Pheasant hunting’s future linked to waning grassland protection programLike a black Labrador past its prime, one of the nation’s premier grassland conservation programs is covering less ground these days.
By: Staff Report, Alexandria Echo Press
Like a black Labrador past its prime, one of the nation’s premier grassland conservation programs is covering less ground these days.
Twenty years ago, the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) had strong legs in Minnesota, covering more than 1.7 million acres with native grass that provided pheasants with the food and cover they need. Today, that number has shrunk to 948,000 acres. Soon, it could drop more. That’s because 550,000 acres of existing CRP contracts are scheduled to expire during the next three years.
“CRP was born in 1985 and now, 26 years later, it’s waning,” said Bill Penning, farmland wildlife coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR). “If the declining enrollment trend continues, Minnesota’s ability to grow wild birds, reduce soil erosion, and provide clean water and other conservation benefits will be further reduced.”
Penning said about 120,000 acres of Minnesota CRP and other farm program grasslands have been converted to cropland since 2007.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s CRP was put into federal Farm Bill policy as a way to remove marginal agricultural lands from tillage and benefit the nation’s lands and waters by taking erodible croplands out of crop production. It did that. Over the past two and one-half decades, private landowners converted steep slopes and other environmentally sensitive areas to native grasses, windbreaks and other forms of vegetation. This occurred through cash-for-conservation contracts that paid landowners to keep good soil and water practices on the land for 10 or 15 years. Now, many of these contracts are expiring. New contracts aren’t taking their place, mostly because CRP rental rates have not kept pace with higher crop prices.
“Unless federal policy changes to make CRP a more attractive option for private landowners, the future isn’t bright for ground-nesting pheasants, ducks and pheasant hunting-related tourism,” said Dennis Simon, DNR Wildlife Section chief. “Basically, CRP is in need of CPR. And that means pounding out a policy that achieves the necessary economic, conservation and outdoor recreation that people desire.” Simon added a growing concern is that the 2012 Farm Bill may weaken CRP protections or mandate reductions in CRP acres.
The current economics that are good for crop farming – upwards of $7 a bushel for corn and $13 a bushel for soybeans – are the opposite for protecting environmentally sensitive lands. Kurt Haroldson, a DNR wildlife research biologist at Madelia, said that fact comes clear when reviewing the results of the 2011 general CRP signup period. “Minnesota landowners enrolled 33,180 acres into CRP, but 127,535 acres will expire. Although continuous signup acreage has not yet been reported, it appears net CRP enrollment will decline significantly.” He said decreased funding for CRP has left landowners with little choice but to put their land back into production.
Simon said state and other federal wildlife conservation programs are temporarily balancing CRP losses. In 2010, Reinvest In Minnesota/Wetland Reserve Program easements, state wildlife management area acquisition, federal waterfowl production area acquisition and other land conservation efforts offset CRP losses by 8,000 acres. However, starting in 2012, projected CRP losses are so large that state program gains will not offset them.
“The message to pheasant hunters is that federal farm policy has a profound effect on the number of acres available for hunting and the number of birds that end up in the bag,” said Simon. “I encourage hunters to get involved and help shape the 2012 Farm Bill.”
Farm policy and pheasant harvests long have been linked. Minnesota’s highest pheasant harvests were from 1931 to 1964 when farms were smaller, the variety of crops planted was broader, and a federal soil bank conservation program was providing additional benefits. The lowest pheasant harvests occurred from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s when fence-to-fence corn and soybean farming took root and grass planting declined. From 1987 until now – the CRP era – pheasant harvests have been above the fence-to-fence farming lows and the diversified farming highs.
The 655,000-bird harvest in 2007, a modern era record, declined to 359,000 birds last year. This year’s harvest is expected to be modest, too. Ultimately, declines in harvest could lead to decline in hunting-related spending.
“Upland game hunting is an important contributor to Minnesota’s economy,” said Simon. “Though pheasant hunting’s direct impact has not been teased-out, a 2006 federal report states upland game hunters spend about $121 million per year in Minnesota and support 895 in-state jobs.”