forces 
that give landowners an incentive to convert grasslands to cropland 
suggest that substantial amounts of the Service's goal acreage may be 
converted to agricultural use in the future. For example, while 
Agriculture's Conservation Reserve Program now has 10 million grassland 
acres in the Prairie Pothole Region temporarily protected, contracts 
covering more than 2 million acres of high-priority habitat for the 
Service are due to expire by 2010. The longer that this acreage is 
temporarily protected under the Conservation Reserve Program, the 
longer the Service has to acquire permanent protection rights. If this 
grassland acreage is converted to agricultural use and the pace of 
conversion continues into the future, the Service might only have 
several decades in which to acquire its high-priority grasslands. If 
this scenario were to occur, over the next several decades the Service 
would acquire only about 3 million grassland acres--less than one-third 
of its grassland acreage goal. The Service's pace of acquisitions could 
be increased (1) marginally, if it used its existing funds more 
efficiently, or (2) substantially, if additional resources were 
provided toward this effort. For example, we found that since 2002, 
over 70 percent of the Service's grassland easement acquisitions in 
South Dakota has been in the highest-priority areas. On the basis of 
our efficiency modeling, however, the Service could have acquired an 
additional 8,500 acres of high-priority habitat in South Dakota in 
fiscal year 2006--over and above the 16,169 acres it did acquire. Given 
the Service's desire to spread funds throughout the region, and other 
factors, its land acquisitions cannot be expected to be 100 percent 
efficient in terms of the number of ducks protected per dollar 
expended. Nonetheless, our analysis showed that existing resources may 
be used more efficiently by targeting the lower-cost lands within high-
priority habitat areas. Another way to increase the pace of 
acquisitions is to explore additional resource options, such as the 
following three options:

* Increase the cost of the federal Duck Stamp. The purchasing power of 
the revenue generated by the sale of the federal Duck Stamp, which has 
been fixed at $15 per Duck Stamp since 1991, has been eroded by 
inflation and escalating land prices. H.R. 2735, introduced by the 
110th Congress, would increase the price of the Duck Stamp to $20 for 
hunting years 2008 through 2010, and to $25 thereafter. Increasing the 
price of the Duck Stamp would generate new revenue; thus, it would not 
increase the federal deficit.

* Reauthorize a new Wetlands Loan Act. Since 1961, Congress has 
reauthorized the Wetlands Loan Act several times and appropriated $200 
million ($870 million in 2007 dollars) to provide an advance of funds 
against future Duck Stamp sales. It has been nearly 20 years, however, 
since the last reauthorization. S. 272, introduced in the 110TH 
Congress, would reauthorize a new wetlands loan in the amount of $400 
million as an advance against future Duck Stamp revenues. If the loan 
is repaid by future Duck Stamp revenues, this alternative would have 
little net effect on the federal deficit.

* Provide additional resources from the Land and Water Conservation 
Fund. This fund--which receives about $900 million annually from a 
variety of sources, including oil and gas leases on the Outer 
Continental Shelf--is used only minimally in the Prairie Pothole 
Region. Over the last 2 years, the region has received less than 
$200,000 annually from the fund, and since 1988, it has received about 
$2.6 million. Through 2006, however, the fund had a balance of nearly 
$15 billion. If any of the fund balance were to be spent without 
corresponding offsets, the federal deficit would increase.

Each of these possible resource options would require congressional 
action. Also, these options are not mutually exclusive, and they could 
be used together in any combination. Moreover, these are just three of 
the resource options that could be considered; our intent was not to 
develop a comprehensive list of all such options.

To help ensure that the Service acquires as much of its high-priority 
habitat as possible with its available funds, we are recommending that 
the Secretary of the Interior direct the Director of the U.S. Fish and 
Wildlife Service to fully integrate the Service's recently developed 
scientific models with consideration of land prices, with the goal of 
maximizing the acquisition of the least expensive high-priority habitat 
when deciding which lands to acquire in the Prairie Pothole Region, 
while balancing that goal with the continued need to acquire high-
priority habitat throughout the region. Determining the appropriate 
level of overall resources that should be devoted to acquiring 
migratory bird habitat in the Prairie Pothole Region is a policy 
decision that rests with Congress and the President. The two 
legislative proposals that have been introduced in the 110TH Congress 
would provide the Service with hundreds of millions of additional 
resources for land acquisitions in the region. However, several billion 
dollars will likely be needed for the Service to achieve its goal. We 
present the information in this report to Congress as it deliberates 
whether and to what extent additional resources should be provided to 
the Service to acquire high-priority habitat in the Prairie Pothole 
Region. We suggest that Congress consider this information as it 
debates H.R. 2735, regarding whether and to what extent to increase the 
price of the Duck Stamp; S. 272, regarding whether and to what extent 
to reauthorize a wetlands acquisition loan; and whether and to what 
extent additional funds may need to be provided to the Service from the 
Land and Water Conservation Fund. Although we requested comments from 
the Department of the Interior on our findings and recommendations, 
none were provided in time for them to be included as part of this 
report.

Background:

Created by retreating glaciers about 12,000 years ago, the Prairie 
Pothole Region encompasses about 25 million wetland depressions of 
varying sizes across a 300,000-square-mile area, one-third of which 
covers parts of Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota, and South 
Dakota (see fig. 1), with the rest covering three Canadian provinces. 
These potholes once were set in an expansive sweep of native prairie--
shortgrass, mixed grass, and tallgrass.

Figure 1: U.S. Portion of the Prairie Pothole Region:

This image contains two maps: a map of the United States and a map of 
Montana, North and South Dakota, Minnesota, and Iowa. Both maps contain 
shaded areas that depict the extent of the Prairie Pothole Region in 
the United States.

Source: Prairie Pothole Joint Venture.

[End of figure]

According to the Service, with an average of 83 wetlands per square 
mile, the Prairie Pothole Region contains the highest wetland density 
of any region in North America (see fig. 2). Of the over 800 migratory 
bird species in North America, more than 300 species rely on these 
wetlands--177 species for breeding and nesting habitat and another 130 
species for feeding and resting during spring and fall migrations. This 
region is the most productive breeding habitat for ducks (more than 
one-half of the continent's ducks breed in the region) and many other 
birds.

Figure 2: Prairie Potholes in Burke County, North Dakota (May 1999):

This is a photograph of prairie potholes in Burke County, North Dakota. 

[End of figure]

Over the last century, most of the region has been converted to 
intensively cultivated cropland and heavily grazed or hayed grasslands. 
Today, farmers and ranchers produce an abundance of wheat, barley, hay, 
corn, soybeans, and cattle, which feed people in this nation and 
abroad. Consequently, many wetlands have been drained and native 
prairie grasses have been either plowed or extensively used. This loss 
of habitat has had dangerous repercussions for migratory birds--
grassland birds, for example, have suffered steeper and more widespread 
declines over the past 25 years than any other North American bird 
group, according to Service documents. Figure 3 shows the extent to 
which historical wetlands were drained in Jackson County, Minnesota, as 
agricultural production increased in the 1800s and 1900s.

Figure 3: Wetland Drainage in 50 Square Miles of Jackson County, 
Minnesota (1892 to 1992):

There are two maps. The first depicts wetland basins in 50-square-mile 
area of Jackson County, Minnesota, circa 1892. The second depicts 
wetland basins drained for agricultural and other purposes in the same 
50-square-mile area of Jackson County, Minnesota, circa 1992.

[End of figure]

The Service plays a key role in slowing and reversing the trend of 
habitat loss by protecting and restoring wetland and grassland habitat 
throughout the region. In 1987, after nearly 30 years of acquiring 
migratory bird habitat, largely on the basis of observing the 
migrations and breeding grounds of ducks, the Service formed the 
Habitat and Population Evaluation Team to provide biological and 
technical assistance by helping to identify where to devote habitat 
protection resources to maximize migratory bird benefits. On the basis 
of its biological research, the Habitat and Population Evaluation Team 
recently developed scientific models to identify high-priority 
grasslands and wetlands--those capable of supporting 25 or more 
breeding duck pairs per square mile--in the Prairie Pothole Region. 
These models use 20 years of annual waterfowl population surveys and 
habitat condition assessments to predict the distribution and abundance 
of breeding duck pairs. By overlaying spatial models with land cover 
data of grasslands and wetlands, the Service has determined which 
wetlands and grasslands have the highest potential--if protected--to 
sustain duck populations over the long term.

On the basis of these scientific models, Service biologists within 
wetland management district offices determine whether there are 
landowners with property in the high-priority zones who have expressed 
interest in having their property eased. Since the Service acquires 
easements only from willing sellers, they state that landowners 
typically approach the Service to express interest in selling an 
easement. If the property appears to be within the high-priority zones, 
a Service biologist performs an on-site biological evaluation to verify 
that it is capable of supporting the desired number of breeding duck 
pairs, as identified by the scientific models. When funding becomes 
available, the realty specialists state that they begin acquiring 
easements from the list of willing sellers, generally starting from 
properties in the highest-priority zones. If the wetland acquisition 
office still has funding and there are no longer any landowners in the 
highest-priority acquisition areas that have expressed interest in 
having their property eased, the realty officials state that they would 
acquire properties in lower-priority areas, since monies from the 
Migratory Bird Conservation Fund have to be spent by the end of the 
fiscal year.

After biological evaluations are performed, realty specialists 
undertake property inspections, title searches, and payment 
determinations. Prior to fiscal year 2004, when acquiring easements, 
Service realty specialists appraised a parcel of land, and, on the 
basis of the appraisal, they would pay a percentage (typically, 50 to 
90 percent) to reflect that only some property rights were being 
attained by the Service. Beginning in fiscal year 2004, to save the 
costs associated with performing an appraisal, the Service developed an 
adjusted assessed land value formula. This formula uses county-assessed 
land values for a particular piece of property and applies a multiplier 
to reflect recent land sales in the vicinity. Service realty 
specialists then pay a percentage of the adjusted assessed land value. 
Once payments are made, both fee and easement properties, known as 
waterfowl production areas, are managed by the local wetland management 
district (there are more than 20 wetland management districts in the 
Prairie Pothole Region) and are part of the National Wildlife Refuge 
System. For easement acquisitions, officials with nearby wetland 
management districts have responsibility for enforcing the terms of the 
easement, which typically involve aerial surveillance twice each year 
to identify possible violations.

