Ariel Wiegard

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posted in: General

December 9, 2015

The Undeniable Upland Benefits of Habitat Conservation on Farms and Ranches

Why CRP works for pheasants and quail

The national Conservation Reserve Program is 30! The CRP was signed into law by President Reagan as part of the Farm Bill on December 23, 1985, to help agricultural producers to voluntarily conserve soil, water, and wildlife. The TRCP and our partners will be celebrating the 30th anniversary of CRP throughout the month of December and into 2016, by highlighting the successes of this popular bipartisan program—regarded by many as the greatest private lands conservation initiative in U.S. history. Here on our blog, we’ll devote a series of posts to the critters that have seen tremendous habitat benefits: upland birds, waterfowl, forest dwellers, and freshwater fish. CRP works for wildlife, and it works for sportsmen.

We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: Habitat loss is one of the greatest threats to sportsmen in this country. This is especially true in the midwestern, eastern, and southern states, where vast amounts of public lands aren’t available to provide habitat for game species. Many hunters and anglers rely on the generosity of private landowners who allow outdoor recreation on their property. Even if you have all the access you need, a landowner’s decision to either maintain habitat or convert land for crops dramatically affects wildlife and your experiences afield.

According to one report, 11 out of 19 non-migratory game birds in the U.S. depend on private lands for more than 50 percent of their habitat. For seven of these species, 80 percent of the population resides on private lands—the Northern bobwhite quail is a perfect example, with 97 percent located on private lands.

So how can we maintain sustainable populations, for the sake of the birds and our sports? Enter the Conservation Reserve Program.

CRP Equals Habitat

America’s rural landscape changed dramatically in the latter half of the 20th century, as urban areas sprawled and farm technology became more sophisticated. In the Prairie Pothole Region, for instance, 60 to 90 percent of original native grasslands have been lost to agriculture and other development. As a result, we’ve seen equally dramatic declines in upland bird populations. Some estimates show a 15-percent annual decline in upland bird numbers until 1986, the first year that farmers and ranchers were eligible to enroll lands in the CRP.

Image courtesy of Ariel Wiegard.

Since that time, upland bird population declines have thankfully slowed or even reversed, due to the reestablishment of habitat on private lands. In pheasant country, Nebraska only showed a 5-percent annual population decline following the introduction of CRP, and in Iowa, pheasant numbers increased 30 percent in the first five years of the program. Through 2006, the U.S. Department of Agriculture associated a 4-percent annual increase in CRP acreage with a 22-percent increase in pheasant counts. And at the height of CRP’s enrollment in 2006 to 2008, 32 million acres nationwide were credited with producing pheasant numbers unmatched since the 1960s.

Around the same time that CRP peaked, in 2004 the USDA made a new category of lands eligible for the program: habitat buffers for upland birds. Where pheasants benefit from a wide range of conservation practices, including whole-field CRP enrollments and planted food plots, bobwhite quail can do very well in small, 30- to 120-foot-wide strips of buffer habitat, generally placed on marginal or less productive farmland. These buffers often represent an insignificant change for landowners (as little as 5 percent of a farm operation), but they can also provide important nesting, brood rearing, and escape cover for upland species, and serve as travel corridors between fragmented habitat areas. A National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative study estimates that this new CRP initiative added 30,000 coveys to the landscape each year from 2006 to 2011, or approximately 1.5 bobwhites per acre of native grassland enrolled in the program. Compared to their small average enrollment size, these buffers can have an exponentially positive impact on wildlife.

Conservation is Part of a Business Plan

It’s clear that when farmers and landowners enroll in the program, CRP works for upland birds. But as recent history shows, the future viability of pheasants, quail, and other upland species is also closely tied to the economic viability of the program as agricultural markets fluctuate.

Almost immediately after CRP hit a 36.8-million-acre peak in 2007, prices for commodities like corn and soybeans skyrocketed, and so did land values. Landowners exited the CRP in droves to take advantage of the strong agricultural market, and upland bird populations once again began to fall. In the heart of pheasant country, CRP declined by 5.5 million acres between 2006 and 2012; pheasant populations simultaneously dropped by almost half, from 5.7 million birds to just 2.9 million.

To be fair, other upland species didn’t take the same hit—bobwhite quail populations have continued to improve in some areas since the creation of the buffer habitat program a decade ago. Some of the decline in pheasants can also be attributed to periods of harsh weather, but these are hearty birds that have proven they can withstand a Dakota winter—if habitat is available.

