Wetlands Preservation:

Easements Are Protecting Prairie Potholes but Some Improvements Are Possible

RCED-92-27: Published: Nov 7, 1991. Publicly Released: Dec 11, 1991.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO provided information on the enforcement of protection easements under the Fish and Wildlife Service's (FWS) Small Wetlands Acquisition Program (SWAP), which serves to preserve wetlands and increase waterfowl production.

GAO found that: (1) in the four FWS wetland management districts reviewed, FWS is providing reasonable assurance that violators will be detected by keeping accurate and current documentation on the wetlands to be protected, keeping landowners and tenants on lands with wetlands easements informed of the terms of the easements, and performing annual aerial surveillance of the wetlands under easement followed by on-the-ground inspections of suspected violations; (2) FWS officials in two of the districts reviewed estimated that significantly less than 1 percent of the total acreage under easement is damaged each year; (3) although some damaged wetlands may never again sustain the many varieties of life forms that existed before the damage occurred, almost all damaged wetlands are restored to be productive habitat for ducks, usually through voluntary compliance by the landowners or tenants; (4) despite its success, SWAP alone cannot stem the decline in migratory waterfowl and wetlands; (5) drought, predation, farming practices, and illegal harvesting contribute to the continuing decrease in North America's duck population, and wetlands continue to be lost to agriculture, development, and other uses; and (6) SWAP weaknesses included some FWS district offices' failure to routinely document waterfowl's use of wetlands, timely restore damaged wetlands, and issue notices and assess fines to easement violators.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To improve the effectiveness of SWAP, the Secretary of the Interior should direct the Director, FWS, to establish procedures to ensure that wetland management district offices responsible for the program document the extent to which waterfowl are using wetlands.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FWS has begun to use a waterfowl production survey that will cover the entire Prairie Pothole region of the United States. This is an alternative action that will respond to the recommendation.

    Recommendation: To improve the effectiveness of SWAP, the Secretary of the Interior should direct the Director, FWS, to issue agencywide timeliness standards for: (1) performing on-the-ground inspections of suspected violations; (2) contacting landowners or tenants once violations have been confirmed; (3) completing restoration; and (4) following up to ensure that restoration is satisfactory. Exceptions to those standards should be documented and approved by the head of the responsible wetland management district office.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Specific guidance regarding easement monitoring and enforcement efforts was included in Policy Guidance on March 24, 1993, under the signature of the Deputy Director, FWS.

    Recommendation: To improve the effectiveness of SWAP, the Secretary of the Interior should direct the Director, FWS, to issue guidance that specifies the circumstances under which easement violators should be issued violation notices and assessed fines.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Supplemental guidance emphasizing the importance of consistent and timely application of easement management guidelines was issued on March 24, 1993, by the Deputy Director, FWS.

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