USDA conservation program and practice effects on wetland ecosystem services in the Prairie Pothole Region


  • Corresponding Editor: J. S. Baron.


Implementation of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) has resulted in the restoration of >2 million ha of wetland and grassland habitats in the Prairie Pothole Region (PPR). Restoration of habitats through these programs provides diverse ecosystem services to society, but few investigators have evaluated the environmental benefits achieved by these programs. We describe changes in wetland processes, functions, and ecosystem services that occur when wetlands and adjacent uplands on agricultural lands are restored through Farm Bill conservation programs. At the scale of wetland catchments, projects have had positive impacts on water storage, reduction in sedimentation and nutrient loading, plant biodiversity, carbon sequestration, and wildlife habitat. However, lack of information on the geographic location of restored catchments relative to landscape-level factors (e.g., watershed, proximity to rivers and lakes) limits interpretation of ecosystem services that operate at multiple scales such as floodwater retention, water quality improvement, and wildlife habitat suitability. Considerable opportunity exists for the USDA to incorporate important landscape factors to better target conservation practices and programs to optimize diverse ecosystem services. Restoration of hydrologic processes within wetlands (e.g., hydroperiod, water level dynamics) also requires a better understanding of the influence of conservation cover composition and structure, and management practices that occur in uplands surrounding wetlands. Although conservation programs have enhanced delivery of ecosystem services in the PPR, the use of programs to provide long-term critical ecosystem services is uncertain because when contracts (especially CRP) expire, economic incentives may favor conversion of land to crop production, rather than reenrollment. As demands for agricultural products (food, fiber, biofuel) increase, Farm Bill conservation programs will become increasingly important to ensure provisioning of ecosystem services to society, especially in agriculturally dominated landscapes. Thus, continued development and support for conservation programs legislated through the Farm Bill will require a more comprehensive understanding of wetland ecological services to better evaluate program achievements relative to conservation goals.