The Service's conservation efforts in the Prairie Pothole Region also 
reflect the agency's participation in international management plans, 
including the North American Waterfowl Management Plan. First signed in 
1986, this management plan is a shared conservation strategy developed 
among the United States, Canada, and Mexico to restore migratory 
waterfowl populations of continental North America. This plan 
identified the Prairie Pothole Region as critical to the long-term 
viability of waterfowl habitat in North America and, in 1987, 
established the Prairie Pothole Joint Venture to protect this habitat. 
Spanning the entire region, this joint venture constitutes an informal 
partnership of landowners; private conservation organizations; 
federal, state, and local government agencies; land trusts; public 
utilities; hunting groups; academia; and businesses. The Service plays 
a major role in the joint venture by providing leadership for its 
activities and funding for scientific research and land acquisitions.

The Service's land acquisitions in the Prairie Pothole Region have been 
funded using Migratory Bird Conservation Funds, grants through the 
North American Wetlands Conservation Act, and Land and Water 
Conservation Funds. The Migratory Bird Conservation Fund has received 
about $44 million annually in recent years, $24 million of which has 
come through receipts from the sale of federal Duck Stamps, all of 
which is generally spent in the year it is made available. Monies from 
this fund are allocated throughout the National Wildlife Refuge System 
at the discretion of the Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife 
Service. In 1961, the Wetlands Loan Act required that the use of 
Migratory Bird Conservation Funds for land acquisitions must have the 
approval of the governor of the state or an appropriate agency of the 
state in which the land is located[Footnote 10]. The North American 
Wetlands Conservation Act, which provides matching grants to carry out 
wetlands conservation projects in the United States, Canada, and 
Mexico, was passed to support the activities of the North American 
Waterfowl Management Plan[Footnote 11]. Grant programs help deliver 
funding to on-the-ground projects for the protection, restoration, or 
enhancement of an array of wetland habitats. Funding for these grants 
is authorized at about $75 million for fiscal year 2007. Finally, 
monies from the Land and Water Conservation Fund have been used in the 
Prairie Pothole Region since 1988. This fund was created in the 
Treasury as a funding source to assist in preserving and developing 
outdoor recreation resources. It is funded with revenues from a variety 
of sources, including oil and gas leases on the Outer Continental 
Shelf. These revenue sources total about $900 million annually. During 
the past decade, revenues from the Outer Continental Shelf oil and gas 
leases have accounted for almost 100 percent of the deposits. Since the 
fund's inception in 1965, it has accumulated about $29 billion through 
fiscal year 2006. About one-half of that amount--$14.3 billion--has 
been appropriated, leaving a balance of nearly $15 billion.

The Service Has Acquired and Permanently Protected about 3 Million 
Acres of Migratory Bird Habitat in the Prairie Pothole Region Since 
1959:

Since 1959, the Service has acquired and permanently protected about 3 
million acres of wetland and grassland habitat in the Prairie Pothole 
Region. The majority of this acreage, about 80 percent, is protected 
through perpetual easements placed on private lands. In areas of the 
region that require additional efforts to restore lands to a condition 
capable of supporting migratory birds, the Service uses fee-simple 
acquisitions instead of easements. In acquiring land for migratory bird 
habitat, the Service uses monies primarily from the Migratory Bird 
Conservation Fund--expending about $325 million since 1959--although 
other sources of funds contribute, particularly in areas where state 
law limits the use of the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund. Upon 
acquisition, the fee-simple acquisitions and the easements are managed 
by the Service's wetland management districts. We reported in November 
1991 that the Service enforced the terms of Prairie Pothole Region 
conservation easements effectively by keeping accurate and current 
documentation on eased lands and performing annual aerial surveillance 
of the wetlands under easement, followed by on-the-ground inspection of 
suspected violations.[Footnote 12] Our assessment of the Service's 
enforcement policies and procedures at the three offices we visited for 
this review showed that the Service continues to provide an appropriate 
level of easement monitoring and enforcement.

Approximately 3 Million Acres Have Been Protected to Date:

Under the Small Wetlands Acquisition Program, the Service has acquired 
and permanently protected about 3 million acres of wetland and 
grassland habitat in the Prairie Pothole Region. In protecting this 
habitat, over the past 48 years the Service has acquired approximately:

* 6,199 fee-simple parcels, covering almost 700,000 acres;

* 2,756 grassland easements, covering slightly more than 900,000 acres; 
and:

* 25,582 wetland easements, covering about 1.4 million acres.

To acquire and protect habitat, the Service's region 6 acquires most 
land using wetland and grassland easements, whereas the Service's 
region 3 acquires most land using fee-simple acquisitions. In the 
Service's region 6, easements provide a cost-effective method of 
protecting habitat while keeping land in private ownership. According 
to Service officials in this region, outreach to private landowners is 
essential for habitat protection because over 70 percent of habitat in 
the region is privately owned. Farmers in this area grow crops on land 
that may have 100 wetlands per square mile. If such wetlands were 
drained, farmers could more easily work the fields with large 
equipment, and additional land would become available for planting. 
Minimally restrictive wetland easements protect wetlands while allowing 
private landowners to retain ownership of their land and to continue 
farming. In exchange for a one-time, lump-sum payment, landowners agree 
not to drain, fill, or level wetlands on their property. Because the 
Service does not acquire all of the land-use rights associated with a 
property, easements are less expensive than fee-simple acquisitions. 
For example, in region 6, the Service typically pays between 25 and 90 
percent of a property's estimated market value to place grassland or 
wetland easements, thus enabling the Service to protect more acreage 
than if it were to acquire these lands in fee simple, which would 
require it to pay market value. In recent years, the Service has used 
easements to acquire nearly 98 percent of its protected acreage in 
region 6.

In contrast, the Service's region 3 relies more heavily on fee-simple 
acquisitions--about two-thirds of the 30,000 acres acquired since 
fiscal year 2000 has been through fee-simple. Although more costly than 
easements, to undertake restoration actions and ensure permanent 
protection of the land, the Service emphasizes fee-simple acquisitions. 
Service biologists and realty officials told us that because most of 
the land in region 3 has been converted to cropland or other uses, the 
Service often needs to acquire all of the land-use rights to be able to 
restore the land so it can support migratory birds. Specifically, for 
wetlands, the Service must often "plug" drainage ditches leading away 
from historical wetland basins. These "plugs" typically cost about $500 
each. For grasslands, the Service must kill plants currently growing, 
such as crops or invasive species, and replace them with a mix of 
native grasses. Such efforts can easily cost up to $100 per acre, 
according to a Service biologist. Table 1 shows the amount of wetland 
and grassland acreage acquired using fee-simple and easement 
acquisitions in Service region 3 and region 6 since the Small Wetlands 
Acquisition Program began.

Table 1: Land Acquisitions in the Prairie Pothole Region under the 
Small Wetlands Acquisition Program (Fiscal Years 1959-2006):

Service region and state: Region 3, Iowa; 
Easement acquisitions, Grasslands (acres): 6; 
Easement acquisitions, Wetlands (acres): 632; 
Fee-simple acquisitions (acres)[A]; 22,531; 
Total acres: 23,169. 

Service region and state: Region 3, Minnesota; 
Easement acquisitions, Grasslands (acres): 10,812; 
Easement acquisitions, Wetlands (acres): 62,968; 
Fee-simple acquisitions (acres)[A]; 189,417; 
Total acres: 263,198. 

Service region and state: Region 3, Subtotal; 
Easement acquisitions, Grasslands (acres): 10,817; 
Easement acquisitions, Wetlands (acres): 63,600; 
Fee-simple acquisitions (acres)[A]; 211,948; 
Total acres: 286,366. 

Service region and state: Region 6, Montana; 
Easement acquisitions, Grasslands (acres): 44,334; 
Easement acquisitions, Wetlands (acres): 25,328; 
Fee-simple acquisitions (acres)[A]; 31,197; 
Total acres: 100,859. 

Service region and state: Region 6, North Dakota; 
Easement acquisitions, Grasslands (acres): 207,285; 
Easement acquisitions, Wetlands (acres): 845,651; 
Fee-simple acquisitions (acres)[A]; 246,447; 
Total acres: 1,299,382. 

Service region and state: Region 6, South Dakota; 
Easement acquisitions, Grasslands (acres): 643,660; 
Easement acquisitions, Wetlands (acres): 511,919; 
Fee-simple acquisitions (acres)[A]; 158,194; 
Total acres: 1,313,773. 

Service region and state: Region 6, Subtotal; 
Easement acquisitions, Grasslands (acres): 895,279; 
Easement acquisitions, Wetlands (acres): 1,382,898; 
Fee-simple acquisitions (acres)[A]; 435,837; 
Total acres: 2,714,013. 

Service region and state: Total; 
Easement acquisitions, Grasslands (acres): 906,096; 
Easement acquisitions, Wetlands (acres): 1,446,498; 
Fee-simple acquisitions (acres)[A]; 647,786; 
Total acres: 3,000,380. 

Source: GAO analysis of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service data.

Note: Some numbers do not add up because of rounding.

[A] For fee-simple acquisitions, Service data do not distinguish 
between grassland and wetland acquisitions.

[End of table]

Funding Has Come Primarily from the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund, 
Although Other Sources Contribute:

Funding for Prairie Pothole Region land acquisitions under the 
Service's Small Wetlands Acquisition Program has come primarily from 
the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund. Since the acquisition program 
began in 1959, the Service has spent nearly $340 million (unadjusted 
dollars) to acquire land in the region--over 95 percent of which, or 
about $325 million, has come from the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund. 
Of this amount, the Service has spent about $130 million in region 3 
and about $209 million in region 6. The distribution of these funds 
within the Prairie Pothole Region has changed significantly over time, 
however, because of actions taken by North Dakota. From 1959 through 
1977, North Dakota received the lion's share of the Service's Migratory 
Bird Conservation Fund expenditures in the Prairie Pothole Region--the 
Service spent $35.5 million in the state (53 percent), compared with 
$66.5 for the entire region--primarily because wetlands in the state 
are capable of supporting a large number of breeding duck pairs. 
Because of a dispute with the Service in 1977, however, North Dakota 
enacted legislation temporarily prohibiting the governor from allowing 
the Service to acquire any land or interests in land for migratory bird 
purposes.[Footnote 13] The state also passed a law limiting the 
duration of any future easements for waterfowl production areas 
acquired by the federal government to 50 years, and limiting the 
duration of most other easements to 99 years.[Footnote 14] As a result, 
the Service's use of Migratory Bird Conservation Fund monies fell, and 
from 1978 through 2006, the Service spent only $20 million of the $260 
million expended in the Prairie Pothole Region in North 
Dakota.[Footnote 15]

The Service has also used other sources of funding for land acquisition 
in the Prairie Pothole Region under the Small Wetlands Acquisition 
Program: the North American Wetlands Conservation Act grants and monies 
from the Land and Water Conservation Fund. From the passage of the 
North American Wetlands Conservation Act in 1989 through fiscal year 
2006, the Service has expended slightly more than $10 million in the 
Prairie Pothole Region using grants from this source. Of this amount, 
nearly $7 million has been spent in North Dakota to acquire grassland 
easements on 95,000 acres. According to a Service official, monies from 
this source have been focused on land acquisitions in North Dakota, in 
part, to make up for the limitations on using Migratory Bird 
Conservation Funds in the state. Furthermore, the Service has spent 
about $2.6 million to acquire 70 properties, covering about 13,000 
acres, in the Prairie Pothole Region using Land and Water Conservation 
Funds since 1988, when monies were first appropriated from this fund to 
the region. According to Service realty officials, the Service has not 
acquired many properties using monies from this fund, in part because 
of the competitiveness of the annual appropriation process. Since 1992, 
for example, the Service has acquired only 11 properties, totaling 
about 7,000 acres, using monies from the Land and Water Conservation 
Fund.

