Ready to Fight the Stealth Attack on Wildlife? Part Two: Northern Pintails

Northern pintails by Larry Hitchens
A pair of northern pintails takes flight in Delaware's Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Larry Hitchens.

It’s easy to see why the northern pintail is known as the “greyhound of the air.” A long, slender, small-headed and long-necked duck—propelled by narrow, elongated wings—the sleek pintail seems designed for speed. This quick and graceful flier stands out easily in a mixed-species flock of ducks.

Legal Loopholes

But even the speedy pintail cannot escape threats facing its North American breeding habitat. One of the earliest-breeding waterfowl species, the northern pintail nests on the ground in open areas near shallow seasonal wetlands. As a result of two Supreme Court decisions, these wetlands no longer are guaranteed the protections they had for decades under the Clean Water Act.

Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972 to protect “waters of the United States.” For nearly 30 years, both the courts and the agencies responsible for administering the law interpreted it broadly to safeguard virtually all of our nation’s waters. But the court decisions, the first in 2001 and the second in 2006, ignored congressional intent by narrowing the act’s focus, putting in doubt protection for seasonal water bodies that pintails and scores of other species rely on.

“Duck-Nesting Basket” at Risk

Particularly critical to pintails and other ducks is the Prairie Pothole Region. Located in south-central Canada and the north-central United States—chiefly the Dakotas, Montana and Minnesota—more than 3 million potholes created by glaciers during the last Ice Age are scattered throughout the region. Most of them are seasonal, filling with rain and snowmelt each spring.

More than half the U.S. and Canadian population of nesting ducks breeds in the Prairie Pothole Region. “The pothole region is absolutely crucial to migratory waterfowl,” says U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wetlands biologist Tom Dahl. “This is the duck-nesting basket of the North American continent.”

Restoring the Clean Water Act

To restore protection for millions of acres of prairie potholes and other wetlands, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recently released draft Clean Water guidance. With the comment period over, the Obama administration is ready to move forward on the guidance but, through a rider attached to the Interior and Environment appropriations bill and other 2012 budget bills, Congress is trying to block the administration’s attempt to restore the Clean Water Act’s protections.

Pintails need your help. Once among the continent’s most abundant ducks, the birds “have suffered a disturbing decline since the 1950s,” notes Ducks Unlimited. “More than any other North American waterfowl species, the northern pintail population has suffered from persistent drought and loss of grassland habitat in the Prairie Pothole Region.” More than half the potholes themselves have been drained for agriculture, and the Clean Water Act loophole means the rest are even more vulnerable to destruction.

Speak up for Northern Pintails and Other Wildlife

Take ActionHelp northern pintails by urging the administration to restore Clean Water Act protections for the waters so crucial to these ducks, and by urging Congress to stand aside and let the expert agencies do their job to protect the nation’s waters.

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Wildlife in the Crossfire – About this Series

This  four-part blog series highlights wildlife caught in the crossfire of the federal budget battle raging in Congress and gives you the tools to fight back. Congress is in recess and members are back in their home districts. Now is the time to stand up for wildlife.

Fact: America’s investment in wildlife is not to blame for the budget problems we face today. Over the past 30 years, America’s investment in parks, wildlife, clean water and clean air has fallen from 1.7%  to 0.6% of federal spending.