By Nick Simonson
With the recent passage of the Farm Bill by Congress and its execution by the President, three million more acres have been added to the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), bringing the total under the set-aside system’s cap to 27 million acres to be phased in by 2023. Stuck at around 24 million acres for the last handful of years, the impact of marginal lands being put into this reserve program has been most notable, but only under the age-old adage of “you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone.”
In the first decade of this century, CRP acres were capped at 37 million nationwide, and at their peak around 2007, abundance of wild game such as pheasants and deer were also at recent highs throughout much of the upper Midwest. Coupled with relatively mild winters, this conservation program and many supporting state systems which provided habitat throughout the region allowed wildlife numbers to flourish season-after-season, until it almost felt for many in the current generation of hunters that these autumns of plenty were how it had always been, and had become what we were entitled to: a brace of birds on every walk and multiple deer tags every season.
So, it was after the demand for CRP waned under the pressures of altered agricultural economics and grass once again came out of the landscape in favor of row crops, that those who had become used to skies black with flushing pheasants and herds of deer bounding from walked cover began to notice the downtrends. A hard winter here, a wet spring there, and those moments became less frequent and autumn walks in the field followed suit for all but the most die-hard hunters, who perhaps remained the most vocal in reminding their casual brethren of the recent “good ol’ days.” With the change in agricultural economics shifting away from fuel and back to food, a tariff war building with one of the world’s largest consumers, and probably as a minor aspect, the desire to see more wildlife, the demand for more governmental support of conservation of these marginal lands has begun to flow back into the public consciousness, as evidenced by the inclusion of these three million acres in the latest version of the bill which overcame the recent great social divides to become law.
As the pendulum swings back, opportunities to improve the landscape for wildlife will begin to increase as well and when the general sign-up for the first round of new conservation reserve contracts comes to be, demand will rise to match it. It’s up to the general hunting population, which often overlaps with – or at least has influence on – the land-owning population, to seal the deal and share the ideas and the benefits of CRP on private lands, as they serve as the small engines that drive wildlife populations in a given area. The habitat created by land enrolled in such programs – acres which possibly may never be hunted, or only occasionally – serves as a cradle of sorts to rear and build up the population of wildlife, and with lots of cradles comes lots of wildlife. One need only look today to the nearest WMA, untilled grassland or large slough amidst the harvested fields and grazed pastures to get an idea. In these times of low conservation acres, and lower numbers of huntable game than in the past decade, those places are where the last pheasants hide, that’s where the remaining deer take cover, that’s where next spring’s ducks will nest. The more of these undisturbed locations there are, the more wildlife there will be and the quicker their populations will rebound from those tough winters and soaked springs and our recent dearth of habitat in marginal ground.
The addition of three million acres is a big deal, especially in this time of conflict between the parties which govern this country. It’s like that moment the first faint bluing light of dawn begins to sweep away the darkness of night and signals a change toward day not just for conservation, but for the country in general. In the cycle our society often finds itself in of learning-forgetting-struggling-and-relearning, those acres represent the upward trend of coming full circle, of recognizing the need for conservation of those areas that are better left undisturbed and serve as a good start (again) toward those seasons of frequently appearing birds, abundant big game, and the resurgence of all wildlife populations. Ultimately, these three million acres set to be set aside serve as a reminder that cooperation for the common good – secure soils, clean waters, a place for all of creation, and the allure of seeing something wild more than just occasionally – exists in Washington D.C. as well as our outdoors.
Featured Photo: Looking Ahead. With an additional three million acres of CRP added to the cap in the 2018 Farm Bill, the conservation and hunting communities are seeing steps in the right direction for wildlife with more marginal lands soon to go into grass and habitat plantings. Simonson Photo.