Grassland bird populations in America—including northern bobwhite quail, ring-necked pheasants, lesser prairie chickens, upland nesting waterfowl, wild turkeys, and others—are facing a conservation crisis. There simply isn’t enough habitat.
It wasn’t always this way. For much of our history, grassland birds lived in harmony with farmers, ranchers, and foresters, taking advantage of hedgerows and grazing lands. Even before that, birds coexisted with native grazers like bison, which naturally maintained the plains. But over the last several decades, aggressive farm policies, surging land and crop prices, and modern technologies have driven producers to favor planting row crops—or selling their land to developers—rather than leaving their land in grass-based agriculture. As a result, over 70 percent of our nation’s grasslands have been lost. This dramatic shift has raised serious concerns that grassland ecosystems, and the species they support, could be at risk.
That’s why we’re excited to report that the USDA is currently accepting applications for a new, nationwide Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) Grasslands initiative, which incorporates elements of the old Grasslands Reserve Program, repealed in 2014. The agency is looking for farmers and ranchers who wish to conserve working grasslands, rangelands, and pasturelands, while maintaining the areas as livestock grazing lands. The CRP-Grasslands program will provide rental payments and cost-share assistance to producers as incentive to keep native grasslands intact. And unlike other CRP lands, these enrollments do not require a cropping history.
This is especially good news for livestock producers, who are increasingly concerned about the declining availability of grassland. According to the South Dakota Grassland Coalition, their state lost more than 200,000 beef cows in response to the growth of other industries, like corn and soybeans, in the last 12 years. Since each cow requires and provides economic justification for about eight acres of grassland, that means that in just over a decade 1.6 million acres of South Dakota grasslands stopped supporting beef and are now likely planted with row crops.
Considering the importance of South Dakota’s prairie habitat to pheasant and duck populations, that should sound an alarm among sportsmen: No cows = No grass = No birds!
A recent drop in crop prices and high prices for beef cattle have helped to slow the conversion of grassland to cropland, but farmland economics are complex and the situation could reverse at any time. It’s important that cattle ranchers and conservationists take advantage of programs like CRP-Grasslands that will help keep these native landscapes intact.
Although the incentives aren’t huge (and they vary across the country), CRP-Grasslands may help to level the playing field by allowing landowners two chances to earn revenue on each acre: once through CRP, and again when renting their land for grazing or when cattle go to market. For some—whether on an expansive Dakota ranch or on a few Maryland acres supporting bobwhite quail—this could mean the difference between producing cattle or corn.
There’s also a third potential source of income associated with the new program, and this is where things get exciting for hunters of grassland-based wildlife: Landowners with grassland habitat can often open their properties for recreation, bringing economic benefits to their local communities in the process. Sportsmen, private landowners, and rural economies all win when habitat is improved and sustainable.
This year, CRP is turning 30. It has been one of the most successful soil, water, and wildlife conservation programs in the history of the country, and one of the largest available to private landowners. But CRP is shrinking—currently 24 million acres are enrolled, down from a high of 37 million just a few years ago. CRP works for sportsmen, but it also has to work for farmers and ranchers in order to remain viable. We hope that the CRP-Grasslands initiative will help balance the needs of the farm and rural communities with the needs of fish and wildlife, and provide better opportunities for sportsmen to access private lands in the process.