By Nick Simonson
Numbers are down across the board for pheasants, sharp-tailed grouse and Hungarian partridge in the upper Midwest. In states like North Dakota and Montana, it was the persistent drought this summer which hurt hatching chicks straight out of the egg. In Minnesota, a rainy spring in the state’s pheasant belt prevented a successful nesting season. A mix of those conditions at the midway point in South Dakota did the damage in that state. However, above and beyond the uncontrollable weather elements experienced across the region this year, no one factor is more responsible for a decline in upland numbers than the loss of habitat. Fortunately, that biggest element is the one we, as a society, have control over.
Currently, the nationwide cap on acres which can be enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) sits at 24 million, and CRP acres in the upper Midwest are coming out at a record pace. In comparison, just ten years ago, the amount of set-aside land had a ceiling of 32 million acres. Across the country at that time, farmers were readily idling lands which were prone to flooding, like lowlands and acres around sloughs, or those areas that were too arid to provide a good yield, like hillsides and stretches of sandier soils and those acres not only produced bumper crops of pheasants, ducks, deer and grouse, but also prevented soil loss to wind, water and erosion, and netted farmers a profit from federal payments combined with the removal of wasted seed, spray and time on those reserved lands.
With the advent of ethanol and biodiesel and the heightened profitability of row crops, prices for corn and soy rose rapidly, and these contracts for CRP lands were not renewed. Edge-to-edge agricultural practices resumed, and the perceived need for these federally-funded idle acres was reduced. While it’s doubtful we’ll see set-aside lands back around the 32 million acre level anytime soon, as these programs typically ebb-and-flow over a 20 year span, there are many state options available to conservation minded landowners who wish to buck the trend and focus on ways to improve habitat – and get paid for it – on their lands, while congress ponders the terms of the 2018 Farm Bill which will set the next cap on CRP.
Working through state wildlife management agencies like the North Dakota Game & Fish Department and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources along with conservation organizations like Pheasants Forever and Ducks Unlimited, with their own dedicated staff, landowners can find the habitat programs that are right for them and their particular acres. Additionally, expanding private programs like AgSolver give farmers one-on-one counseling with an agronomist who understands the negative impact that planted marginal lands have on the bottom line, and how to improve farm profitability by removing those minimally productive acres from production and placing them in available state and federal programs. In the end, these outlets provide a number of contacts with conservation programs, giving landowners what they need to foster conservation, maximize profitability and make the most of the lands they are blessed with for both wildlife and the market.
For those without land, but still concerned for conservation and preserving huntable populations of wild game, there are outlets to support these programs and the establishment of a higher CRP cap in the coming months. First and foremost, contacting state and federal legislators via email and phone voicing that backing of conservation programs is important to keeping your vote in the next election, and takes little effort. These communications aren’t easily dismissed by elected officials, and when enough of the message goes out from a number of voices, it resonates even louder. Additionally, support of those conservation groups with programs and people in place to help establish conservation acres – whether public or private – will help sustain populations of huntable game through the preservation and enhancement of habitat.
In the end, habitat is the difference maker in the hatching and recruitment of upland birds, along with the continuation of huntable populations of big game, and the expansion and preservation of watchable wildlife and pollinators. It is the buffer between a bad run of weather and a good hunting season. Ultimately, it is the way we find balance between those things we need as a society and what we want to see continue in a future that we can influence by doing what we can, to benefit…our outdoors.
(Featured Photo: Prairie plantings as part of state conservation and buffer programs provide habitat for wildlife, and protect marginal lands in this era of low CRP acres. Simonson Photo)