Prairie potholes

Foster v. Vilsack, No. 14-3887 (8th Cir. Apr. 11, 2016).

A prairie pothole in North Dakota (credit: flickr / Justine Meissen)

A prairie pothole in North Dakota (credit: flickr / Justine Meissen)

Ever heard of the “Prairie Pothole Region”? I hadn’t— at least not before reading this opinion. The region covers parts of the upper Midwest and ranges north into the Prairie Provinces. The “prairie potholes” that define this region are shallow depressions carved out during the last ice age. They fill with water for portions, and sometimes all, of the year. Prairie potholes can serve as ecologically important wetlands, and Congress has protected them by ensuring that farmers can’t receive federal farm-program payments if they convert USDA-designated wetlands into crop land.

This appeal asks whether the USDA properly designated an acre-sized prairie pothole on Arlen and Cindy Foster’s South Dakota farm as a protected wetland that the Fosters can’t farm without losing federal aid. Looking at the administrative record and giving due deference to the USDA, the Eighth Circuit rules that the USDA did indeed properly designate the Fosters’ prairie pothole as a wetland.