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HELENA - The federal government wants to keep nearly 2 million acres of prime migratory bird habitat across the Dakotas and northeastern Montana from turning into farmland.

The Dakota Grassland Conservation Area would be the first step in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's broader goal of conserving nearly 12 million acres through the Prairie Pothole Region.

The region contains millions of glacier-formed, water-filled depressions that wetland and grassland birds use as breeding habitat.

The federal agency says that half of the native prairie that remains in the region will be converted to other uses in 34 years if steps aren't taken.

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The proposal is at the beginning of a lengthy approval process. Public hearings are scheduled next week in Minot, N.D., Jamestown, N.D. and Huron, S.D.

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