Habitat Program Especially Critical in Prairie Pothole Region
A disturbing trend might mean big trouble for ducks and other wildlife, yet many hunters seem oblivious to the brewing storm.
During the past nine years, acreage enrolled in the habitat-boosting Conservation Reserve Program has declined by about 30 percent. Moreover, the current farm bill reduces the enrollment cap of the program by another 3.5 million acres.
CRP is a cost-share and rental payment program run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and administered by the Farm Service Agency. It encourages landowners to convert highly erodible cropland or other sensitive areas to vegetative cover, which reduces soil erosion, enhances water supplies and increases wildlife habitat, especially for waterfowl and other birds. It's considered to be especially important in the prairie pothole region, which provides important nesting and migration habitat for millions of North American waterfowl.
CRP has been a flagship conservation program in the farm bill since 1985, said Eric Lindstrom, national manager of agriculture policy for Ducks Unlimited. Unfortunately, we've seen a dramatic decrease of more than 11 million acres (approximately one-third) enrolled since peak numbers (36.7 million acres) in 2007. We haven't seen this rate or scale of widespread grassland loss since the Dust Bowl era. In the U.S. Prairie Pothole Region, or heart of North America's 'duck factory,' we've experienced significant loss of CRP, which provides critical nesting habitat for waterfowl and other wildlife.
For example, David Widmar, a research associate at Purdue's Department of Agricultural Economics, estimated that CRP enrollment in North Dakota decreased by 1.6 million acres, or 47 percent, from 2007 to 2013. Enrollment in Montana fell by 1.4 million acres, or 43 percent, during that time.
Still, fall duck flight numbers have remained high in recent years, even hitting a record 49.5 million breeding ducks in 2015. Lindstrom said those figures might be somewhat misleading.
Recent wet conditions in the prairies have masked grassland loss effects, and duck numbers have remained surprisingly strong, he said. However, when drought returns, we'll likely see a significant impact on waterfowl breeding efforts and a decline in fall flight numbers due to habitat loss.
Recent agricultural booms are typically considered to be major factors in CRP's decline.
High commodity prices have driven farmland rental rates up, making it more profitable for landowners to cash-rent their land rather than keeping it enrolled in CRP, the Wildlife Management Institute wrote in an online article.
Don't expect the situation to improve soon, either.
The current five-year farm bill reduces the national CRP enrollment cap from 27.5 million acres in 2014 to 24 million acres by 2018, Lindstrom said. Thus, we can continue to expect reduced enrollment numbers over the next couple of years. Simply put, this means less habitat for wildlife and hunters and less sign-up opportunities for landowners interested in the program.
Hunters can help turn the tide by staying informed and voicing their support of CRP and other wildlife and conservation efforts.
CRP loss should be a major concern among sportsmen and women across the country, Lindstrom said. To reverse these trends, we'll need to continue to develop new and innovative approaches to grassland conservation programs that are attractive to both agricultural producers and wildlife. Waterfowl hunters around the country can make a difference by contacting their elected leaders in Washington and encouraging them to reauthorize and fund important conservation programs like CRP. It's a win-win for agriculture and wildlife.