Whether USDA will have acres available to turn into habitat, however, is an ongoing concern for wildlife advocates and sportsmen. The CRP was cut in the last Farm Bill from 32 million acres to 24 million acres per year in response to high crop prices and a tight federal budget. But lawmakers—including Senator Pat Roberts, the current chairman of the Senate Agriculture committee, and Rep. Frank Lucas, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee during the last Farm Bill debate—have expressed concern that the budget alone had a greater impact on the program than it should have. Commodity prices are now leveling off and conservation programs are once again becoming an economically-competitive alternative to cropping, but the shrinking program is limiting land-use choices for farmers.

Is It Enough?

Because of these economic changes, landowners today are weighing a much different decision on land use than they did in the early days of CRP. The program was created 30 years ago primarily to reduce soil erosion and boost commodity prices, and landowners often signed USDA contracts to enroll entire fields in the program. Now, many farmers are seeking a more diversified business model that includes conservation as part of their financial success—they are working under a new mantra: “Farm the best, conserve the rest.” Enrolling land in habitat buffers and State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement can keep working lands working for farmers and for wildlife—but only if the overall amount of habitat can sustain populations. It is yet to be seen whether this Farm Bill’s 24-million-acre cap can make that possible.

Image courtesy of Ariel Wiegard.

We hope it will, but we’ll continue to advocate for an increase to the program in the next Farm Bill. In the meantime, the TRCP is collaborating with the USDA to make sure each and every acre of CRP works better for wildlife—and for sportsmen seeking the thrill of a flush.

This year, CRP is 30, and we can be thankful that CRP works, plain and simple.

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Kristyn Brady

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posted in: General

December 8, 2015

We Bag Another Four-Star Rating and Join a Pretty Exclusive Group

The conservation and sportsmen’s access organization receives a 4-star rating from Charity Navigator for third year in a row

Especially during this season of charitable giving, we are pleased to announce that we have been awarded an exceptional 4-star rating from Charity Navigator for the third year in a row. That’s the highest possible rating from the nation’s largest independent charity evaluator, and this three-time recognition for our financial health, accountability, and transparency puts the TRCP in the top 14 percent of organizations rated.

In a letter, Charity Navigator president and CEO Michael Thatcher says this designation indicates that the TRCP “outperforms most other charities in America” and demonstrates to the public that we are worthy of their trust. Learn more about our rating and financials here.

“We think trust is a major factor in our ability to build coalitions, champion investments in conservation, protect sportsmen’s access, and create solutions for improving public land management,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the TRCP. “So, we’re very proud that sportsmen can feel good about donating to the TRCP because of our ethics and our results.”

Learn how you can help the TRCP elevate the sportsman’s voice in Washington and guarantee all Americans quality places to hunt and fish by clicking here.

Or take action for conservation right now.

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Glassing The Hill: December 7 — 11

The TRCP’s scouting report on sportsmen’s issues in Congress

Both the Senate and House will be in session from Monday through Friday.

Photo courtesy of Library of Congress.

There’s no such thing as saved by the bell in Congress. With only five legislative days left to hammer out a spending bill and avoid a government shutdown, lawmakers need to act by Friday if they want to fly home for the holiday recess, rather than go into extra innings. Congressional leaders are publicly optimistic about an omnibus spending bill, but not before the December 11 deadline. They’ll likely pass a week-long continuing resolution (reminder: a temporary fix, like the one passed in September) to provide more time for a full-year omnibus bill.

The holdup: about 100 possible policy riders, which include language defunding the Clean Water Rule and Clean Power Plan, implementing drought procedures and a potential fix to fire borrowing with some minor forest reform, and reintroducing of a harmful sage grouse amendment that was stripped from the National Defense Authorization Act this summer.

In another part of the Capitol last week, President Obama signed a six-year highway bill, which was the first long-term transportation legislation since 2005. The Highway Bill includes funding for Department of Interior and U.S. Forest Service roads, which impact your access to public lands, and funding for transportation projects that improve fish and wildlife habitat.

Meanwhile, mark-up of the “Bipartisan Sportsmen’s Act,” rumored to be this Wednesday in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, has been delayed and rescheduled for January 13. We’ll keep you posted.