In addition to these funding sources, the Service has partnered with 
Ducks Unlimited in North Dakota to protect migratory bird habitat by 
accepting funding for easements.[Footnote 16] According to Ducks 
Unlimited, they have provided funding for the Service to purchase about 
72,000 acres of easements from landowners in North Dakota. Once 
easements are purchased using Ducks Unlimited's funds, the Service 
takes ownership of the easements. Because North Dakota law generally 
limits maximum easement terms to 99 years, Ducks Unlimited cannot 
acquire perpetual easements. Service officials, relying on a 1991 
Interior Regional Solicitor's Opinion, however, said that the Service 
is not bound by state law regarding easement terms, even if state law 
prevents the Service from purchasing easements using Migratory Bird 
Conservation Fund monies. Therefore, according to a Service official, 
when the Service receives a monetary donation from Ducks Unlimited to 
purchase easements, the eased land is protected in perpetuity. Ducks 
Unlimited has also donated funds for the Service to acquire about 6,400 
acres in South Dakota, but it has not donated funds for any easements 
to the Service in region 3.

While the Service has sought a variety of funding sources to help it 
acquire habitat in the Prairie Pothole Region, land prices in the 
region have increased dramatically since the Small Wetlands Acquisition 
Program began. Total annual funding, however, has generally not kept 
pace, thus decreasing the purchasing power of the Service's habitat 
acquisition resources. For example, in 1966, the Service acquired 
easements that cost, on average, about $13 per acre in region 6 and 
about $22 per acre in region 3. The Service's fee acquisitions in 1966 
averaged about $55 an acre in region 6 and just under $100 per acre in 
region 3. By comparison, in 2006, easement acquisitions averaged about 
$283 per acre and nearly $1,100 per acre in region 6 and region 3, 
respectively, and fee-simple acquisitions averaged more than $685 per 
acre and $3,100 per acre in region 6 and region 3, respectively. 
Combined average dollar-per-acre prices for both easements and fee-
simple acquisitions in the Prairie Pothole Region have increased more 
than 2,000 percent over the last 40 years. During this period, funding 
for the Small Wetlands Acquisition Program in the region increased 
about 410 percent.

Acquired Lands Have Been Managed Effectively:

The Service has effectively managed the lands it has acquired in the 
Prairie Pothole Region under the Small Wetlands Acquisition Program. 
Upon acquisition, the Service's wetland management districts manage the 
fee-simple and easement tracts and enforce easement terms. In November 
1991, we reported that the Service had been successful in helping to 
preserve wetlands in the Prairie Pothole Region, primarily because of 
effective easement enforcement.[Footnote 17] We found that the Service 
keeps documentation on the wetlands and grasslands to be protected and 
has performed annual aerial surveillance of the wetlands and grasslands 
under easements, followed by on-the-ground inspections of suspected 
violations. In our review of the Service's current enforcement policies 
and procedures in the three offices we visited, we found that the 
Service's ongoing monitoring and enforcement efforts continue to 
provide reasonable assurance that landowners are complying with the 
terms of their wetland and grassland easements. For example, according 
to the Service's refuge annual performance plan, in fiscal year 2005 
the Service inspected over 31,000 conservation easements in region 3 
and region 6 and detected about 900 violations (a 97 percent compliance 
rate).[Footnote 18] Of the easement violations, the Service resolved 
about 460 violations by working with the landowners to correct the 
problems and brought another 4 easement violations into compliance 
through legal actions.[Footnote 19] Service officials told us that it 
is a continual process to work with landowners to achieve resolution 
for all easement violations. In region 6, National Wildlife Refuge 
officials told us that since program inception, they have had fewer 
than 20 cases brought to court challenging the Small Wetlands 
Acquisition Program's easement provisions, and the Service has never 
lost a case. To help ensure consistent easement administration 
throughout the Prairie Pothole Region, region 3 and region 6 
consolidated their easement guidance in 2005.[Footnote 20]

The Service Aims to Permanently Protect as Much as Possible of the 12 
Million Acres It Has Identified as High-Priority Habitat:

To sustain current migratory bird populations over the long term, the 
Service aims to protect as much as possible of the 12 million acres of 
high-priority habitat it has identified in the region. According to 
Service biologists, wetlands and grasslands are the two major 
components to habitat protection that influence migratory bird 
populations. Wetlands attract breeding ducks and provide habitat for 
ducklings, whereas grasslands provide nesting "cover" required for 
nesting success and hen survival.

Over the past 20 years, the Service has compiled data that have 
recently enabled its biologists to develop scientific models--using 
spatial data and geographic information systems technology--that 
identify wetlands and grasslands capable of providing habitat for a 
large number of migratory birds. Established in 1987, the Service's 
Habitat and Population Evaluation Team coordinates the annual waterfowl 
breeding population and production survey. This survey provides a means 
of assessing contributions of waterfowl production areas in the Prairie 
Pothole Region to continental waterfowl populations. It is conducted by 
Service or state department of natural resource personnel on hundreds 
of 4-square-mile sample plots in the 5 Prairie Pothole states. In each 
4-square-mile plot, waterfowl and other wetland birds are counted on 
selected wetlands, allowing Service biologists to estimate annual 
waterfowl abundance. Over the last 20 years, in fact, Service employees 
have conducted over 30,000 visits to wetlands and observed more than 
260,000 breeding duck pairs.

Through analyzing 4-square-mile survey data over time, the Service 
developed "breeding pair accessibility maps" that display predictions 
of the number of duck pairs that could potentially nest in the 
grassland portions of every 40-acre block of the Prairie Pothole 
Region. These predictions take into account the location and density of 
wetlands, along with the maximum travel distances of hens from wetlands 
to their nest sites. Because nesting success is based on the proportion 
of grasslands within a 2-mile radius of wetlands, the breeding pair 
accessibility maps allow the Service to identify priority sites for the 
protection or restoration of grassland habitats, along with the 
proximity to wetlands, which have the highest potential for ducks' 
nesting success. Figure 4 shows the Service's prediction of the 
distribution and abundance of breeding duck pairs on the basis of 
historical 4-square-mile survey data and the accessibility to wetland 
and grassland cover.

Figure 4: Predicted Duck Pair Densities in the Prairie Pothole Region 
(Excluding Most of Montana):

This figure is a map of the states of Montana, North Dakota, South 
Dakota, Minnesota, and Iowa. Depicted on the map are duck pair 
densities per square mile in the following categories: 0 to less than 
10; 10 to 19; 20 to 39; 40 to 59; 60 to 79; 80 to 99; 100 or more. 

Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

[End of figure]

The Service's 4-square-mile survey data show that the wetlands in the 
Prairie Pothole Region can support an annual population of about 4.2 
million breeding duck pairs.[Footnote 21] To sustain this bird 
population in the future, the Service has determined that it needs to 
protect approximately 12 million acres of additional high-priority 
habitat in the region--an additional 1.4 million acres of high-priority 
wetlands and an additional 10.4 million acres of high-priority 
grasslands.[Footnote 22] The Service defines high-priority wetlands as 
temporary and seasonally flooded wetlands, and other wetlands less than 
1 acre in size, that are embedded in cropland in areas that support 
over 25 duck pairs per square mile. The Service defines high-priority 
grasslands as those grasslands that are greater than 55 acres and 
accessible to over 25 duck pairs per square mile. Service biologists 
told us that the small, shallow wetlands embedded within croplands are 
most at risk of being drained. They also stated that 55 acres is 
generally the minimum size the Service would consider for a grassland 
easement because grassland migratory birds require larger tracts of 
intact grasslands for nesting cover.

Of the approximately 4.2 million breeding duck pairs in the region, 
approximately 1.1 million ducks (27 percent) currently use wetlands 
protected by the Service. Achieving the Service's habitat protection 
goal for wetlands would enable it to permanently protect habitat 
capable of supporting an additional 1.5 million breeding duck pairs. 
The Service considers the remaining wetlands that currently provide 
habitat capable of supporting 1.5 million duck pairs to be at lower 
risk of loss to agricultural uses. Achieving the habitat protection 
goal for grasslands supports the wetland goal because grasslands are 
needed to provide adequate nesting cover. In fact, Service biologists 
estimate that a 10 percent decline in the high-priority grassland 
acreage would result in an annual reduction of 250,000 ducks in the 
fall migration. In addition, according to Service biologists, because 
duck populations are cyclical, reaching these goals would enable the 
Service to protect enough habitat to accommodate increased populations 
during future boom cycles.

In addition to habitat protection goals, the Service also aims to 
restore some wetlands and grasslands in the Prairie Pothole Region. The 
Service's restoration goals are over and above its 12-million-acre 
habitat protection goal. The purpose of restoring wetlands and 
grasslands is to offset some of the long-term habitat losses that have 
occurred in the region, even as the Service strives to protect existing 
habitat through fee-simple and easement acquisitions. A Service 
official stated that restoration work is generally less time-critical 
because the habitat has already been degraded, and, theoretically, it 
could be restored to some productive habitat level at any time, 
assuming the habitat has not been irreparably harmed. In contrast, the 
Service's habitat protection work is time-critical because the Service 
is trying to protect this acreage before it is converted to other uses. 
Habitat protection is more cost-effective than habitat restoration 
because of the extra expense associated with restoring the habitat 
after it has been degraded.

