By Doug Leier, NDG&F Dept.
The rise and fall of acreage enrolled in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Reserve Program is well documented.
The CRP got its start in the mid-1980s as a program designed primarily to reduce nationwide crop production in an effort to turn around low commodity prices, and also to reduce soil erosion as crop fields were planted back to grass.
Wildlife benefits were also a part of the equation, and most people in the wildlife and conservation profession predicted a boost to pheasant, waterfowl and deer populations as millions of acres of grassland habitat were added to the landscape. And that’s pretty much what happened.
In the early to mid-2000s, when North Dakota had more than 3 million acres of CRP grassland, it’s not a coincidence that North Dakota’s pheasant harvest reached levels not seen for 60 years, and white-tailed deer numbers were at all-time highs.
At about that same time though, a shrinking federal budget resulted in a trimming of CRP funds and many landowners were not able to renew exp4iring contracts. In addition, corn and soybean prices also hit historic highs and some producers opted to grow crops again instead of re-enrolling existing acres in the CRP.
Because of those and other circumstances, over the course of the past 10 years the CRP in North Dakota has become a literal shadow of itself on the landscape.
Recently though, the U.S Department of Agriculture and North Dakota Game and Fish Department announced two new programs that provide landowners with options to enroll acreage in conservation practices designed to develop wildlife habitat.
A new Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, and State Acres For Wildlife Enhancement, are companion programs to the popular Conservation Reserve Program. Game and Fish private land section leader Kevin Kading said the partners are excited about these opportunities available to landowners. “We’ve worked a long time developing these projects with USDA, and working with other partners and stakeholders,” Kading said. “We feel these are good options for landowners to address a resource concern and also open up some quality habitat for hunters.”
The North Dakota Riparian Project CREP allows states to identify resource concerns and design a custom-built CRP along riparian areas. Landowners interested in CREP can enroll acres in portions of Adams, Billings, Bowman, Burleigh, Dunn, Emmons, Grant, Golden Valley, Hettinger, McKenzie, Mercer, Morton, Oliver, Sioux, Slope and Stark counties.
Funding for the CREP comes from USDA’s Farm Service Agency, the Game and Fish Department’s Private Land Open To Sportsmen program, and the North Dakota Outdoor Heritage Fund.
There is no size requirement for enrolling land into CREP. Any land enrolled in a CREP contract with USDA must also be enrolled in the Game and Fish PLOTS program. Kading said landowners don’t have to allow public access to their entire property, only a 40-acre minimum is required for enrollment in PLOTS.
In addition to the CREP, North Dakota landowners can enroll up to 40,000 acres into the Declining Grasslands Birds SAFE, through which landowners can establish native grasses and forbs that will help maintain or improve grassland bird populations. Managed grazing is allowed and will help ensure a healthy and diverse prairie habitat.
Counties in the project area for SAFE are all of Adams, Billings, Bowman, Burleigh, Dunn, Emmons, Grant, Golden Valley, Hettinger, Kidder, Logan, McIntosh, McKenzie, Mercer, Morton, Oliver, Sioux, Slope, Stark and Williams counties; and portions of Burke, Dickey, Divide, Foster, LaMoure, McHenry, McLean, Mountrail, Sheridan, Stutsman, Ward and Wells counties.
For information regarding either of these projects, landowners should can contact a local Game and Fish private land biologist or their local county USDA service center.