Besides floor action on a yearlong omnibus bill, a short-term CR, or both, the Senate will be considering reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, an overhaul of No Child Left Behind, and the House will vote on Representative Thornberry’s (R-TX) Red River Private Property Protection Act, a measure to settle a Bureau of Land Management boundary dispute, and visa waiver program improvements.

What We’re Tracking

Monday, December 7, 2015

Restoration of Atlantic fisheries, to be discussed by the House Natural Resources Committee at the Suffolk County Community College Culinary Arts Center in New York. Learn more about the field hearing here

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

The National Park Service Centennial, with the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing testimony to prepare for the celebration

The stream protection rule proposed by the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement will be discussed in a House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Interior hearing

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

More on the Animas River spill, in a House Natural Resources Committee hearing on EPA’s and DOI’s role

California wilderness areas, off-road vehicle recreation, and wild and scenic rivers impacted by Congressman Paul Cook’s (R-CA) California Minerals, Off-Road Recreation, and Conservation Act will be discussed by the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Federal Lands

 

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posted in: General

December 4, 2015

The Benefits and Limitations of WaterSMART Solutions from the Bureau of Reclamation

As the drought in the West continues, we are all being forced to reckon with unsustainable water use of the past. If nothing changes in the Colorado River basin, for example, demand for water is projected to exceed supply by 3.2 million acre-feet by 2060. That deficit is more than the annual share of Colorado River water earmarked for Arizona and Nevada combined. Decision makers are looking for proactive solutions to future water crises, and sportsmen can help, especially by calling on decision makers to prioritize and refine effective water conservation programs that benefit fish and wildlife. Here’s what you need to know.

Better Use Costs Less

Simply conserving water—in other words, using what we have more efficiently—is the quickest, cheapest, and easiest solution to our water supply problems. A 2012 study of the Colorado River basin found that proposed conservation measures would cost one-quarter of what would need to be spent on other possible solutions, like desalination, reuse, or new, large water diversions, and the region would see comparable water savings in half the time.

A Smart Program Exists

Since 2010, the Bureau of Reclamation has been seeding local water-efficiency solutions and encouraging collaborative watershed partnerships through grants from the WaterSMART Program. In the past five years, the bureau has awarded 240 of these grants totaling $113 million for local water-efficiency projects, like irrigation districts lining canals to cut down on water loss or municipalities installing more efficient water control technology. And because recipients of these grants have to bring their own matching funds to the table, WaterSMART grants have cumulatively leveraged an additional $331 million in non-federal funds for water efficiency.

Bonus: Fish and Wildlife Benefit

It’s not all bad news.

In our recent Snapshots of Success report, the TRCP profiled a prime example of a successful WaterSMART-funded project: Montana’s Fort Shaw Irrigation District used two WaterSMART grants to rebuild irrigation systems and send 10,000 acre-feet of conserved irrigation water to improve stream flows for wild trout in the Sun River.

The Catch

The Sun River example is a positive one for sportsmen, but it is important to recognize that most applicants for WaterSMART grants never receive funding: Historically, less than 20 percent of applicants received a grant (Table 1), and unfunded projects represent a significant amount of unmet water savings potential.

The high success rate in 2011 is due to leftover funds from 2009’s stimulus program, which gave Reclamation money to fund an unusually large number of projects. The success rate jumped again in 2015, but only time will tell whether this is another anomaly or the new normal.

The Montana example is also extraordinary because of the project sponsors’ commitment to using conserved water to improve instream flows, helping trout on the chronically dewatered Sun River. Even though nearly all WaterSMART projects conserve water, very few of them produce habitat benefits. So, where does the saved water go? Frequently to firming up existing water supplies, so users can more regularly get their full allocation of existing water rights. It rarely stays in the river to benefit fish, wildlife, or habitat.

The reason for the lack of habitat benefits from WaterSMART projects is not obvious. One of the explicit purposes of the program is to protect endangered species, and the 2016 evaluation criteria allow for applicants to earn up to 12 percent of their overall score by demonstrating that a project will benefit endangered species (Figure 1). And the law that created the grants allows them to be used for any water supply project that “increases ecological resiliency to the impacts of climate change” or is used “to prevent any water-related crisis or conflict.” Surely combatting threats to fish and wildlife from lack of water fits the bill.

Room for Improvement

It may be that irrigation districts working with sportsmen or watershed groups to create conservation benefits are not rewarded appropriately for their efforts in the grant application.  We’re calling for the Bureau of Reclamation to give higher rankings to projects that demonstrate dual benefits: a more secure water supply and instream flows with habitat benefits for fish and wildlife. This would help guarantee that limited WaterSMART dollars create the most benefit possible.

