Prairie Pothole Region--Continental Duck Factory

The immense size and complexity of habitat in the Prairie Pothole region can only be appreciated from an aerial perspective.

Ten thousand years ago, the remnants of a huge glacier began its final march into history. At almost 300, 000 square miles, this relic was still huge, covering parts of present-day Canadian provinces Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Alberta, as well as considerable portions of five U.S. states: Minnesota, Iowa, North and South Dakota and Montana.

As the glacier retreated north, it uncovered a terrain it had been shaping for over 100,000 years. The surface was pock-marked with millions of unconnected depressions and looked something like the surface of a sponge.

Each of these depressions fills with water from snowmelt, rain and occasionally groundwater, creating a system of shallow and productive seasonal and permanent wetlands and setting the stage for one of the most amazing wildlife factories in the world.

Because of their somewhat round shapes and the fact that most are not connected, they are often referred to as pots or kettles and the area is now called the Prairie Pothole Region. Before settlement, this was the core of the vast grassland known as the Great Plains of North America, the largest grassland in the world.

The Prairie Pothole Region is still globally significant in terms of wildlife production. Millions of birds depend on this area. Fifty percent of the waterfowl produced in North America begin life there. Many species, such as snow geese, scaup and wigeon, that breed in the boreal forests of northern Canada and Alaska as well as the Arctic, depend on the Prairie Potholes for a refueling stop during spring migration. Dozens of species of waterbirds, shorebirds and grassland birds either nest there or use the Prairie Pothole Region as a critical stepping stone during migration.

Besides wildlife, the Prairie Pothole Region provides ecosystem services as well. The wetlands act like a big sponge soaking up excess water and reducing the likelihood of downstream flooding while recharging the aquifer.

Because of its reputation as a “duck factory”, the Prairie Pothole Region has received a lot of conservation interest. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has more wildlife refuges per square mile in this region than in any other area in the country. Ducks Unlimited Inc. considers the Prairie Pothole Region as the number one wetland habitat in North America. It is also their top conservation priority. This attention is not only because of its incredible values of the Prairie Pothole Region, but also because so much of the area has been impacted.

When this resource seemed limitless, the federal government helped landowners drain these wetlands to create more farmland. Over fifty percent of the wetlands that existed prior to settlement have been drained. In some areas, over ninety percent of the wetlands are gone. On top of that, much of the native grasslands, the critical nesting habitat for most of the birds using the potholes, have been converted to agriculture. Agricultural chemical runoff concentrates in these low potholes and is also impacting wildlife and habitat in some areas.

Within a month or two, we are going to be seeing lots of migrating waterfowl move through our area as it has for thousands of years. Without the far-off wetlands known as the Prairie Pothole Region, goose and duck music would be heard much less often here.


Help Idaho Wildlife

When we traveled across the state in October 2017, most of the vehicles we saw using the wildlife management areas did not have wildlife plates. Buying wildlife plates is a great way for non-hunters and hunters alike to support wildlife-based recreation like birding.

C'mon folks, let's help Idaho's wildlife by proudly buying and displaying a wildlife license plate on each of our vehicles! 

See below for information on Idaho plates. Most states have wildlife plates so if you live outside Idaho, check with your state's wildlife department or vehicle licensing division for availability of state wildlife plates where you live. 

And tell them that you heard about it from!

Wildlife License Plates

Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.

No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.

Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.

Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program.

I think it is time we let the Legislature know that Idahoan support wildlife funding and that we would like to see these generic plates come to fruition.

"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson

That is embarrassing, but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.

Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.

Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.

Readers Write:

"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman

"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.

To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version 


Copies are also available at:

Post Register

Island Park Builders Supply (upstairs)

Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls

Harriman State Park, Island Park

Museum of Idaho

Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming

Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah

Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho