SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (CN) - A federal judge ordered a South Dakota Hutterite colony to restore protected wetlands that it drained and converted into farmland.
U.S. District Judge Karen Schreier's 9-page order outlines the history of the dispute.
In 1979, the previous landowners in Hamline County granted a permanent easement to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to preserve the wetland for waterfowl. The easement promised that neither the owners nor their successors would drain, fill, level or burn the land.
The wetlands are part of the "prairie pothole region," characterized by many small, shallow lakes and marshes. It is "the most important waterfowl producing region on the continent," accounting for about half the ducks born in North America, Judge Schreier wrote.
In 2005, the Mayfield Hutterian Brethren, also known as the Mayfield Colony, made an exchange for the land and did not check whether it was encumbered by other titles, liens or easements. Shortly thereafter, the feds sent a warning letter after the Hutterites burned some of the land.
The colony drew federal attention again in 2011 when it installed drainage tile on the land with the intention of farming it and setting up a new colony there.
Fish and Wildlife Service officers contacted the colony after noticing the disturbed soil on a routine flyover, and the colony's leader said he did not know about the easement. Later, colony representatives testified that they had "forgotten" about it.
Despite the federal reprimand, the colony proceeded to drain the wetland and began farming it in 2012, ignoring further warnings from the government.
They offered Uncle Sam a similar piece of land, but the government didn't bite. It sued the colony in 2014.
To avoid further litigation, the colony came to an agreement with the government to restore the wetlands at its own expense, which will entail partial removal of the tile and will cost $5,000 to $10,000.
Luckily, the restoration can be done quickly once the ground thaws, a Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman told Courthouse News. "It's pretty easy to disrupt the function of the tile, so I would say it will probably take a week at the most to take care of this," he said.
"It's important that we try to keep tabs on this kind of activity because of the huge loss that is going on now, the decimation of wetlands and even grasslands, for that matter," he added. "So every last one of these is very precious, and it's kind of an uphill battle to try and keep these habitats on the landscape as it is."
The Mayfield Colony is one of 54 Hutterite colonies in South Dakota, which has more colonies than any other state.
A colony usually consists of about 15 families living together to share the work and resources of farming and produce manufactured goods.
The Hutterites are an Anabaptist sect, sharing common ancestry with the Amish and the Mennonites, who immigrated to North America beginning in the late 1600s to escape religious persecution in Europe. About 75 percent of Hutterites settled in Canada, while the remaining 25 percent live in South Dakota, North Dakota and Minnesota.
Unlike the Amish, the Hutterites have welcomed some technology into their day-to-day lives. Most Hutterite colonies allow technology that can make their work more productive, such as tractors, vehicles and computers. But they have traditionally eschewed radios and TVs to keep offensive material, such as violence, out of the colonies. The level of Internet use that should be allowed in the colonies is still an issue of considerable debate , according to the Hutterites.org website.
Because of this, the Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman said the colony may already own some of the equipment needed to disrupt the tiling. If not, the colony will front the money for it, while the Fish and Wildlife Service supervises.
Restoration work is expected to begin after the ground thaws, probably around May.
The Hutterites were represented by Jeffrey Sveen of Aberdeen, who did not respond to email or voicemail requests for comment Friday.