WaterSMART grants could also produce more conservation benefits if sportsmen’s organizations and watershed groups were eligible to apply, but currently the grants are restricted to entities “with water or power delivery authority” and, therefore, go primarily to irrigation districts or municipal governments. Sportsmen can partner with eligible applicants on a project, as Trout Unlimited did on the Sun River, but the eligibility restriction may be weeding out strong projects that can help fish, wildlife, and watersheds.

What You Can Do

Sportsmen’s groups have made supporting and refining WaterSMART Grants a priority, but it will require action from Congress and the Bureau of Reclamation for the program to reach its full potential for fish and wildlife. Here’s where you can help: Tell the Bureau of Reclamation that you support its WaterSMART efforts—but you want to see water conservation benefit fish and wildlife, too. 

Ariel Wiegard

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posted in: General

December 3, 2015

Celebrating the Greatest Private Lands Conservation Initiative in Modern History

The USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program has benefitted landowners and habitat for 30 years

Image courtesy of Pheasants Forever.

As D.C. kicks off the holiday season with the lighting of the national Christmas tree this week, a different kind of celebration is taking place on Capitol Hill and across the country to honor the national Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), a Farm Bill initiative that has allowed agriculture producers to voluntarily conserve environmentally sensitive land—including prime wildlife habitat—for 30 years. More than 400,000 farmers and ranchers are currently participating in the program and making conservation a part of their business success. And you may recall Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announcing in May that an additional 800,000 acres would be eligible for enrollment in the CRP, with a good portion devoted to lands with duck-nesting habitat.

It’s clear that this valuable habitat conservation tool, first signed into law by President Reagan as part of the Farm Bill in 1985, has a lot to boast about.

That’s why the TRCP and our partners will be celebrating the CRP throughout the month of December and into 2016, by highlighting the successes of this popular bipartisan program—regarded by many as the greatest private lands conservation initiative in modern U.S. history. Here on our blog, we’ll devote a series of posts to the critters that have seen tremendous habitat benefits: upland birds, waterfowl, forest dwellers, sage grouse, and freshwater fish. CRP works for wildlife, and it works for sportsmen.

Sen. Pat Roberts and TRCP President & CEO Whit Fosburgh. Image courtesy of Cyrus Baird.

We also gathered more than 250 CRP champions on Capitol Hill for a special event last night. Our guests included lawmakers from at least 47 Congressional offices covering 25 states, conservationists from 45 advocacy groups, staff from five federal agencies, and landowners from at least 13 states.

One particular landowner, Senator Jon Tester of Montana, who uses CRP at home, gave some heartfelt remarks at the beginning of the evening. “This is an incredibly good program for production agriculture and for wildlife,” he said. “I entered CRP to stop wind and water erosion, but I didn’t realize all the benefits to sharptail grouse, whitetail deer, and mule deer on my property.”

Senator Jon Tester. Image courtesy of Ariel Wiegard.

Senator Pat Roberts also spoke to the legacy of the program. “CRP has provided a valuable safety net to producers during some of their most trying times, but it has also improved water quality, reduced erosion, and increased habitat for endangered and protected species.” Michael Scuse, undersecretary for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services at the USDA, went into detail about these benefits: “More than 170,000 stream miles and 2.7 million acres of wetlands have been protected. Pheasants have returned to many Midwestern counties. And when so many of our rural communities were at a crossroads in 2008 and 2009, sportsmen’s spending carried them through.”

Image courtesy of TRCP.

Tester acknowledged that some of the guests in the room were instrumental in creating this program in the 80s and offered his profound appreciation for their efforts, which have had multigenerational benefits. “Thanks for looking out for my kids,” he said.

The event was made possible thanks to a remarkably diverse group of sponsors, which truly speaks to the broad support for private lands conservation programs like CRP. Everyone who values healthy lands, waters, fish, and wildlife should be grateful to the unique community of farmers, lawmakers, conservationists, and sportsmen who created CRP in 1985 and continue to support it in its thirtieth year.

If you are a landowner interested in participating in CRP, a general sign up period launched on December 1 and will run through February 26. Visit USDA for more info. And for more CRP success stories check back here or follow #CRPis30 and #CRPworks on Facebook and Twitter.

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