A Hutterite Colony in South Dakota has agreed to abide by an order issued by a U.S. District Court judge to restore a wetland that it had illegally drained and tried to farm. With the U.S. fixated on the month-long armed occupation of a National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, at least the news media in South Dakota have not had to worry about the Hutterites grabbing guns to demonstrate their resistance to government authority.

According to a news report from South Dakota on January 29th, U.S. District Court Judge Karen Schreier ruled that the Mayfield Hutterite Colony, near Willow Lake in eastern South Dakota, must restore wetland conditions on land it owns. Evidently the colony had ignored a conservation easement held by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that requires the wetland to be protected in perpetuity.

A prairie pothole in North Dakota
A prairie pothole in North Dakota (Photo by Jim Ringelman, Ducks Unlimited, on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

The Prairie Pothole country in North and South Dakota contains wetlands that provide extremely important habitat for wildlife.

The Courthouse News Service, a nationwide reporting source for information about ongoing U.S. civil court cases, provided more information about the case. The previous owners of the tract of land in Hamlin County, a few miles to the east of the Hutterite colony buildings, had granted a permanent conservation easement in 1979 to the Fish and Wildlife Service. The easement had guaranteed that neither they nor successor owners of the land would fill, drain, burn or level the property.

In 2005, the Mayfield Colony assumed ownership of the tract after a property exchange, and it soon started to burn it. Shortly after that, the federal agency discovered the prohibited activity and sent the colony a warning letter. In 2011, the colony installed drainage tiles, intending to farm the land and to eventually establish a new colony there. When government agents became aware of the renewed disturbance, they contacted the Hutterites again.

The leader of the colony said that he did not know about the easement. Later, according to the Courthouse News reporter, colony representatives testified that they had forgotten the easement. Despite further warnings from government agents, the colony continued with its program of draining the wetland, and it started farming the property in 2012. In 2014, the colony offered to exchange another tract of land for the wetland in Hamlin County, but the government refused.

Instead, government officials decided to take the colony to court. In order to finally settle the matter, the Hutterites have signed an agreement with the government to remove enough of the drain tiles that will allow the land to revert to its natural state: a wetland. The project will cost the Hutterites an estimated $5,000 to $10,000, and it will be done as soon as possible in the spring of 2016. A Fish and Wildlife Service spokesperson indicated that the destruction of the drainage pipes should not take long—a week or so. It will be a fairly straightforward process, once the ground thaws in South Dakota, probably in May.

Emblematic of prairie potholes and breeding ducks, a northern shoveler takes flight at the Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge in South Dakota
Emblematic of prairie potholes and breeding ducks, a northern shoveler takes flight at the Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge in South Dakota (photo by Tom Koerner/USFWS on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Judge Schreier, in agreeing with the government’s case, acknowledged the importance of the prairie pothole region of the Dakotas for wildlife. It is characterized by numerous small, shallow marshes and lakes, and it is, she wrote, “the most important waterfowl producing region on the continent.”

The Justice Department issued its own press release, which also emphasized the importance of protecting small, shallow wetlands that provide critical breeding habitat for waterfowl. It mentioned that they are also easy to drain. The issue of affirming the permanent protection of a wetland because it provides essential wildlife habitat was worth the considerable effort expended by Fish and Wildlife and Justice Department officials, the press release asserted.

A rural Hutterite colony near Delmont, South Dakota
A rural Hutterite colony near Delmont, South Dakota (Photo by Rainer Mueller in Wikipedia, Creative Commons license)

The Courthouse News report also provided some background about the Hutterites in South Dakota. It mentioned that the state has 54 colonies, more than any other U.S. state. They typically have approximately 15 families who share the work of farming and manufacturing operations, and they share the results equally.

The article points out that Hutterites in South Dakota avoid the technologies of entertainment, such as TVs and radios, primarily to keep offensive programing such as violence away from their members. They do, however, generally welcome technologies that will allow them to be more productive in their working operations.

The Hutterites are well known for cherishing their colony lands, so it is unfortunate that the perspective of the Mayfield Colony was not reported by the news stories.