The Service aims to restore an additional 682,000 wetland acres and an 
additional 393,000 grassland acres. The Service estimates that the 
wetland acres target will provide habitat capable of supporting an 
additional 492,000 duck pairs. The Service developed its restoration 
goals in collaboration with conservation and land-use agencies in the 
region. The Service's restoration goals in the region will also 
contribute to meeting the restoration goals of some of its partners. 
For instance, Minnesota recently released a long-range duck plan with a 
goal to restore and protect 600,000 acres of wetlands and 1.4 million 
acres of grasslands. Service officials state that they are working in 
conjunction with their partners in Minnesota to help attain the state's 
goal as well as the Service's overall restoration goals. Service 
biologists and realty officials acknowledge that restoration can be 
costly, and they said that they will reevaluate their restoration goals 
periodically and make changes as appropriate.

At the Current Pace of Acquisitions, the Service Is Unlikely to Achieve 
Its Habitat Protection Goals; but Options Exist to Increase the Pace of 
Acquisitions:

At the current pace of acquisitions, it could take the Service around 
150 years and billions of dollars to acquire the 12 million acres of 
wetlands and grasslands that it has identified as necessary for 
sustaining migratory bird populations. Because of emerging market 
forces and projected habitat loss rates in the region, however, the 
Service may realistically have about 50 years to acquire wetlands and 
grasslands, on the basis of one hypothetical scenario we developed. If 
acquisition levels remain constant and habitat loss projections hold 
true, during the next 5 decades, the Service would acquire only about 
one-third of the grassland goal before the remaining acreage is 
converted to cropland. However, options exist that could increase the 
pace of acquisitions. Specifically, the pace of acquisitions could be 
increased (1) marginally, if the Service used its existing funds more 
efficiently, or (2) substantially, if additional resources were 
provided.

At Current Pace, Acquisitions May Take Around 150 Years, but the 
Service May Have Less Than 50 Years Because of Possible Habitat Loss:

Since fiscal year 2004,[Footnote 23] the Service has acquired, on 
average, 79,000 wetland and grassland acres per year through easements 
and fee-simple acquisitions, spending about $17 million each 
year.[Footnote 24] If this pace continues in the future, it would take 
the Service around 150 years and $2.6 billion (2007 dollars) to acquire 
its goal acreage if none of this land were converted to other 
uses.[Footnote 25] Emerging market forces, however, are creating a 
scenario in which the Service may have less time in which to acquire 
its goal acreage. For example, Agriculture's Economic Research Service 
reported in 2006 that rising demand and prices for corn and other 
commodities used to produce ethanol and other renewable fuels 
increasingly entice landowners who do not produce crops to convert 
their land to cropland. Furthermore, in March 2007, the Congressional 
Research Service reported that corn prices--the prices received by 
producers--increased from $2.50 per bushel in September 2006 to $4.16 
per bushel in January 2007, primarily because of growing demand for 
ethanol, a corn-based renewable fuel. This demand contributed to an 
increase in 2007 crop acreage, and the demand is expected to continue. 
In June 2007, Agriculture reported that corn growers planted 92.9 
million acres of corn in 2007, a 19 percent increase over 2006 and the 
highest acreage since 1944. Furthermore, in February 2007, Agriculture 
forecasted that ethanol production is expected to expand sharply 
through 2009 and 2010 in response to strong profit incentives. In 
addition, hardier seed varieties, such as drought-tolerant corn and 
herbicide-resistant soybeans, as well as new farming techniques, such 
as no-till cultivation, allow many landowners to convert grasslands to 
cropland. These technological developments make it easier to produce 
crops in areas that, historically, were considered marginally suitable 
or generally unsuitable for crop production. Figure 5 shows recent 
conversion of native grasslands to cropland in Sanborn County, South 
Dakota--acreage that is part of the Service's targeted acreage for 
habitat protection.

Figure 5: Conversion of Native Grasslands to Cropland in a High-
Priority Habitat Area of Sanborn County, South Dakota (circa 2007): 

This is a photograph of grassland undergoing conversion to cropland.

[End of figure]

These emerging market forces, in combination with the provisions of 
Agriculture's Conservation Reserve Program, could result in higher 
habitat loss rates. According to Agriculture, whereas more than 50,000 
acres of grasslands were converted to cropland in the Service's high-
priority acquisition area in 2006, this figure may increase to more 
than 135,000 acres per year. This program provides annual rental 
payments to landowners who take cropland out of production, typically 
resulting in return of the land to grasslands. According to 
Agriculture, in recent years--primarily due to the demand for ethanol-
-rental payments for crop production have increased in some areas to be 
substantially more than rental payments under the Conservation Reserve 
Program, thereby giving landowners a substantial incentive to let 
contracts expire and convert to agricultural uses. In 2007, contracts 
on nearly 1.8 million acres of grasslands are due to expire, and, by 
2010, an additional 1.7 million acres are set to expire (see table 2). 
Of these 3.5 million acres, nearly 60 percent (2 million acres) is 
high-priority goal acreage for the Service. Moreover, according to the 
Congressional Research Service, about 17 percent of the acreage 
protected under the Conservation Reserve Program will not be reenrolled 
or otherwise extended.[Footnote 26] If this reenrollment level holds 
true for the Prairie Pothole Region, more than 135,000 goal acres could 
be lost to agricultural production each year, on average, through 2010.

Table 2: Expiration Dates for Conservation Reserve Program Contracts in 
the Prairie Pothole Region:

Years: 2007-2010; 
Grasslands covered by expiring contracts (acres): 3,485,070.9. 

Years: 2011-2015; 
Grasslands covered by expiring contracts (acres): 3,878,594.5. 

Years: 2016-2020; 
Grasslands covered by expiring contracts (acres): 1,790,369.7. 

Years: 2021-2025; 
Grasslands covered by expiring contracts (acres): 439,647.6. 

Years: Total; 
Grasslands covered by expiring contracts (acres): 9,593,682.7. 

Source: GAO analysis of Department of Agriculture data.

Note: Some current Conservation Reserve Program acreage is subject to 
easements that are in effect for up to 30 years.

[End of table]

If these factors increase the level of grassland habitat loss, 
according to the scenario we developed, the Service would have about 50 
years to acquire high-priority grassland habitat, at which point only 
about 3 million acres--or less than one-third of its goal grassland 
acreage--would be protected, while the remainder would be 
converted.[Footnote 27] The main factor controlling the time frame the 
Service has to acquire its high-priority goal acreage is the provisions 
of the Conservation Reserve Program. The longer that this acreage is 
temporarily protected in the program, the longer the Service has to try 
to permanently protect that acreage. Matching data from the Service and 
Agriculture, it appears that nearly 5 million acres of the Service's 
10.4 million grassland goal acreage is currently temporarily protected 
under the Conservation Reserve Program.

Options Exist That Would Enable the Service to Acquire Desired Habitat 
More Quickly:

The pace of acquisitions could be increased if the Service used its 
existing funds more efficiently or if more resources were provided 
toward this effort. The first step in acquiring desired habitat more 
quickly is for the Service to remain vigilant in ensuring that existing 
resources are being spent in the most cost-effective manner possible. 
In particular, the Service has developed scientific models to target 
high-priority wetlands and grasslands, but it has not linked this 
information with land values to ensure that it always acquires the 
highest-priority available land at the lowest available cost. Another 
step in acquiring desired habitat more quickly would be to explore 
additional resource options. For example, increasing the cost of the 
federal Duck Stamp or reauthorizing a new Wetlands Loan Act, could 
provide additional resources with little or no increase in the federal 
deficit. Alternatively, additional resources could be made available 
from the Land and Water Conservation Fund. However, absent 
corresponding offsets, this approach would increase the federal 
deficit. Each of these options would require congressional action.

Opportunities May Exist for the Service to Spend Existing Funds More 
Efficiently:

According to an optimization analysis we performed on 450 grassland 
easements that the Service acquired in 2002 through 2006 in South 
Dakota (region 6), we found that some opportunities may exist for the 
Service to spend its existing funds more efficiently. Overall, the 
Service has done a good job of acquiring high-priority habitat, but 
some cost-efficiencies can still be gained. On the one hand, we found 
that from January 1, 2002, through September 30, 2006, more than 70 
percent of the Service's grassland easements in South Dakota was 
acquired in the highest-priority zones--those accessible to 60 or more 
duck pairs per square mile. On the other hand, we also found that the 
price the Service paid for these high-priority easements varied widely 
(see fig. 6). Furthermore, in some cases, the Service spent 
substantially more per acre to acquire easements in lower-priority 
zones (blue areas in fig. 6) than it spent on easements in higher-
priority zones (red areas in fig. 6). For example, in 2005 and 2006, 
the Service paid, on average, three times as much money per acre to 
acquire some easements in lower-priority zones than it paid to acquire 
some easements in higher-priority zones.

Figure 6: Matrix of Cost in Relation to Habitat Value of Grassland 
Easements Acquired (Number, Acreage, Average Cost per Acre, and Total 
Spent) in South Dakota (Fiscal Years 2002-2006):

Habitat priority zone (maximum number of duck pairs per square mile 
with access to grassland easements:

Cost per acre: Greatly below average; 
Low (less than 20): None.

Cost per acre: Greatly below average; 
Medium low (20-39): 11 easements, 2,524 acres, $155 per acre, $282,975;
(depicted in red). 

Cost per acre: Greatly below average;
Medium high (40-59): 13 easements, 2,894 acres, $120 per acre, 
$344,375; 
(depicted in red). 

Cost per acre: Greatly below average;
High (60 or more): 88 easements, 32,798 acres, $102 per acre, 
$3,348,745. 
(depicted in red). 

Cost per acre: Somewhat below average; 
Low (less than 20): 3 easements, 946 acres, $149 per acre, $137,610; 
(depicted in blue). 

Cost per acre: Somewhat below average; 
Medium low (20-39): 9 easements, 4,031 acres, $184 per acre, $842,600. 

Cost per acre: Somewhat below average;
Medium high (40-59): 22 easements, 3,911 acres, $160 per acre, 
$652,545; 
(depicted in red). 

Cost per acre: Somewhat below average;
High (60 or more): 79 easements, 21,818 acres, $181 per acre, 
$3,743,215; 
(depicted in red). 

Cost per acre: Somewhat above average; 
Low (less than 20): 2 easements, 404 acres, $272 per acre, $109,050; 
(depicted in blue). 

