Exploring relationships among land ownership, agricultural land use, and native fish species richness in the Upper Mississippi River Basin

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The general effects of agriculture on in-stream fish communities in the Upper Midwestern United States have been well studied for nearly three decades (Karr et al. 1985; Nerbonne and Vondracek 1991; Zimmerman et al. 2001; Goldstein and Meador 2005). Specific impacts include: lowered water levels, sediment loading and nutrient enrichment, loss of riparian habitat, changes to channel morphometry and physical habitat, and changes to the forage base. As part of the National Fish Habitat Action Plan (NFHAP), an initiative to protect, restore, and enhance the nation's fish and aquatic communities, the Fishers and Farmers Partnership specifically focuses on working with agricultural producers to help protect and restore aquatic resources in the Upper Mississippi River Basin (UMRB) (Fig. 1). Successful protection and/or restoration will require the partnership and local conservation agencies to effectively communicate and work with local landowners. However, roughly 43% of the agricultural lands in the UMRB are not operated by those who own the land (National Agricultural Statistics Service 2009) and this is expected to increase as heirs of farm estates now reside greater distances from their home farms than ever before (Arbuckle 2010).

It has long been presumed that changes in land ownership trends, toward more absentee landowners, would have important consequences for soil erosion and other conservation practices, as larger, more corporate agriculture, is thought to maximize farm income at the expense of environmental quality (Lee 1980). Absentee landowners may be less likely to take advantage of conservation programs. For example, land operated by renters lags enrollment in the Conservation Reserve (CRP) and Wetland Reserve (WRP) programs by 64% nation-wide (Petrzelka et al. 2009). Also, it has been found that the more detached an absentee landowner becomes from their land, both geographically and culturally, their commitment to land stewardship decreases (Arbuckle 2010).  The Fishers and Farmers Partnership recognizes the challenge agricultural producers face in maintaining food and fiber production for a growing world population while also trying to improve environmental quality and fish habitat. This challenge is likely exacerbated when the landowners are absentee. Thus, reaching non-owner-operated farmers and convincing them to help protect and/or restore aquatic resources may be critical to the success of the Fishers and Farmers Partnership.

In this study, we explored relationships among agricultural land use, land ownership, and native fish biodiversity in the UMRB as a first step toward helping the Fishers and Farmers Partnership identify specific locations in the UMRB that may pose conservation challenges. For example, places that have experienced a loss of native fish species richness relative to historical conditions and also have high proportions of absentee landowners may provide restoration challenges. We were also interested in identifying areas that have retained high levels of species richness and are owner-operated. These areas present good opportunities to work with local landowners to protect aquatic resources. To identify such areas, we addressed two primary questions: 1) Is there a relationship between the type of agricultural land use (i.e. cropland vs pastureland) and the % of land rented or leased within the UMRB? and 2) How does the type of agricultural production and whether land is rented or leased relate to the maintenance of historical levels of native fish species richness? We predicted that areas with large amounts of land devoted to crop production will have experienced the greatest losses of native fish species richness. However, our hypothesis is that watersheds with large amounts of land rented or leased will have experienced even greater declines in native fish species richness than would be predicted from the amount of cultivated cropland alone. By testing these hypotheses, we intended to identify watersheds that would be strong candidates for protection, restoration, and enhancement of fish species richness by accounting for land use and ownership characteristics.


Study Area

Publication type Report
Publication Subtype Federal Government Series
Title Exploring relationships among land ownership, agricultural land use, and native fish species richness in the Upper Mississippi River Basin
Year Published 2012
Language English
Publisher U.S. Geological Survey
Contributing office(s) Upper Midwest Environmental Sciences Center
Description 12 p.
Country United States
State Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, South Dakota, Wisconsin
Other Geospatial Mississippi River
Online Only (Y/N) N
Additional Online Files (Y/N) N
Google Analytic Metrics Metrics page
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