North Dakota's Shrinking CRP habitat

Doug Leier

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  • Prostaff Member Doug Leier

While I was born in the ‘70s and remember a few events and places, like the LaMoure Lobos winning the 1976 North Dakota State Class B basketball title after we moved there from Williston, the ‘80s are when most of my vivid memories begin.

But I don't remember the start of the Conservation Reserve Program, even though I was an avid hunter and angler by that time.

I suppose it's not so unusual that a teenager wouldn't pay attention to federal legislation that was mostly set up as a way to reduce soil erosion on the Great Plains, and reduce the amount of cropland, and subsequently the supply of grain, so commodity prices might increase. The land, and landowners, were the primary beneficiaries.

Most everyone involved in the wildlife profession at the time, however, could foresee significant benefits in a program that would turn millions of acres of cropland back to grass

As the ‘80s transitioned into the ‘90s, the CRP started to warrant attention as we started to see more pheasants and more places to hunt them - not just more patches of grass, but their range was starting to expand from traditional terriority into areas previously less productive for pheasants.

In addition, the benefits to landowners were stable income for land which met the criteria for the program. It was and remains a successful program, mutually beneficial to landowners, hunters, and fish and wildlife species.

According to U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency statistics, North Dakota CRP acreage peaked in 2007 at 3.4 million acres. A combination of events came together where demand for commodities such as corn increased, commodity prices spiked and land rental rates rose. The gap between CRP rental rates and financial incentives for turning grass back to crop widened.

This occurred at the same time that many CRP contracts were expiring, or new contracts were just getting started. Many landowners who had an opportunity to re-enroll acres decided to put their land back into crop production, while some others cancelled their contracts.

By the end of 2009, North Dakota's CRP habitat has shrunk to 2.7 million acres and we stand to lose nearly 1.5 million additional acres by the end of 2012 - 261,000 acres in 2010; 389,000 acres in 2011, and 846,000 million acres in 2012. Most of this loss will be from expiring contracts, at a time when few landowners will have an option to renew or extend their contracts.

This is occurring in many other states besides North Dakota. Unless something changes, the 2008 Farm Bill reduces the nationwide CRP allocation from 39.2 million acres to 32 million acres.

These coming losses have been well documented by the pro-CRP supporters, from hunters to the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, conservation organizations including Pheasants Forever and Ducks Unlimited, and many landowners who emphasize the benefits CRP provides.DU research showed nesting success of some duck species increased 46 percent from 1992 to 1997, adding around 12.4 million ducks to the fall migration.

Similarly, a study showed the nesting success of pheasants in regions of Iowa was 40 percent higher in large blocks of CRP than in smaller areas. Other wildlife like grassland songbirds maybe dip nearly 20 percent if CRP acres are greatly reduced. And those are just the obvious benefits, in addition to the reduction in erosion from wind and water.

At meetings, gas stations and coffee shop conversations a common request is, "why doesn't Game and Fish pick up where CRP left off?”

It's reasonable question. Consider, however, that USDA has been paying more than $100 million per year for North Dakota CRP, more than three times the Game and Fish Department's entire annual budget. While many hunters tell me they’d be willing to pay more in license fees if it would help keep something like the CRP on the landscape, I suspect they’re thinking tens of dollars each instead of the hundreds it would take to start to make a difference.

The reality is, the landscape of CRP in North Daktoa is changing, and unless something drastic happens, we'll see even more change ... and less CRP.

Leier is a biologist with the Game and Fish Department. He can be reached by email: dleier@nd.gov

Posted by Doug Leier under Hunting on February 3, 10 07:11 AM | Permalink

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