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Letcher duck habitat nearly complete

A contractor with Veit, a specialty contracting and waste management company, moves dirt to create wetland habitat Wednesday about three miles northwest of Letcher. (Jake Shama/Republic)1 / 4
A contractor with Veit, a specialty contracting and waste management company, moves dirt to create wetland habitat Wednesday about three miles northwest of Letcher. (Jake Shama/Republic)2 / 4
Ducks Unlimited Biologist Bruce Toay watches as contractors create wetland habitat Wednesday about three miles northwest of Letcher. (Jake Shama/Republic)3 / 4
A new wetland created in November by contractors working with Ducks Unlimited is pictured Wednesday about six miles northwest of Letcher. (Jake Shama/Republic)4 / 4

LETCHER — More ducks could be coming to the Letcher area as a conservation organization concludes a project to provide them with more homes.

Contractors hired by Ducks Unlimited have been building embankments and pushing sediment out of 37 wetland basins, making up about 80 acres of wetlands, a few miles northwest of Letcher, according to Steve Donovan, manager of conservation programs in South Dakota.

"We saw it as an opportunity to actually put some habitat back, habitat that was drained many years ago and lost," Donovan said. "If we get any runoff at all this spring from snowmelt or rain, there should be plenty of water in those basins this coming spring."

Ducks Unlimited purchased two plots of land, sitting three miles and six miles from Letcher, totaling approximately 660 acres for about $3 million in December 2014 and January 2015, Donovan said, and the organization has spent $210,000 on improvements, which began in recent weeks.

"It takes a little while to line up the money and get permits and get all of our ducks in a row to the point where we're ready to restore them," Donovan said.

The project was part of Ducks Unlimited's Revolving Land Acquisition Program, in which the organization uses funds from members across the country to purchase land, seeks out additional funding to improve wetland habitat on the properties, files for a permanent easement to protect the wetland and then sells the property to a private party.

The Letcher projects were partially funded by Mitchell's Pheasants Forever chapter — Pheasant Country Chapter 872, which donated $4,000 — the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, the Izaak Walton League of America, South Dakota's Habitat Conservation Fund, the Wildlife Conservation Society and the James River Water Development District.

Although South Dakota is considered by many to be pheasant territory, Donovan said Ducks Unlimited has 5,100 South Dakota acres in RLAP and has purchased and sold another 32,000 acres since about 2000. In addition, Donovan said the Ducks Unlimited program in South Dakota is larger than in any other state because of its importance in waterfowl breeding and "significant limitations" to buy land in North Dakota.

Eastern South Dakota is part of the Prairie Pothole Region, which extends from northeastern Nebraska and central Iowa to eastern North Dakota, northern Montana and large sections of Saskatchewan and Alberta in Canada.

Ducks Unlimited has identified the Prairie Pothole Region as its number one priority in preserving waterfowl habitat because the area has millions of shallow depressions that, when filled with water, are necessary for duck reproduction and are more beneficial than deeper, more permanent water features.

"Anywhere from 50 to 75 percent of all the ducks that are hatched in North America come from the Prairie Pothole Region," Donovan said. "We have millions and millions of these small prairie pothole wetlands that are just perfect waterfowl breeding habitat, and most of the rest of North America has nothing like that."

According to Donovan, North Dakota law makes it difficult for nonprofits to purchase land, and much of the land in Iowa and Minnesota has been modified to an extent that repairing habitat is unrealistic, so DU members from around the nation choose to invest in habitat in South Dakota.

And South Dakota's emphasis on pheasants actually boosts duck habitat as well, Donovan said, since the birds seek out similar breeding grounds.

"For thermal cover where (pheasants) can get out of the elements and withstand a January blizzard, cattails are better than anything," Donovan said. "The habitat needs of the two species, even though one is wetland dependent and the other is not, they overlap tremendously, and we're pretty proud of the fact that our projects are very beneficial for pheasants and a lot of other wildlife species."

An extensive project

Ducks Unlimited converted some of the Letcher properties to grassland, but much of it was left as cropland. The improvements will be protected indefinitely by an easement from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and then sold at an auction, which could take place as early as this spring.

Donovan said RLAP land has been sold or transferred to public agencies, like South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks, in the past, but the state doesn't have enough funding to purchase every project the organization undertakes. Plus, approximately 90 percent of ducks in the Prairie Pothole Region come from private land, Donovan said, so protecting habitat on private lands is important.

Bruce Toay, a biologist for Ducks Unlimited, said the wetlands may be dry five years out of 10, and in those years, a farmer may plant crops through the basins.

"We try to work with farmers and make this as conducive to farming and wildlife as we can," Toay said. "We don't want to exclude them out of the wetland basins, but we want to make sure there's also an opportunity for the wildlife to respond in areas that were historically very productive."

Toay said Sanborn County is one of these areas that is "extremely productive historically" and had a high wetland density before farmers intervened. He also said the projects near Letcher were some of the most extensive Ducks Unlimited has undertaken on South Dakota cropland.

"We have a narrow window to work after the crops are harvested but before the ground freezes up," Toay said. "We have not had this kind of wetland restoration work in cropland habitat much in South Dakota at all."

Contractors have finished work on one of the parcels, and Toay said improvements on the second piece of land could be completed Saturday.

Until the land is sold, it will be treated as public hunting ground. The next owner will choose whether to open it to the public or not, but Donovan said that decision won't affect hunting opportunity.

"Most private landowners just aren't interested in having a public hunt on their property, but the nice thing about ducks is they're migratory birds. They don't stay on that property their whole life," Donovan said. "Hunters up and down the flyway will be able to pursue those ducks that are born and raised on private land somewhere."

In the past couple weeks, Ducks Unlimited has closed on two more properties in eastern South Dakota, and Donovan expects the organization to buy another 160 acres about one-half mile north of Letcher within the next week, where Donovan said there is great habitat potential and community support.

"We've been really fortunate. There's a number of landowners in the Letcher area that really like what we're doing and bringing opportunities to us," Donovan said. "There's a couple townships right there that are just amazing with how many small pothole wetlands that are present on that land."

Ducks Unlimited could close the sale on the new property as early as Friday, but Donovan said it will likely be a couple years before improvement could begin.