Ducks Unlimited is enjoying a good year. As it celebrates its 75th anniversary, the Memphis-based conservation charity continues basking in the glow of a seven-year fundraising campaign that ended in late 2010. Altogether, “Wetlands for Tomorrow” raised almost $1.9 billion—which DU is using to conserve two million new acres of North American breeding ground as it ponders its next big project.
Working with private landowners, corporations, and governments, DU restores and manages massive swaths of land that have been degraded by agriculture or development. Its scientists and more than 40,000 volunteers also work to preserve or restore grasslands, re-plant forests, and restore watersheds. They work in the United States, Canada, and Mexico—wherever the land has been compromised and now poses a risk for waterfowl in their wintering, migrating, and breeding habitats.
Research has shown that without adequate wetlands, ducks won’t attempt to reproduce. They also tend to breed better in wetlands surrounded by grasslands. In an effort to mitigate losses, DU works to obtain conservation easements and uses GIS technology and satellite imagery to identify prime wetlands and grasslands.
DU was launched by a group of duck hunters in 1937. At the time, the Dust Bowl was ravaging the country, with severe drought and other conditions decimating North American waterfowl populations. DU has since grown into the world’s largest private wetlands- and waterfowl-conservation organization.
As of January 2012, DU had preserved 12.6 million acres of prime waterfowl habitat in North America. “By now, that number is closer to 12.8 million acres,” says Richard Smith, director of development at DU. Most of the organization’s $180 million annual budget comes from private donations (with some public funding) and is provided by more than 4,000 grassroots fundraising events—shooting tournaments, sponsors banquets—held each year.
One of DU’s more recent initiatives has focused on the Gulf Coast region. Hurricane Katrina destroyed vast stretches of wetlands when it rampaged through the Gulf Coast in 2005. Just weeks later, Hurricane Rita barreled through on a similar path. Together, the two storms disrupted 126,000 wetland acres in Louisiana. Three years later Hurricanes Gustav and Ike caused massive flooding and untold damage to waterfowl habitats in the region. And then in 2010, oil fouled the Louisiana coast after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
“Each of these disasters exacerbated wetland loss that had already reached a crisis point in Louisiana,” says Tom Moorman, director of conservation planning in DU’s southern region and leader of its Gulf Coast Response Team. DU pledged $15 million for coastal conservation after Katrina hit. Then, when the other disasters arose, the organization assembled a team to assess damages, plan restoration, and prepare alternatives for wintering waterfowl.
The Gulf Coast is only one of several fronts in DU’s fight to preserve waterfowl habitats. Other areas of interest include Canada’s western boreal forest, the Mississippi alluvial valley, and California’s Central Valley and coastal areas.
One area is of special interest. DU has long focused on the Prairie Pothole Region (PPR), or what is more commonly known as North America’s “duck factory.” Stretching over 300,000 square miles from central Alberta southeast to Iowa, the small ponds, or “potholes,” scattered across the PPR hatch more waterfowl than any other place on the continent. In 1937, the PPR is where DU’s founders conserved their first acre. It was on a prairie pothole in Manitoba that’s now known as Big Grass Marsh. Since then, the group has conserved 4.7 million acres in the region.
However, key places within the PPR remain on DU’s radar, such as North and South Dakota. Between 2002 and 2007, those states lost more than 500,000 acres of prairie to farm production. In Iowa and Minnesota, which once boasted the most productive waterfowl breeding habitat on the prairies, more than 95 percent of historic wetlands and grasslands have been converted to other uses. Experts expect this trend to continue to the tune of 200,000 acres a year in places like the Dakotas and Montana.
The organization has occasionally been portrayed as a club for well-to-do hunters who are only interested in conservation as a means of keeping their favorite sport alive—rich guys breeding ducks to shoot. Smith retorts that DU’s 615,000 members are a “diverse crowd” of outdoors enthusiasts and conservationists. They range from high-powered CEOs to $35-annual-dues-paying general members. “Our mission is not just waterfowl,” he says. “It’s the habitat.”
“The work that we do benefits all creatures,” agrees Stephen Reynolds. Reynolds is president and CEO of Baptist Memorial Health Care, one of the largest nonprofit healthcare systems in the U.S., and an avid outdoorsman who first got involved with DU in the late 1990s. He became its national secretary a decade ago.
“It’s a continent-wide effort to restore what was originally created for the benefit of everyone,” concludes Reynolds. “From a philanthropic standpoint, the results speak for themselves.”