One of the nation’s largest sources of funding for fish and wildlife habitat is being negotiated this year in Washington, D.C., and hunters and anglers have an important role to play. The federal Farm Bill contains billions of dollars in annual spending for conservation programs, especially targeting private agricultural lands in the Midwest, South, and Great Plains. These programs are carried out by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Here’s what you need to know about this year’s Farm Bill.

1) The clock is ticking

The current Farm Bill, passed in 2014, expires in September. Last week, President Trump's administration entered the policy discussion by releasing its proposed budget for the coming year. The Trump Administration's budget calls for a 16 percent reduction in USDA spending, including large cuts or elimination of many conservation programs.

Congress, however, has the responsibility of deciding what will be included in the next Farm Bill's program priorities and budgets. Senators and representatives have already begun writing it. They have held numerous hearings, both in Washington and in communities throughout the country. House agriculture committee chairman Mike Conway hopes the new Farm Bill will be introduced in March. If a bill is not passed by September, Congress is likely to extend the current programs and spending until a new bill can be negotiated.

2) It's not just about food stamps and crop insurance

While the vast majority of the Farm Bill’s funding is spent on nutrition, support for farmers, rural economic development, food inspections, and research, seven percent of the budget funds USDA conservation programs. While that might seem like a small percentage, USDA paid out $5.6 billion in 2017 through a variety of conservation programs.

south dakota wetlands
South Dakota wetlands.Wiki

"Hunters and anglers are fierce stewards of public lands, but it may surprise some to learn that the Farm Bill represents the single largest federal source of conservation funding," said Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP).

“[It] makes a major impact on the habitat and hunting and angling opportunities in communities that are a patchwork of farms, ranches, and family-owned forests,” Fosburgh said. “With 70 percent of the country made up of private lands, it’s irresponsible NOT to know or care about the Farm Bill. It makes walk-in access possible, provides assistance to landowners who want to limit toxic runoff into our waterways, and helps to boost habitat for deer, turkeys, pheasants, and other critters we care about.”

3) Habitat and access programs are at stake

There are a variety of Farm Bill programs that impact wildlife habitat and sportsmen’s access. Some of them you’ve probably heard of, some of them are a little more obscure:

walk-in hunting area
Funding for walk-in hunting areas is supported in part by the Farm Bill.Pheasants Forever
  • Conservation Reserve Program (CRP): With its $2.1 billion annual budget, it pays farmers annual rental payments to take land out of production and establish grass and woody cover. Originally a program to combat soil erosion, CRP has transformed into the nation's largest habitat restoration program on private lands. It now cover 24 million acres nationwide, primarily in the Midwest and Great Plains.
  • Working Lands Program: The Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) and Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) pay farmers to install and maintain conservation-based practices on working crop, livestock, and forestlands. Though the majority of program funding and acreage involve soil improvement and nutrient management priorities, EQIP and CSP also help to restore and manage a large volume of wildlife habitat acres while helping to keep streams and waterways clean. EQIP and CSP have a combined annual budget of $3 billion on more than 80 million acres.
  • Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program (VPA-HIP): This is a competitive grant program that incentivizes state and tribal governments to pay landowners for public access to private lands for hunting, fishing, and other recreation activities. With a relatively modest $20 million in annual spending, the program provides sportsmen's access to private hunting and fishing habitat on nearly a million acres nationwide.
  • Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP): Private landowners voluntarily enroll in ACEP to restore and preserve wetlands, forests, and grasslands for long periods of time. Special attention is paid to wetland restoration and preservation for waterfowl. The former Wetland Reserve Program, now part of ACEP, has assisted 11,000 landowners in establishing more 2.3 million acres of wetland habitat. In 2017, ACEP spent $250 million to support land conservation activities.
  • Regional Conservation and Partnership Program (RCPP): RCPP supplies matching dollars from the Farm Bill to support local and regional efforts between conservation organizations and agricultural producers to meet conservation goals. The program supports public-private partnerships that achieve wildlife, water quality, and soil health objectives. In 2017, RCPP had a $354 million budget.

4) CRP funding is essential

graph showing CRP enrollment
A graph showing enrollment in CRP.USDA

A major focus of the conservation community during the 2018 Farm Bill debate is likely to focus on the budget and impact of CRP. CRP Works is a collaborative effort that includes Pheasants Forever, Ducks Unlimited, the National Deer Alliance, the National Wildlife Federation, and many other organizations. The groups are calling for an expansion of funding and acres allowed under the program.

"As part of the 2018 Farm Bill, the Conservation Reserve Program remains one of the key elements for helping restore grasslands in the heart of America's pheasant and quail ranges," said Dave Nomsen, Pheasants Forever & Quail Forever's vice president of governmental affairs. "Not only is this program critical to future wildlife populations including upland birds, pollinators and other wildlife, but it also serves a function of economic support for rural communities."

5) CRP acreage is down but not out

crp enrollment decrease 2007 to 2016
A graph showing the decreases in CRP enrollment from 2007 to 2016.USDA

Though CRP now contains 24 million acres, the program maintained an average of 32 million acres from 1990 through 2010. Acreage peaked in 2007, with 36.7 million acres. Right now CRP is capped at 24 million acres, with a waiting list of landowners interested in signing up.

Whether CRP acres will increase in the 2018 Farm Bill remains an open question. Collin Peterson (D-MN), ranking member of House Agriculture Committee has expressed optimism in expanding the program. "We think that we'll be able to make changes within the program that'll get us enough money to go back to 32 million acres," Peterson told Brownfield Ag News in December.

Sportsmen interested in following the impact of Farm Bill program spending for wildlife habitat should stay tuned. Major decisions regarding CRP acreage caps and funding, working land conservation programs, private land access programs, easement funding for wetlands, and more are going to be determined in the next several months.