One of America’s largest wildlife habitat programs has lost 13 million acres since 2007. The Conservation Reserve Program peaked at 37 million acres in 2007, and has declined to 24 million acres today. So what happens when land is no longer enrolled in this critical federal conservation program? In short, it means there’s less game on the landscape.
Conservation programs focused on healthy habitat and water quality are essential ingredients for better hunting and fishing. A key cornerstone of federal conservation spending and priorities, the federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) faces an important crossroads as 14 million additional acres are slated to exit the Farm Bill program in the next five years.
Most of the restored acres no longer enrolled in CRP are in the Great Plains, a vast region encompassing Montana, the Dakotas, and Minnesota, Colorado, and Kansas south through Texas. This region is critical for supporting healthy populations of upland gamebirds and waterfowl. Pheasant, quail, ducks, and other species nest, roost, and feed on CRP lands. These restored grasslands also provide gamebirds and other species with cover that provides protection from predators.
“The program has been a windfall for waterfowl, pheasants, and other grassland-nesting birds,” said Kellis Moss, director of public policy for Ducks Unlimited’s Government Affairs Office. “Between 2005 and 2011, CRP lands produced an additional 1.5 million ducks each year. Unfortunately, CRP acres have been steadily declining on the prairies and elsewhere.”
In the most comprehensive study of habitat and land use changes in CRP lands that exit the program, USDA and EPA scientists estimate that approximately 30 to 35 percent of expired CRP acres have been returned to intensive row-crop production, primarily for corn and soybeans. The remainder of the expired CRP acres have been converted primarily to hay and pasture production.
“Areas in the Dakotas, Nebraska, and southern Iowa were hotspots of change,” write the researchers. “The combination of commodity prices, reduced land retirement options, and diminishing interest in land retirement programs may continue driving extensification of agriculture at the expense of grasslands, wetlands, and ecosystem services.”
“Pheasants are the real poster species for the success of this program, especially in South Dakota,” said Howard Vincent, President and CEO of Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever. “Long referred to as the nation’s ‘Pheasant Capital,’ pheasant numbers reached their zenith in South Dakota a decade ago, thanks in large part to 1.5 million acres enrolled in CRP. At that time, pheasant numbers had rebounded to levels not seen since the early 1960s during the soil-bank period, a forerunner of CRP,” Vincent said.
Vincent explained that at CRP’s peak acreage in 2007, there were an estimated 11 million pheasants in South Dakota.
“The economic benefits to farmers and Main Street businesses came right along with the thrill of hunting such strong pheasant stocks. More than 180,000 hunters—both locals and non-residents—purchased licenses, ammunition, meals and hotel rooms, pumping millions of dollars into the state,” Vincent said. “When bird populations are healthy, pheasant hunting can bring nearly a quarter of a billion dollars into South Dakota annually and support 4,500 jobs. It’s a model for rural America.”
North Dakota pheasant hunting relies on CRP acreage as well. The graphs below from North Dakota Game and Fish show a decline in CRP land in four southeastern counties. With those declines also comes a decline in PLOTS (Private Land Open To Sportsmen).. That lost land corresponds with a decrease in pheasants harvested.
“In the peak years of CRP, we also had some mild winters, but our pheasant population responded to that CRP and we had a decent population in those counties,” said Private Lands Program section leader Kevin Kading in an email. “As the CRP has gone away, so has a lot of quality land enrolled in our walk-in access program, and pheasant harvest has seen a decrease as well. Sargent County is one anomaly but that is also a county that has actually increased or remained fairly stable with CRP due to a lot of continuous CRP options and opportunity.”
CRP Private Land Can Also Benefit Public Land Hunters
Pheasants Forever also points out that private CRP lands can also benefit hunters on public land. Diverse landscapes in agricultural regions are often made up cropland, hay ground, pastures, and wetlands interspersed with public lands. This “habitat mosaic” of diverse land uses is what drives wildlife populations. While all privately held CRP land may not be accessible to public lands hunters, pheasants often travel as far as two miles, moving from CRP land to public land and back for nesting, feeding, and cover.
In addition, the group points out that many newly acquired public land tracts through the acquisition efforts of Pheasants Forever, Quail Forever, and other wildlife conservation groups are closely tied to CRP and other USDA conservation programs. Since 1982, Pheasants Forever has worked to acquire 194,000 acres of property which has been turned over to a local, state, or federal governments and are now open for public hunting. Many of these now permanently protected areas were either enrolled in CRP or protected under permanent easement Farm Bill programs. These formerly private acres have now been made public, thanks to landowners who had the foresight and vision to create a lasting legacy for wildlife.
While the future of CRP’s funding and acreage limitations will be debated in 2018 as the House of Representatives and Senate negotiate a new Farm Bill, many conservation leaders are calling for an expansion of CRP acres in order to meet increased producer demand for the program while providing additional habitat for wildlife and protections for water quality.
Conservation groups are encouraged by some of the discussion happening in Washington, DC. Senator John Thune (R-SD), for instance, has proposed an increase in CRP acreage and funding.
“My legislation would boost the CRP acreage cap to 30 million acres, which represents a 25 percent increase, and it would create a new target acreage enrollment for each state based on historical enrollment. South Dakota is expected to lose nearly 60 percent of its existing CRP acres during the years covered by the 2018 farm bill, so it was clear to me that some changes needed to be made,” Senator Thune said in a press release announcing his conservation proposal.
CRP was established as part of the 1985 Farm Bill, and the program has grown and changed in its 30-year history. Landowners who participate in CRP earn annual payments in exchange for 10-year or 15-year agreements to establish and maintain perennial grasses, forbs, shrubs, and forests on former cropland. The federal farm bill, facing expiration or reauthorization by Congress in 2018, caps CRP at the current 24-million acre level with an annual budget of $2.1 billion.
In addition to the acreage cap for the program, CRP enrollment has historically followed the cyclical market prices for the corn, soy, wheat, and other crops that farmers produce. CRP enrollment boomed, for instance, during the late 1990s and early 2000s when crop prices were low. When the 2014 farm legislation was passed, crop prices were at their historical peaks. Currently, farm income is at a five-year low with USDA projecting net farm income to reach only 49 percent of the peak earnings year from 2013, when income came to $123.8 billion. These low crop prices are another reason that many farmers are looking to CRP to manage their risk while providing guaranteed income.
Agriculture policy analysts are also interested in how CRP will feature in the 2018 farm bill. Pat Westoff, director of the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute at the University of Missouri, told Harvest Public Media, “Certainly, there are people who would like to see the ability to roll more acres both for environmental purposes but also frankly as a supply-control measure. If there’s less land being used for crop production, that will give at least a modest bump to commodity prices and therefore protect the income of other farmers.”
Stay tuned for updates on CRP as the the farm bill progresses through Congress this spring.