Corn Crowds Out Wildlife in Prairie Pothole Region

Study shows how government incentives are driving corn ethanol expansion, impacting wildlife

01-13-2010 // Aislinn Maestas
Flock of Mallards

A new report shows how government incentives for corn ethanol are driving farmers to shift land into corn production, resulting in significant decreases in grassland bird populations throughout the fragile Prairie Pothole Region. The study analyzes the current and potential impacts of increased corn ethanol production on wildlife and habitat in the Prairie Pothole states of Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota. 

Our research shows that native grassland is being converted into cropland at an alarming rate throughout the Prairie Pothole Region,” said Greg Fogel, study co-author and MS/MPP candidate at the University of Michigan. “As a result, populations of sensitive wildlife species are declining significantly in areas with high increases in corn plantings.”

According to the report, U.S. ethanol capacity has grown almost 200 percent since the passage of the 2005 Energy Bill, which mandated a large increase in domestic ethanol production. In addition, the updated Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), passed in 2007, requires corn ethanol production to increase from 10.57 billion gallons in 2009 to 15 billion in 2015. This means corn ethanol production will continue to increase, with no end in sight for the destruction of natural habitat in the Prairie Pothole Region.

“Oftentimes these incentives are redundant, driving market demand for corn ethanol and putting undue pressure on the land,” said Julie Sibbing, director of global warming, agriculture and wildlife at the National Wildlife Federation. “The system makes it hard for farmers to resist converting native grassland into cropland or to keep their land in the Conservation Reserve Program.”

By identifying areas with the most dramatic land-use changes in Prairie Pothole states, researchers were able to see where there are “hotspots” of increased corn plantings and habitat loss. In North and South Dakota alone, more than 475,000 acres of previously untilled land were broken between 2002 and 2007. When researchers analyzed the relationship between corn plantings and grassland bird populations, the results showed that counties with high increases in corn plantings had significant declines of nearly 30 percent in populations of sensitive grassland birds between 2005 and 2008.

Researchers conclude that “if we proceed along the current trajectory without changing federal policies, the prairie pothole will be further degraded and fragmented, and the many services it provides will be impossible to restore.” In order to preserve the ecological integrity of the Prairie Pothole Region, the study puts forth several recommendations:

  • Reconsider government mandates and financial support for corn ethanol.
  • Protect prairies and wetlands from conversion.
  • Strengthen the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP).
  • Pursue Additional Research.

“If we want to achieve widespread protection of wildlife and native prairie, policy changes are needed,” said Becca Brooke, study co-author and MS/MBA candidate at the University of Michigan, School of Natural Resources and Environment and Ross School of Business.

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