FWS seeks to smooth wetland easement issues

Forum News Service
Farm Forum

GRAND FORKS, N.D. — The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Monday, March 9, issued guidance encouraging its personnel and landowners to work together to protect wetland easements from drainage without restricting landowner activities on the remainder of their properties.

Last fall, Sens. John Hoeven and Kevin Cramer, both R-N.D., hosted Interior Secretary David Bernhardt in North Dakota to highlight the need for due process and regulatory relief for farmers and ranchers affected by FWS wetland easement regulations.

The Department of Interior, which oversees the FWS, recently announced an effort to modernize mapping of older wetland easements on refuge lands.

“Today’s announcement is our next step to provide better government services to the American people and further minimize conflict between farmers and protecting waterfowl,” Bernhardt said Monday. “By working collaboratively and cooperatively with landowners, we can better achieve our mutual wildlife conservation goals.”

There are over 28,000 wetland easements in the Prairie Pothole Region of North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota and Montana protecting over 1.5 million acres of important wetland areas, the Service said.

Widely known as “North America’s duck factory,” the Prairie Pothole Region provides crucial breeding habitat for waterfowl and produces roughly half of the North American continental waterfowl production.

Monday’s announcement finalizes an administrative process providing landowners with the opportunity to appeal questions about easement compliance and help avoid unnecessary legal action.

“This appeals process is an important step toward protecting landowners’ property rights,” Hoeven said in a statement. “We appreciate the administration for continuing to work with us to address our concerns with the FWS’ wetlands easements. A collaborative approach that ensures due process for farmers, ranchers and other landowners will allow for good environmental stewardship without the burden of costly litigation, and we will continue our efforts to ensure the new appeals process achieves these goals.”

Refuge managers administer the FWS’ easement program and are responsible for maintaining communication with landowners, answering questions about easement provisions and monitoring or inspecting them for compliance.

It is estimated that fewer than 1% of all easements in the Prairie Pothole Region are out of compliance during any given year, the FWS said in a news release. Many of these infractions are minor and easily resolved by simple communications and negotiations with the landowner.

Landowners who have wetland easements with the FWS often seek clarity and certainty before investing in expensive drain-tile systems. To help landowners understand where they can place drain tile without violating the terms of their easement, the FWS said it will use the best available science and won’t pursue legal action when landowners adhere to agency-provided setback recommendations.

“Defending private property owners from an intrusive federal government is one of my highest priorities,” Cramer said in a statement. “North Dakota landowners deserve the right to appeal assertions of wrongdoing and be provided safe harbor while the administrative process proceeds. This new order also allows landowners to seek outside scientific expertise without fearing legal retribution.”

U.S. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt (second from left) visited North Dakota last fall and heard concerns about issues involving North Dakota farmers and ranchers affected by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wetland easement regulations. Pictured with Bernhardt during his visit to Painted Canyon at Theodore Roosevelt National Park were Gov. Doug Burgum, TRNP Superintendent Wendy Ross and Sens. Kevin Cramer and John Hoeven, both R-N.D.