Cost per acre: Somewhat above average; 
Medium low (20-39): 10 easements, 1,633 acres, $292 per acre, $539,845; 
(depicted in blue). 

Cost per acre: Somewhat above average;
Medium high (40-59): 11 easements, 1,911 acres, $359 per acre, 
$707,765. 

Cost per acre: Somewhat above average;
High (60 or more): 76 easements, 24,276 acres, $276 per acre, 
$6,730,924; 
(depicted in red). 

Cost per acre: Greatly above average; 
Low (less than 20): 2 easements, 144 acres, $600 per acre, $87,975; 
(depicted in blue). 

Cost per acre: Greatly above average; 
Medium low (20-39): 22 easements, 4,172 acres, $558 per acre, 
$2,213,200; 
(depicted in blue). 

Cost per acre: Greatly above average;
Medium high (40-59): 28 easements, 3,753 acres, $662 per acre, 
$2,294,180; 
(depicted in blue). 

Cost per acre: Greatly above average;
High (60 or more): 60 easements, 13,168 acres, $506 per acre, 
$6,227,710. 

Source: GAO analysis of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service data.

Note: Data in the analysis represent grassland easements acquired from 
January 1, 2002, through September 30, 2006. To account for rising land 
values, the dollar thresholds for the categories in the left column 
were calculated separately for each of these 5 years. In each cell of 
this figure, the cost per acre represents the average per-acre price 
for the acquired easements in that cell; this amount may, therefore, 
not match the result of dividing the total spent by the total acreage 
in that cell. Easements in the upper right-hand cells (red) provide 
significantly more habitat value per dollar than the easements in the 
lower left-hand cells (blue). See appendix II for more details on how 
this analysis was performed.

[End of figure]

Given this wide variation in habitat value per dollar for easement 
acquisitions, we conducted an analysis to determine whether the Service 
could have allocated its dollars more effectively and found that it 
could have acquired more of the highest-priority habitat without 
spending more money (see app. II). Our analysis indicated that an 
important opportunity for gains in efficiency would be for the Service 
to target the lowest-cost easements in the highest-priority zones. If 
in fiscal year 2006, the Service had thus targeted its acquisitions, we 
estimated that it could have acquired, at no additional expense, from 
landowners waiting to sell, about 5,000 acres of the highest-priority 
habitat in addition to the 16,169 acres it did acquire in South Dakota. 
Had the Service acquired the 5,000 acres, it could have also acquired 
further acreage at no additional cost by forgoing easement acquisitions 
in the highest-cost, but lower-priority zones (blue areas in fig. 7) 
and by using available funds to acquire additional low-cost, higher-
priority lands. In particular, had the Service chosen not to acquire 8 
high-cost, lower-priority easements in fiscal year 2006, we estimated 
that it could have acquired an additional 3,500 acres of higher-
priority land, rather than the 1,398 acres of lower-priority land. 
Taken together, we estimated that these 2 efficiency gains would have 
allowed the Service to acquire about 8,500 more acres of the highest-
priority land in South Dakota than it acquired--without additional 
expenditures.[Footnote 28]

In addition, our analysis also showed that the Service has had more 
success in acquiring lower-cost grassland easements in high-priority 
zones in certain parts of the state than in others. Specifically, from 
January 1, 2002, through September 30, 2006, the Service was generally 
able to acquire grassland easements of higher habitat value per dollar 
(red areas in fig. 6) in the northwestern portion of South Dakota's 
Prairie Pothole Region. Likewise, most of the grassland easements of 
lower habitat value per dollar were located in the southeastern portion 
of South Dakota's Prairie Pothole Region. These easements were located 
in lower-priority zones; acquired for an above-average, per-acre price; 
or both (blue areas in fig. 6). This geographic pattern, illustrated in 
figure 7, suggests that the Service might be able to overlay estimated 
land prices and habitat priority when targeting lands for acquisition.

Figure 7: Estimated Habitat Value per Dollar for Grassland Easement 
Acquisitions in South Dakota (Fiscal Years 2002-2006):

This is a map of South Dakota depicting Easement acquisitions by the 
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the estimated habitat value per 
dollar in four categories: Non-Prairie Pothole Region; Below Average; 
Average; Above Average.

Source: GAO analysis of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service data.

Note: Data in the analysis represent grassland easements acquired from 
January 1, 2002, through September 30, 2006. The three shadings on the 
map--illustrating above-average, average, and below-average habitat 
value per dollar--correspond to the three shaded categories in figure 
6. This map is an illustrative of the overall spatial pattern in 
habitat value per dollar, rather than a precise prediction of the 
habitat value per dollar of any given parcel. See appendix II for 
details on the methodology used to conduct this analysis.

[End of figure]

According to Service realty officials in North Dakota, South Dakota, 
and Minnesota, while they generally target the highest-priority land, 
they are not always able to acquire the lowest priced of the highest-
priority land for the following reasons:

* Landowner willingness. Service data show that willing sellers are 
more numerous in areas of relatively expensive land than in areas of 
less expensive land. For example, in 3 relatively expensive South 
Dakota counties ($450 to $550 per acre for grassland easements), about 
150 landowners have expressed interest in selling a grassland easement 
to the Service. By contrast, in 5 relatively inexpensive South Dakota 
counties (less than $200 per acre for grassland easements), only 40 
landowners have expressed interest.

* Timing. Service officials stated that they must act quickly once a 
landowner expresses interest in selling a property because the window 
of opportunity may be very narrow. For instance, a landowner may need 
cash to pay off a loan that is about to be due, or heirs to a property 
may need to sell the property as part of the probate process. Service 
realty officials told us that opportunities to acquire certain parcels 
of grasslands may come only once in a generation.

* Funding source restrictions. Service realty officials also told us 
that their land acquisition decisions are affected by restrictions on 
how they spend monies from the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund. For 
example, the law authorizes the U.S. Postal Service to charge full 
price for Duck Stamps only if the Service has spent all Migratory Bird 
Conservation Fund monies made available the previous fiscal 
year.[Footnote 29] As a result, the Service may pursue a lower-priority 
acquisition because it is more expedient, rather than a high-priority 
acquisition that may not be completed by the end of the fiscal year. In 
contrast, funds from the Land and Water Conservation Fund are generally 
available until expended, meaning they can be carried over from fiscal 
year to fiscal year. Moreover, the Service cannot spend monies from the 
Migratory Bird Conservation Fund in North Dakota for grassland 
easements because the Service does not have approval from the governor, 
as required, to purchase easements under the Migratory Bird 
Conservation Act in that state.[Footnote 30]

Service officials also told us that as they learn more about the 
ecological value of different geographic areas, they will incorporate 
this knowledge into land acquisition decisions, which may require 
focusing on more costly parcels. Paying a higher price for grasslands 
at a high risk of being converted, for example, may be more effective 
than paying less money for parcels that are unlikely to be degraded. 
Given these factors, and the Service's desire to spread funds 
throughout a region, the Service's land acquisitions in this region 
will never be 100 percent efficient in terms of the number of ducks 
protected per dollar expended. Still, we found little coordination or 
planning among acquisition offices in region 6 to maximize the cost-
effectiveness of their limited acquisition funding. Service officials 
told us that they may coordinate within an acquisition office to 
acquire the highest-priority land, but acquisition offices rarely 
coordinate among themselves to ensure that the Service is acquiring 
land as cost-effectively as possible. Some questions also arose during 
our review about the Service's distribution of land acquisition funds 
between region 3 and region 6 and about the allocation of funds within 
region 3 for fee-simple acquisitions versus easement acquisitions.

Options for Providing Additional Resources for Habitat Acquisitions:

Another step in acquiring desired habitat more quickly would be to 
explore additional resource options, such as increasing the cost of the 
federal Duck Stamp, reauthorizing a new Wetlands Loan Act, or making 
available additional resources from the Land and Water Conservation 
Fund. First, the federal Duck Stamp's price, which has increased seven 
times since 1934, has been fixed at $15 since 1991--the longest lapse 
between price increases. Adjusting for inflation, the Duck Stamp would 
need to be raised to $21 to have the same purchasing power as it did in 
1991. Accounting for the increase in land prices in the Prairie Pothole 
Region, the price of the Duck Stamp would need to be raised to nearly 
$42. In the 109th Congress, H.R. 4315 proposed an increase in the price 
of the Duck Stamp to $25 through hunting years 2014 and to $35 
thereafter. More recently, H.R. 2735, in the 110th Congress, would 
increase the price of the Duck Stamp to $20 for hunting years 2008 
through 2010 and to $25 thereafter.[Footnote 31] A $10 increase in the 
price of the Duck Stamp, assuming that sales of these stamps remained 
unchanged, would boost nationwide Migratory Bird Conservation Fund 
revenues from about $24 million per year to about $39 million per year. 
This increase would give the Service an additional $15 million each 
year, which it could use to acquire high-priority habitat in the 
Prairie Pothole Region. Increasing the price of the Duck Stamp would 
generate new revenue; thus, it would not increase the federal deficit. 
Second, since 1961, Congress has reauthorized the Wetlands Loan Act 
several times and appropriated $200 million ($870 million in 2007 
dollars) to provide an advance of funds against future Duck Stamp 
sales. It has been nearly 20 years, however, since the last 
reauthorization. Two recent proposals, H.R. 4315 and S. 272, proposed a 
$400 million loan as an advance against future Duck Stamp revenues. If 
the loan is repaid by future Duck Stamp revenues, this alternative 
would have little net effect on the federal deficit. Third, the Land 
and Water Conservation Fund, which receives about $900 million annually 
from a variety of sources, is used only minimally in the Prairie 
Pothole Region. Over the last 2 years, less than $200,000 has been 
appropriated to the region annually, and since 1988, about $2.6 million 
has been appropriated. Through 2006, however, the Land and Water 
Conservation Fund had a balance of nearly $15 billion. Were any of the 
balance to be spent without corresponding offsets, the federal deficit 
would increase.

Increasing the cost of the federal Duck Stamp, reauthorizing the new 
Wetlands Loan Act, or making available additional resources from the 
Land and Water Conservation Fund are just three of the possible 
options. Also, these three options are not mutually exclusive and they 
could be used together in any combination. Moreover, this list of 
options is not comprehensive. For example, in addition to increasing 
the price of the federal Duck Stamp, H.R. 2735, which was introduced on 
June 14, 2007, included two other provisions designed to increase 
funding for the National Wildlife Refuge System in general: (1) 
establish a special postage stamp and (2) designate an income tax 
overpayment check-off to donate money to the proposed National Wildlife 
Refuge System Trust Fund.

