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.
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.
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.