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Highlights

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.

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Recommendations

Matter for Congressional Consideration

Matter Status Comments
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. Congress may wish to 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.
Closed - Implemented
In April 2009, H.R. 1916 was referred to the Committee on Natural Resources. This bill was proposed to amend the Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp Act to provide for a revised schedule of price increases for the "Duck Stamp." According to committee staff, GAO's report entitled, "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" was one of the key sources of information in drafting the bill.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of the Interior To help ensure that the Service acquires as much high-priority habitat as possible with its available funds, the Secretary of the Interior should 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.
Closed - Implemented
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's (FWS) region 6 office developed guidance that addresses the criteria identified in the GAO findings and demonstrates how FWS will continue to maximize available funding to acquire land with the lowest cost but highest biological value. This guidance has been incorporated into the FWS easement manual for use in FY 2010.

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