Conclusions:

Because of intense agricultural development throughout the 20TH 
century, most of the Prairie Pothole Region's original wetlands have 
been drained and the grasslands plowed, contributing to steep declines 
in many migratory bird species. Over the past 48 years, the Service's 
land acquisitions under the Small Wetlands Acquisition Program in the 
region have been successful at stemming, and in some areas, reversing, 
the pace of wetland drainage and grassland conversion of the 1950s and 
1960s, and these efforts have helped to increase duck populations from 
the alarmingly low levels of the 1980s. To date, the Service's efforts 
have been propped up by several complementary factors: relatively low 
land prices, Agriculture conservation programs, and prime habitat that 
was unsuitable for agricultural production. Taken together, the 
Service's acquisition of a small percentage of available lands proved 
sufficient to sustain migratory bird population levels.

The pressure to convert grasslands to cropland, however, is now much 
greater than it was in the past. Recent market forces do not bode well 
for the Service's continuing efforts to secure habitat in the Prairie 
Pothole Region and suggest that the Service has a small window of time 
in which to conserve high-priority migratory bird habitat. 
Technological advances in genetically modified seed varieties, such as 
drought-tolerant corn and herbicide-resistant soybeans, now allow 
farmers to crop areas once considered unsuitable for farming. Moreover, 
corn commodity prices over the past 5 years have more than doubled, in 
large part because of the growing demand for ethanol, a corn-based 
renewable fuel. These factors have pushed land prices in the Prairie 
Pothole Region dramatically higher over the past few years and have 
made Agriculture conservation programs less appealing to farmers.

For the Service to permanently protect as much as possible of the 
remaining 12 million wetland and grassland acres identified as critical 
to sustaining migratory bird populations in the region, it is now 
urgent for the Service to ensure that it gains maximum ecological 
benefit from its acquisitions. While the Service has developed 
sophisticated scientific models to target high-priority wetlands and 
grasslands, it has not linked this information with land prices. As a 
result, the Service could potentially achieve some modest efficiency 
gains if it were to more effectively target lower-cost, high-priority 
habitat. While any efficiency gains would allow the Service to protect 
the maximum number of migratory birds at the least amount of cost 
before all of the existing habitat is converted to other uses, it would 
not fix the fundamental underlying resource challenge. With an average 
of about $17 million available per year for land acquisitions in the 
region, it will take the Service well over a century to acquire its 12 
million goal acres and will cost billions of dollars. If current trends 
continue, the Service will fall well short of its goal. Significantly 
increasing the pace of acquisitions would require additional resources. 
Two options that have been introduced in Congress to provide additional 
resources include increasing the price of the Duck Stamp and 
reauthorizing a new wetlands acquisition loan. Another alternative, 
providing additional funds from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, 
would also increase the pace of acquisitions in the Prairie Pothole 
Region.

Matters for Congressional Consideration:

Determining the resource level that is appropriate to devote to 
acquiring migratory bird habitat in the Prairie Pothole Region is a 
policy decision that rests with Congress and the President. How much 
time the Service has to protect this high-priority habitat will largely 
depend on how much of the land stays temporarily protected by 
Agriculture conservation programs. The two legislative proposals that 
have been introduced in the 110TH Congress would provide the Service 
with hundreds of millions of additional resources for land acquisitions 
in the region. However, several billion dollars will likely be needed 
for the Service to achieve its goal. We present this information to 
Congress as it deliberates whether and to what extent additional 
resources should be provided to the Service to acquire high-priority 
habitat in the Prairie Pothole Region. We suggest that Congress 
consider this information as it debates H.R. 2735, regarding whether 
and to what extent the price of the Duck Stamp should be increased; S. 
272 regarding whether and to what extent to reauthorize a wetlands 
acquisition loan; and whether and to what extent additional funds may 
need to be provided from the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

Recommendation for Executive Action:

To help ensure that the Service acquires as much high-priority habitat 
as possible with its available funds, we recommend that the Secretary 
of the Interior direct the Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife 
Service to fully integrate the Service's recently developed scientific 
models with consideration of land prices with the goal of maximizing 
the acquisition of the least expensive, high-priority habitat when 
deciding which lands to acquire in the Prairie Pothole Region, while 
balancing that goal with the continued need to acquire high-priority 
habitat throughout the region.

Agency Comments:

We provided the Department of the Interior with a draft of this report 
for review and comment. However, no comments were provided in time for 
them to be included as part of this report.

We are also sending copies of this report to interested congressional 
committees, the Secretary of the Interior, the Director of the U.S. 
Fish and Wildlife Service, and other interested parties. We also will 
make copies available to others upon request. In addition, the report 
will be available at no charge on the GAO Web site at [hyperlink, 
http://www.gao.gov].

If you or your staff have any questions about this report, please 
contact me at (202) 512-3841 or [email protected] Contact points for 
our Offices of Congressional Relations and Public Affairs may be found 
on the last page of this report. GAO staff who made major contributions 
to this report are listed in appendix III.

Signed by: 

Robin M. Nazzaro: 
Director, Natural Resources and Environment:

[End of section]

Appendix I: Scope and Methodology:

To determine the present status of the Department of the Interior's 
(Interior) U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's (the Service) Small 
Wetlands Acquisition Program in the Prairie Pothole Region, we examined 
fee-simple and easement acquisition data for counties of Iowa, 
Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota that are within the 
boundaries of the Prairie Pothole Region, as identified by the North 
American Waterfowl Management Plan. Because the Small Wetlands 
Acquisition Program began in 1959, we examined acquisitions from 1959 
through 2006. For fee-simple and easement acquisitions, we also 
identified the funding source used to purchase each parcel. We obtained 
acquisition data and associated funding data from the Service's Lands 
Record System. To verify the reliability of these data, we compared 
summary data with information published in the Service's annual lands 
report. We also visited three Service acquisition offices in Minnesota, 
North Dakota, and South Dakota and reviewed fee-simple and easement 
acquisition records. During these visits, we also observed easement 
violations, including wetlands that were filled, and witnessed the 
corrective actions required of landowners by the Service. Of note, we 
did not examine fee-simple and easement acquisitions within the Prairie 
Pothole Region outside of the Small Wetlands Acquisition Program, such 
as Dakota Tall Grass easements or fee-simple acquisitions for parcels 
of land within the approved acquisition boundaries of National Wildlife 
Refuges. Furthermore, we did not examine fee-simple or easement 
properties that the Service has acquired from the Farm Service Agency.

To examine the Service's habitat protection goals for the region, we 
obtained and reviewed region-specific Service planning documents--in 
particular, the 2005 Prairie Pothole Joint Venture Implementation Plan. 
This plan describes the results of annual waterfowl breeding population 
and production surveys since 1987 and describes how these data have 
been used by the Service to create "breeding pair accessibility maps." 
These maps enable the Service to predict the abundance and distribution 
of breeding duck pairs throughout the Prairie Pothole Region and is 
integral for realty officials in targeting lands for acquisition. We 
also visited the Service's two Habitat and Population Evaluation Team 
offices in Bismarck, North Dakota, and Fergus Falls, Minnesota, and 
interviewed Service biologists on the rationale and methods they used 
in developing the spatial models that identify these predicted high-
priority areas for acquisition. We visited locations in the Service's 
high-priority acquisition areas, such as McPherson County, South 
Dakota, and observed a high number of duck pairs in numerous wetlands. 
We also visited locations in the Service's low-priority acquisition 
areas and observed very few duck pairs. Finally, we examined the 
Service's restoration goals and how these goals buttress the Service's 
habitat protection goals. To do this, we interviewed Service biologists 
and realty officials in region 3--specifically, Fergus Falls. In this 
region, the Service undertakes more restoration work than it does in 
region 6. We visited wetlands that had been restored by the Service by 
"plugging" drainage ditches. We also obtained information from Service 
officials on the cost of restoring wetlands and grasslands.

To examine challenges that the Service faces in achieving its habitat 
protection goals, we compared the Service's recent fee-simple and 
easement acquisition rates with projected habitat loss rates in the 
Service's high-priority acquisition areas. We analyzed data on lands 
temporarily protected by the Department of Agriculture's Conservation 
Reserve Program to estimate habitat loss. From these data, we 
identified the number of acres currently protected under this program 
in the Prairie Pothole Region that would potentially be unprotected--
and, therefore, be able to be converted to cropland--as contracts 
expire over the next 5 years. We also obtained from the Congressional 
Research Service information on the likely Conservation Reserve Program 
reenrollment rates for fiscal years through 2010. On the basis of these 
data, we estimated the amount of time the Service has to acquire 
habitat in the Prairie Pothole Region, as well as the amount of habitat 
that may be converted to agricultural uses in the future if projected 
grassland conversion rates hold true. In addition, we identified recent 
funding levels for the Service's habitat protection activities in the 
Prairie Pothole Region. We used this information, along with Service 
data on the amount of wetland and grassland goal acres for acquisition, 
to estimate the costs (in unadjusted dollars) of acquiring the 
Service's goal acreage. Our estimates are mathematical calculations 
that are based on the aforementioned assumptions. We cannot forecast 
the likelihood that any of these assumptions will continue into the 
future, nor can we estimate the uncertainty associated with our 
estimate.

Because resources are a challenge for the Service as it continues to 
acquire habitat for migratory birds, we examined whether opportunities 
existed for the Service to use its resources more efficiently. We have 
included our methodology for this analysis in appendix II. We also 
identified the possibility of exploring additional resources for the 
Service. To do this, we examined legislative proposals in the 109th and 
110th Congresses that include provisions such as increasing the price 
of the federal Duck Stamp and reauthorizing a new wetlands loan. The 
list of options that we identified is not meant to be comprehensive.

On the basis of the steps that we have previously described, we 
determined that Agriculture and Service data were sufficiently reliable 
for the purposes of this report. Our work was conducted in accordance 
with generally accepted government auditing standards, including an 
assessment of internal controls, from September 2006 through August 
2007.

