Conservation program's uncertain future imperils hunting habitat

Mar 2 2010 - 7:40pm

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- On the last day of the Kansas pheasant season, Jay Giessel said goodbye to a favorite hunting field.

The tract of grassland has been enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) -- a federal program that compensates farmers for idling marginal land -- for years. And it has provided Giessel, who runs the Cocklebur Creek hunting operation, with some of his finest hunting moments.

But come next year, it will be gone -- gone to hunting at least.

Following a national trend that troubles hunters and conservation officials alike, the landowner has decided to put the land in western Kansas back into production now that his CRP contract has expired.

"I had to go back as a nostalgic kind of thing," said Giessel, 54, who lives near Larned, Kan., and has been farming for all his life. "It's just a beautiful grassland field, and it's always held pheasants. We took a limit that last time, and I left with tears in my eyes.

"I knew I'd probably never hunt that land again."

It's not just that one field, though. Giessel is losing 1,700 acres of CRP ground that he hunts -- some of which has been in the program since 1987. In the past, that land was in native grasses that were hospitable to everything from pheasants to quail to songbirds. Soon, it will be transformed to either row crops or grazing land. And Giessel fears the pheasant hunting that has put Kansas on the map will slowly decline.

"It's such a shame," Giessel said. "These CRP fields are about the only good habitat the pheasants have left out here in western Kansas.

"We call these CRP fields the pheasants' bed and breakfast. They offer everything for the birds -- good nesting cover, food, winter cover, you name it.

"It just hurts to see a lot of this land go back into production."

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Giessel, many other hunters and wildlife officials knew this day was coming.

Years ago, they realized that many of the state's 10- and 15-year CRP contracts would be expiring in the second decade of the 2000s, and that re-enrollment depended on the status of the farming world at the time.

With the economy reeling and federal budgets tightening, the first blow came when the Farm Bill of 2008 reduced the national cap on CRP acreage from 39.2 million acres to 32 million.

Then as farmers watched their CRP contracts expire, they waited for another general signup, which still hasn't come. The Obama Administration has pledged support for the program, and has hinted that there will be another signup.

But many farmers say they can't leave their CRP land idle while they wait. So they have elected to put their land back into production.

That means wildlife will potentially lose hundreds of thousands of acres of attractive habitat. Kansas has consistently ranked near the top in the nation in amount of CRP acreage, much of it in the western one-third of the state. It also stands to lose the most.

Kansas started last September with 3.1 million acres in CRP. The contracts for about 436,000 acres expired in the fall, though 35,000 acres were re-enrolled.

Contracts for 615,555 acres will expire this year, 532,927 in 2011 and 519,315 in 2012. Those losses, unless offset by re-enrollments, will translate to huge losses of wildlife habitat.

The situation isn't as dire in Missouri. There, far fewer acres are enrolled in the CRP, though the idled land has been a key in quail restoration efforts.

"In some parts of western Kansas, that CRP land is the only habitat wildlife has," said Jim Pitman, small-game coordinator for the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks. "If we lose large amounts of grassland, our pheasant and quail populations undoubtedly will decline."

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Few experts will deny that the CRP has been a boon for wildlife.

Established in the Farm Billl of 1985, the program was originally focused on reducing the amount of crops being produced in an era when farming was booming. But it evolved into what is hailed as the federal government's greatest conservation program in history.

When the Farm Services Agency (FSA), a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, began offering landowners incentives for taking on conservation measures on their land, wildlife flourished.

--One study showed that pheasant populations in large CRP fields were 53 percent higher than they were in areas with no CRP.

--Another study of the Prairie Pothole Region in North and South Dakota and Montana showed that the nesting success of five duck species was 46 percent higher with CRP on the landscape than land that was converted to crops.

--Songbirds also flourished in the grasslands. One study that looked at 12 species of grassland songbirds found in CRP land predicted that at least five of them would decline if the program was greatly reduced.

"Clearly, the CRP is the most effective USDA conservation program in the history of our country," said Dave Nomsen, vice-president of governmental affairs for Pheasants Forever, a national conservation organization.

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Don't think that that Kansas could ever slip significantly as a pheasant-hunting state? Look no further than Iowa to get a glimpse of what could be the future.

The Hawkeye State once boasted some of the nation's finest pheasant hunting, and the CRP land was at the center of that growth.

But a trend of putting CRP land back into production and a 10-year run of unfavorable weather have provided a 1-2 punch that has left the pheasants reeling.

Surveys by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources showed that pheasant numbers are the lowest they've been in 50 years, said Mark McInroy, upland gamebird technician for the DNR. And the harvest has fallen below 400,000, a huge drop from the days when Iowa hunters shot more than 1 million birds annually.

"We try to illustrate the problem by telling people to imagine an eight-mile wide strip of grass stretching across the entire state," McInroy said. "That's how much habitat we've lost in the last few years. And that's all CRP.

"You have to remember that we're the ethanol state. When CRP contracts expire, farmers are putting their land back into corn.

"It was a lot more pronounced when crop prices were higher. But it's still going on."

Terrible weather conditions -- severe winters and cool, wet weather in the spring -- have only accelerated the pheasants' decline.

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So what will the future bring for CRP? Officials are guardedly optimistic that even in tough economic times, the federal program will survive in some form.

"I think we'll be OK," said Rod Winkler of the FSA, which administers the state's CRP. "But CRP does have widespread support from the public and it does have a great record."

Winkler predicts there will be another general sign-up, though he can't say when.

If and when that signup comes, the key questions becomes, "How many farmers will re-enroll their land?"

"In Pawnee County alone, 47,000 CRP acres will go back into production this year," Giessel said, citing FSA statistics. "Some will put that land into grazing. Others will plant wheat or milo.

"That's scary. We don't have a lot of good wildlife habitat in this part of the state other than CRP."

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THE CRP

WHAT: The Conservation Reserve Program, a U.S. Department of Agriculture program that compensates farmers for idling marginal land. Further compensation is provided to landowners who adopt conservation practices.

HISTORY: It was established in the Farm Bill of 1985, primarily as a way to limit crop production, which was booming at the time. Since then, it has developed into a valuable conservation program that provides hundreds of thousands of acres of prime wildlife habitat.

SCOPE: The program has a cap of 32 million acres, set in the 2008 Farm Bill.

MID-AMERICA TIES: As of last fall, Kansas ranked third in the nation with 3.1 million acres of CRP land. Texas ranked first with 3.8 million and Montana second with 3.2 million. Missouri is in the middle of the list with 1.4 million acres.

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