Prairie pothole or jackpot hole?

If you farm prairie potholes, you may earn more if you let them alone. The United States government is seriously considering subsidizing farmers if they stop farming their prairie potholes.

What are prairie potholes? The ones I’m referring to are the slight depressions dug into the Great Plains. There are literally millions of them, and they fill up with water in the spring rains, then usually dry out by late summer. Most of them range from a tenth acre to several acres in size, and they pockmark portions of Canada, North and South Dakota, Montana, Iowa and Minnesota.

Prairie potholes are dominated by wetland plants, most of which are submerged, and emergent marsh plants along with wetland prairie plants that bask under windswept skies in rich pothole soil.

The less soggy soil on the rises and hillocks surrounding the pools are home to more dry soil prairie plants; that is, if they are left unfarmed.

The prairie potholes were gouged out by glaciers and, though referred to as mere “mud puddles,” these mud puddles provide homes for millions of ducks, millions of other wetland-loving birds and millions of grassland birds—roughly 300 species when combining the three groups.

The prairie pothole region is the “duck factory” of North America because it produces half of the 35 to 40 million of North America’s ducks. The highest density of ducks are found breeding in the small potholes because they can have more privacy.

Duck pairs like smaller prairie potholes for the territoriality issue; it’s easier to push other duck pairs out when it’s smaller. Ten 1-acre potholes will have in total more pairs of ducks than a 10-acre pothole by at least a 2 to 1 margin.

Twelve thousand years ago, the retreating glaciers had created around 25 million ground depressions in the Great Plains across an area that’s 300,000 square miles in size.

However, in the past century, much of this area has been farmed. Farmers have tried to drain, burn and plow the potholes. What once contained 83 prairie potholes per square mile now contains much less on average. Wheat, barley, soybeans, corn, sunflowers, cattle and sheep dominate a large percentage of prairie pothole regions.

Ironically, the white man’s cohort species co-exists in some areas of pothole country with a plethora of before-mentioned native wildlife, not to mention the not before-mentioned native mammals, reptiles, amphibians, insects and other invertebrates.

Global warming has been a conscious and conscience concern for our world for many years now, and despite the Bush administration’s denial of the problem, others are steadfastly searching for solutions.

Carbon dioxide is the key gas in a group of gases that are causing the greenhouse effect. And it is common knowledge that carbon dioxide is absorbed by plants, where it is processed as their food via photosynthesis. Researchers have been studying habitat plant communities trying to determine ones that absorb the most carbon from the atmosphere, and guess what? Jackpot holes!

United States Geological Survey biologists have found the prairie pothole to be a potentially vast “carbon sink”—a natural sponge absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere polluted by cars and all sorts of manmade fossil burners.

The storing of carbon by the plant is called sequestration, and sequestration in an average 1-acre prairie pothole equals 2 1/2 tons if not farmed. It’s estimated that if the remaining 400 million acres of the prairie pothole region in the U.S. and Canada stopped being farmed, they could hold 400 million tons of carbon for 10 years.

About 10 years ago, scientists looked to trees and croplands as the most promising areas of carbon sequestration. Economists then devised a system to leverage the stored carbon as a viable commodity valued in tons and expressed in shares or permits, and then traded on the open market.

Now a plan by scientists, economists, politicians and farmers is being developed to turn prairie potholes into a greenhouse gas crop by paying farmers for the carbon stored in their unfarmed potholes. Farmers view it as a way of staying afloat while helping the environment. So far, researchers think this plan is more than promise; it has many win-win qualities.

Rod Myers is a local resident with an interest in the environment and disability issues. He has an associate’s degree in science and a bachelor’s in fine arts. Rod is a member of the Audubon Society, the Wild Ones Natural Landscapers and Rockford Amateur Astronomers, Inc.

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