[End of section]

Appendix II: Detailed Methodology for GAO's Optimization and Spatial 
Analysis:

To determine the proportion of grassland easements that the Service 
acquired in the highest-priority habitat zones, we used computer 
mapping software to analyze grassland easements that the Service 
recently acquired. We first translated a digital map of the Service's 
habitat priority zones into MapInfo Geographic Information System 
software. These habitat priority zones correspond to the maximum number 
of breeding duck pairs per square mile that can access a given parcel 
of land, according to the Service's biological models. The map 
distinguishes 7 habitat priority zones: fewer than 10 duck pairs per 
square mile, 10 to 19 duck pairs per square mile, 20 to 39 duck pairs 
per square mile, 40 to 59 duck pairs per square mile, 60 to 79 duck 
pairs per square mile, 80 to 99 duck pairs per square mile, and 100 or 
more duck pairs per square mile or more. On this map, we plotted the 
boundaries of grassland easements that the Service acquired in South 
Dakota between January 1, 2002, and September 30, 2006. Of the 488 
grassland easements that the Service paid to acquire during this 
period, we obtained digital property boundaries for 450 easements (92 
percent). We used MapInfo software to identify the habitat priority 
zone in which each of these easements is located. For easements 
spanning more than 1 priority zone, we calculated the proportion of the 
easement located in each zone, multiplied this proportion by the 
midrange number of duck pairs per square mile with access to that zone, 
and arrived at a weighted average number of duck pairs per square 
mile.[Footnote 32] After making this computation, we classified each 
property into 1 of 4 priority zones: fewer than 20 duck pairs per 
square mile, 20 to 39 duck pairs per square mile, 40 to 59 duck pairs 
per square mile, and 60 or more duck pairs per square mile. This is the 
same method of categorization that the Service uses to classify the 
habitat value of properties on its waiting list of willing sellers, 
which is described below.

To estimate the habitat value per dollar that the Service obtained for 
these easements, we combined these data on habitat priority zones with 
data on easement purchase amounts. For each easement, we calculated the 
cost per acre that the Service paid to acquire the property. For each 
year, we classified the easements into quartiles according to their 
cost per acre. In 2006, for example, properties in the first quartile 
cost less than $207 per acre, properties in the second quartile cost 
between $207 and $324, properties in the third quartile cost between 
$324 and $539, and properties in the fourth quartile cost $539 or more 
per acre. By combining the 4 cost-per-acre quartiles with the 4 habitat 
priority zones, we obtained a matrix of 16 possible habitat value-per-
dollar categories (see fig. 8). Within this matrix, a property 
purchased for a low cost per acre and located in a high-priority zone 
could be considered to have a higher habitat value per dollar than a 
property purchased for a high cost per acre and located in a low-
priority zone. We used this matrix as a basis for classifying 
properties into the following 3 broad categories in terms of their 
habitat value per dollar: (1) above-average habitat value per dollar, 
which corresponds to properties in the upper right-hand corner of the 
matrix; (2) average habitat value per dollar, which corresponds to 
properties in the four diagonal cells of the matrix; and (3) below-
average habitat value per dollar, which corresponds to properties in 
the lower left-hand corner of the matrix. Properties with above-average 
habitat value per dollar generally are accessible to more duck pairs 
per dollar spent than properties with below-average habitat value per 
dollar.

Figure 8: Methodology for Habitat Value per Dollar Matrix:

Cost-per-acre quartile: first;
Maximum number of duck pairs per square mile with access to grassland 
easements (Low, less than 20): Average habitat value per dollar; 
Cost-per-acre quartile: first;
Maximum number of duck pairs per square mile with access to grassland 
easements (Medium low, 20-39): Above-average habitat value per dollar; 
Cost-per-acre quartile: first;
Maximum number of duck pairs per square mile with access to grassland 
easements (Medium high, 40-59): Above-average habitat value per dollar; 
Cost-per-acre quartile: first;
Maximum number of duck pairs per square mile with access to grassland 
easements (High, 60 or more): Above-average habitat value per dollar.

Cost-per-acre quartile: second;
Maximum number of duck pairs per square mile with access to grassland 
easements (Low, less than 20): Below average habitat value per dollar; 
Cost-per-acre quartile: second;
Maximum number of duck pairs per square mile with access to grassland 
easements (Medium low, 20-39): Average habitat value per dollar; 
Cost-per-acre quartile: second;
Maximum number of duck pairs per square mile with access to grassland 
easements (Medium high, 40-59): Above-average habitat value per dollar; 
Cost-per-acre quartile: second;
Maximum number of duck pairs per square mile with access to grassland 
easements (High, 60 or more): Above-average habitat value per dollar. 

Cost-per-acre quartile: third;
Maximum number of duck pairs per square mile with access to grassland 
easements (Low, less than 20): Below average habitat value per dollar; 
Cost-per-acre quartile: third;
Maximum number of duck pairs per square mile with access to grassland 
easements (Medium low, 20-39): Below average habitat value per dollar; 
Cost-per-acre quartile: third;
Maximum number of duck pairs per square mile with access to grassland 
easements (Medium high, 40-59): Average habitat value per dollar; 
Cost-per-acre quartile: third;
Maximum number of duck pairs per square mile with access to grassland 
easements (High, 60 or more): Above-average habitat value per dollar.

Cost-per-acre quartile: fourth;
Maximum number of duck pairs per square mile with access to grassland 
easements (Low, less than 20): Below average habitat value per dollar; 
Cost-per-acre quartile: fourth;
Maximum number of duck pairs per square mile with access to grassland 
easements (Medium low, 20-39): Below average habitat value per dollar; 
Cost-per-acre quartile: fourth;
Maximum number of duck pairs per square mile with access to grassland 
easements (Medium high, 40-59): Below average habitat value per dollar; 
Cost-per-acre quartile: fourth;
Maximum number of duck pairs per square mile with access to grassland 
easements (High, 60 or more): Average habitat value per dollar.

Source: GAO analysis of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service data.

[End of figure]

When aggregating these data over the 5-year period to present the 
amounts for the average cost per acre and the total amount spent in 
figure 6 in the main body of the report, we did not adjust the dollar 
values from different years for inflation or land value appreciation.

To determine whether opportunities might exist for the Service to 
acquire grassland easements more efficiently--that is, whether the 
Service could conserve more acreage without spending more money--we 
conducted an optimization analysis. Our analysis was performed using 
data for South Dakota grassland easements limited to fiscal year 2006 
because (1) easement acquisitions in South Dakota are not subject to 
any funding source constraints, (2) there is a large amount of high-
priority acreage for acquisition, and (3) data for 2006 reflect recent 
land values and are the most current data available. The analysis is 
meant to illustrate the gains in efficiency that may be possible if the 
Service were to consider land prices, in addition to habitat value, 
when acquiring grassland easements. The results cannot be projected to 
other periods or to other states in the Prairie Pothole Region. To 
conduct this analysis, we compared properties that the Service actually 
acquired with properties on its waiting list of willing sellers and 
hypothetically "purchased" the lowest-cost properties in the highest-
priority zones. Starting with the first quarter of the fiscal year, we 
identified all properties that the Service acquired and all properties 
that it placed on the waiting list during that quarter. We considered 
only properties in the highest-priority zone--those that are accessible 
to 60 or more duck pairs per square mile--because these properties have 
the potential to provide the highest habitat value per dollar. We 
sorted the properties by cost per acre, from least expensive to most 
expensive, and began "purchasing" properties until we reached the 
expenditure limit for that quarter. We performed the same analysis for 
the remaining three quarters. Properties not selected during a given 
quarter became candidates for selection in the subsequent quarter. At 
the end of the fourth quarter, any remaining funds were used to 
"purchase" additional easements.

We conducted the analysis for two hypothetical acquisition scenarios 
corresponding to two expenditure limits. In the first scenario, we set 
the expenditure limit equal to the total amount that the Service spent 
to acquire easements in the highest-priority zones--$5,420,349 for 
South Dakota in fiscal year 2006. This scenario assumes that the 
Service would attain greater efficiency by simply targeting properties 
in the highest-priority zone with the lowest cost per acre. In the 
second scenario, the expenditure limit included all of the funds 
available in the first scenario, plus all of the funds the Service 
spent to acquire easements with below-average habitat value per dollar. 
Together, these funds totaled $6,597,549 for South Dakota in fiscal 
year 2006. This scenario assumes that the Service would forgo acquiring 
properties with below-average habitat value per dollar in exchange for 
properties with above-average habitat value per dollar. In each 
scenario, we divided the total expenditure limit by four to obtain the 
expenditure limit for each quarter.

The results of this analysis are subject to some uncertainties. Since 
the properties on the waiting list were not acquired by the Service 
during the period of our review, we cannot be certain that the 
landowners would have accepted an offer from the Service to purchase a 
grassland easement. For example, in 2006, 73 percent of landowners 
accepted the Service's offers. To account for this uncertainty, we 
scaled down the purchase price and the acreage of each property on the 
waiting list by a factor of 0.75. This approach provides the same 
estimated value of acreage that could be acquired if we had replicated 
the analysis multiple times, each time simulating whether a given 
landowner would accept the Service's offer. However, because we did not 
replicate our analysis multiple times, we were not able to calculate 
the margin of error associated with our estimates.

Our analysis is subject to further uncertainty because it is based on 
the habitat values predicted by the Service's biological models, rather 
than the habitat value determined by on-the-ground biological 
assessments. On-site assessments account for some site characteristics-
-such as the quality of grasslands and soil capability--that are not 
included in the Service's biological models of habitat value. Although 
these site characteristics may influence selection decisions, we were 
unable to account for them in our analysis. If the Service's biological 
models systematically predict differ habitat values than those 
predicted by on-the-ground biological assessments, our analysis could 
either overstate or understate the potential for efficiency gains. If 
the Service's models, however, tend to accurately predict habitat 
value, on average, the estimates from our analysis would be accurate, 
on average.

Finally, our analysis is based on 1 year of data and does not account 
for the extent to which conditions could change over time. For example, 
our analysis does not estimate the remaining acreage of high habitat 
value-per-dollar land in the Prairie Pothole Region. If there are few 
remaining acres of such land, the potential efficiency gains over time 
may be limited. If there continues to be a wide variation in habitat 
value per dollar over an extended period, however, the potential 
efficiency gains may be substantial. Because our analysis focused only 
on 1 year, we were not able to determine which of these scenarios would 
be more likely.

To determine whether properties with above-average habitat value per 
dollar tend to be clustered in certain areas, we performed a spatial 
analysis. On a map of the South Dakota portion of the Prairie Pothole 
Region, we plotted the location of each grassland easement that the 
Service acquired between January 1, 2002, and September 30, 2006. Using 
the classification system that we have previously described, we labeled 
each property as having either above-average, average, or below-average 
habitat value per dollar. We used a mapping technique known as Inverse 
Distance Weighting to interpolate the values of parcels of land located 
near grassland easements that the Service has already acquired. With 
the Inverse Distance Weighting technique, the computer divides the map 
into a grid of equally sized square cells. For each of these cells, the 
computer searches for all of the Service's grassland easement 
properties located within a specified search radius. It then computes 
the average habitat value per dollar for the properties within the 
search radius, giving greater weight to nearby properties and lesser 
weight to more distant properties. Finally, it uses this average as its 
estimate of the habitat value per dollar for each cell and plots these 
estimates on the map. Using this technique, we divided the map into a 
grid of quarter-mile squares and developed several maps, each of which 
specified a different search radius and assigned a different weight to 
nearby properties versus distant properties. We visually inspected 
these maps for obvious patterns in the location of habitat value per 
dollar. The maps gave different estimates of the habitat value per 
dollar for specific parcels of land. Furthermore, the properties were 
not selected at random, but rather represent the properties that the 
Service had recently acquired. Therefore, the map is not reliable for 
inferring the habitat value per dollar of any given parcel. However, 
the maps do illustrate a similar spatial pattern--that above-average 
habitat value-per-dollar properties were generally located in the 
northwest portion of our study area and below-average habitat value-
per-dollar properties were generally located in the southeast portion 
of the study area. The map that we present in figure 7 is intended to 
be an illustrative example of the spatial pattern of habitat value per 
dollar, rather than providing estimates of the precise habitat value 
per dollar of each parcel.

[End of section]

Appendix III: GAO Contact and Staff Acknowledgments: 

GAO Contact and Staff Acknowledgments: 

GAO Contact:

Robin M. Nazzaro, (202) 512-3841, [email protected]:

Staff Acknowledgments:

In addition to the individual named above, Jeffery D. Malcolm, 
Assistant Director; Nathan Anderson; Mark A. Braza; Ellen W. Chu; 
Richard P. Johnson; Alyssa M. Hundrup; and Arvin Wu made key 
contributions to this report. Also contributing to the report were Gary 
Brown and Jena Y. Sinkfield.

[End of section]

Footnotes: 

[1] While there are hundreds of migratory bird species in the region, 
duck species serve as the best "goal posts" for habitat protection. 
According to Service biologists, if habitat is conserved to protect 
duck species, then all other migratory bird species benefit.

[2] The Food Security Act of 1985 created the Conservation Reserve 
Program, which provides annual rental payments and cost-share 
assistance to producers to help them safeguard environmentally 
sensitive land. Producers contractually agree to retire their land from 
agricultural purposes and keep it in approved conserving uses, 
generally for 10 to 15 years. See Pub. L. No. 99-198, title XII, 
subtitle D, �� 1231-6, 99 Stat. 1354, 1509 (1985), as amended.

[3] Act of Feb. 18, 1929, ch. 257, 45 Stat. 1222, as amended, codified 
at 16 U.S.C. � 715, et seq.

[4] Act of Mar. 16, 1934, ch. 71, 48 Stat. 451, as amended, codified at 
16 U.S.C. � 718a, et seq.

[5] Pub. L. No. 85-585, 72 Stat. 487 (1958), codified at 16 U.S.C. � 
718d(b)(3).

[6] Pub. L. No. 87-383, 75 Stat. 813 (1961), as amended, codified at 16 
U.S.C. � 715k-3, et seq. 

[7] Letter from Frank P. Briggs, Assistant Secretary of the Interior, 
to Representative Herbert C. Bonner, reprinted in S. Rep. No. 87-705 at 
4 (1961). 

[8] Pub. L. No. 94-215, � 2(a), 90 Stat. 189 (1976) (increase in the 
loan ceiling); and Pub. L. No. 99-645, title I, � 101(b), 100 Stat. 
3582, 3584 (1986) (loan forgiveness). 

[9] H.R. 4315, 109th Cong. (2005) (would have increased the Duck Stamp 
price and reauthorized wetlands loan program); H.R. 2735, 110th Cong. 
(2007) (would increase Duck Stamp price); and S. 272, 110th Cong. 
(2007) (would reauthorize wetlands loan program).

[10] Pub. L. No. 87-383, � 3, 75 Stat. 813 (1961).

[11] The North American Wetlands Conservation Act (16 U.S.C. � 4401, et 
seq.) was enacted to protect, enhance, restore, and manage an 
appropriate distribution and diversity of wetland ecosystems and 
habitats associated with wetland ecosystems and other fish and wildlife 
in North America and to sustain an abundance of waterfowl and other 
wetland associated migratory birds, consistent with the goals of the 
North American Waterfowl Management Plan. Under this program, each 
federal dollar expended is matched by at least $1 (and as much as $4) 
from private, state, or local sources. Across the Prairie Pothole 
Region, on average, $2.6 nonfederal dollars are raised for every $1 of 
federal money from this funding source, according to a report by the 
Prairie Pothole Joint Venture.

[12] GAO, Wetlands Preservation: Easements Are Protecting Prairie 
Potholes, but Some Improvements Are Possible, GAO/RCED-92-27 
(Washington, D.C.: Nov. 7, 1991). 

[13] N.D. Cent. Code � 20.1-02-18.3. The prohibition expired in 1985, 
but North Dakota governors have not approved land acquisitions since 
1985.

[14] N.D. Cent. Code � 47-05-02.1.

[15] Under the terms of the 1961 Wetlands Loan Act, the Service's use 
of Migratory Bird Conservation Funds for land acquisitions requires the 
consent of the governor of the state or an appropriate agency of the 
state in which the land is located. Previous governors had authorized 
the Service to acquire up to 1.2 million wetland acres. In 1983, the 
U.S. Supreme Court decided that the North Dakota legislature could not 
revoke previous governors' consent decisions (North Dakota v. United 
States, 460 U.S. 300 (1983)). As a result, the Service was able to use 
monies from the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund to acquire some 
acreage that had been approved by previous North Dakota governors. As 
of November 2006, the Service had acquired about 850,000 acres of the 
1.2 million acres authorized prior to 1977.

[16] Ducks Unlimited is a wetland and waterfowl conservation 
organization. 

[17] GAO/RCED-92-27.

[18] These 31,000 easements include Service easements in the Prairie 
Pothole Region that are not part of the Small Wetlands Acquisition 
Program as well easements outside of the Prairie Pothole Region. The 
Service's 28,339 Small Wetlands Acquisition Program grassland and 
wetland easements, however, constitute the vast majority of 
conservation easements (over 95 percent) in the Service's region 3 and 
region 6. 

[19] The 430 remaining possible violations were resolved the following 
year, according to Refuge officials.

[20] Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service Great Lakes 
Region (3) and Mountain-Prairie Region (6) Administrative and 
Enforcement Procedures for FWS Easements (Wetland, Grassland, Habitat, 
Tallgrass, and FmHA) within the Prairie Pothole States (Twin Cities, 
MN, and Denver, CO: Oct. 1, 2005).

[21] This estimate is for mallards, pintails, blue-winged teals, 
gadwalls, and shovelers.

[22] Of this acreage, the Service's goals are to acquire 200,000 acres 
of wetlands and 400,000 acres of grasslands in fee, and 1.2 million 
acres of wetlands and 10.2 million acres of grasslands using easements.

[23] Beginning in fiscal year 2004, the Service changed its formula for 
calculating wetland and grassland easement payments. 

[24] The 79,000 acre annual average includes average donations of 
nearly 27,000 acres per year.

[25] This dollar and acreage estimate is one of many potential 
scenarios that may occur in the future. It is a hypothetical scenario 
that is based on mathematical calculations, including assumptions that 
habitat acquisition will continue at recent levels and funding for 
habitat acquisition will keep pace with increases in land prices. We 
cannot forecast the likelihood that any of these assumptions will 
continue into the future. 

[26] According to the Congressional Research Service, for example, in 
the Conservation Reserve Program, 23.2 million acres of the 27.8 
million acres currently enrolled nationwide can be reenrolled or 
otherwise extended, thus giving a reenrollment rate of 83.5 percent. 

[27] The habitat acquisition trend is based on projecting the average 
habitat acquisition levels for the past 3 years. We selected this 
period because we believe the most recent years are the best 
representation of current market trends. Using other years to calculate 
the average values would lead to different projections. The habitat 
loss projection assumes that all landowners who are not eligible to 
reenroll their grasslands in the Conservation Reserve Program will 
convert their grasslands to agricultural uses. The projection also 
assumes that all landowners who can reenroll in this program will 
choose to, despite higher payments associated with converting their 
lands. In addition, the projection does not include grassland 
conversions that were not, at some point, temporarily protected by the 
Conservation Reserve Program. This hypothetical scenario is one of 
several scenarios that we developed to identify the challenges the 
Service faces in achieving its habitat protection goals.

[28] Our analysis accounted for many of the real-world constraints that 
the Service faces in conducting its work, such as the need to make 
timely decisions, the need for willing sellers, and funding source 
restrictions. The analysis, however, is subject to several limitations 
and, therefore, is meant to be an illustrative, rather than a 
definitive, assessment of the potential for efficiency gains. See 
appendix II for details on our methodology.

[29] Pub. L. No. 95-552, 92 Stat. 1450 (1982).

[30] A 1991 Interior Solicitor's opinion states that although North 
Dakota law restricts the use of Migratory Bird Conservation Fund monies 
for grassland easements, the Service can still acquire grassland 
easements using Land and Water Conservation Fund monies. The 
Solicitor's opinion states that Congress imposes no conditions on the 
Secretary of the Interior to obtain state consent for such 
acquisitions.

[31] H.R. 2735 would require the amount received for each stamp sold in 
excess of $15.00 to be used for the costs of national wildlife refuge 
operations. However, legislation could be enacted without this 
restriction if Congress wished to allow the agency to devote additional 
funds to land acquisitions. 

[32] For example, if 25 percent of a property were located in a zone 
that supports 20 to 39 duck pairs per square mile, and the remaining 75 
percent of the property were located in a zone that supports 40 to 59 
duck pairs per square mile, we estimated that the property, on average, 
was located in an area that supports 45 duck pairs per square mile 
(0.25*30 + 0.75*50 = 45). We, therefore, would have classified such a 
property as supporting 40 to 59 duck pairs per square mile. For areas 
that support 100 or more duck pairs per square mile, we assumed the 
midpoint to be 110 duck pairs per square mile. 

[End of section]

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