posted in: Farm Bill

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.

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.

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posted in: Farm Bill

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 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.

June 23, 2015

The Teddy Bear Delisting and ‘That Hunt’

You may know the tale of Theodore Roosevelt’s Mississippi black bear hunt in the fall of 1902, his second year in office. After all, it’s one of the most famous hunts to have taken place on American soil, and it inspired the most famous toy in the world—the Teddy Bear.

Image courtesy of Creative Commons. Above image courtesy of USDA/Flickr.

But shortly after Roosevelt came to Mississippi in the early 1900s, over-hunting and agricultural development in the Delta’s swamps practically eliminated the Louisiana black bear from its native range in the Mississippi Alluvial Valley. It was eventually listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) as a threatened species by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1992, bringing about much concern from landowners, the timber industry, and wildlife professionals. This forward-thinking group hoped that the downward trend could be reversed and suitable black bear habitat within the region could be restored.

That same year, the Wetlands Reserve Program was instituted, building upon the successes of the Conservation Reserve Program, launched in 1985. Together, these programs resulted in the restoration of more than one million acres of black bear habitat, and black bear populations slowly began to rise across the bear’s historic range.

Now, Teddy’s bear is having a moment. After more than two decades of conservation efforts, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell has proposed removing the Louisiana black bear from the list of threatened and endangered species under the ESA. “The Louisiana black bear symbolizes how the Endangered Species Act can be a remarkably effective tool to protect and recover threatened and endangered species when we work in close partnership with states and other stakeholders,” Jewell said. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, state agencies, non-profit organizations, and private landowners are all to thank for the Louisiana black bear’s success.

Image courtesy of USFWS.

According to Hunter Fordice, a landowner and son of Mississippi’s former governor, Kirk Fordice, “The first documented black bear cubs born in the Mississippi Delta in some 30 years were born in the middle of a 12-year-old Wetlands Reserve Program tract on my property in Issaquena County in 2007. The Wetlands Reserve Program and the Conservation Reserve Program have restored hundreds of thousands of acres of bottomland hardwoods across the Lower Mississippi Valley, which in turn has provided habitat suitable for the Louisiana black bear to once again thrive in its historical home range. As a landowner, it is very gratifying to see these conservation programs working so well.”

We think Roosevelt would be proud to see the population’s rebound and to know that the next generation of outdoorsmen will share the woods with the bear that “bears” his nickname. To celebrate, let’s hear the story of this famous hunt.

A Famous Hunt and Hunter

Almost every aspect of Roosevelt’s 1902 hunt at Smede’s farm was the responsibility of the uneducated, but extremely intelligent, 56-year-old Holt Collier, who was born into slavery and served as a Confederate scout before becoming a legend for his hunting skills. Roosevelt (who announced that he was to be addressed only as “Colonel” throughout the hunt) expressed his desire to participate in the chase. However his demands for a shot on the very first day, and the timidity of his hosts, condemned him to a stationary blind. He was placed to have a clear shot when the bear, driven by Collier’s pack of nearly 40 dogs, would emerge from one of the dense cane thickets on the farm.

Roosevelt and his hunting partner, Huger Foote, waited on the stand all morning. Around mid-afternoon they broke for lunch, annoying Collier, who’d worked extremely hard to bring a bear to that exact spot only to find the stand abandoned.  As Collier recalled,

“That was eight o’clock in the mornin’ when I hit the woods an’ roused my bear where I knowed I’d fin him. Den me an’ dat bear had a time, fightin’ an’ chargin’ an’ tryin’ to make him take a tree. Big ole bear but he wouldn’t climb nary tree. I could have killed him a thousand times… I sweated myself to death in that canebrake. So did the bear. By keeping between the bear and the river, I knew he’d sholy make for the water hole where I left the Cunnel [sic]. After a while the bear started that way and popped out of the gap where I said he’d go. But I didn’t hear a shot, and that pestered me… It sholy pervoked me because I’d promised the President to bring him a bear to that log, and there he was.”

Holt Collier: His Life, His Roosevelt Hunts, and the Origin of the Teddy Bear by Minor Ferris Buchanan 

It was at this time that the bear turned on the dogs. This put Collier in quite the quandary. He had been given specific orders to save the bear for Roosevelt, who was not to be found, and yet he had to protect the dogs from the deadly bear.

Image courtesy of Dale Divers.

Collier dismounted, shouting at the bear. He approached the bear and tried to distract it as someone rode to camp to get the President. In the meantime, the bear and the dogs fought viciously, and at one point his prize dog was caught in the bear’s grip. Collier swung the stock of his gun and landed a blow to the base of the bear’s skull. Stunned, the bear dropped the dog and Collier seized the opportunity to place a lariat around the bear’s neck so that, when Roosevelt and Foote arrived several minutes later, the animal was tied to a tree.

President Roosevelt refused to claim the bear, citing a “true sportsmen’s code” which holds that the taking of any animal that does not have a sporting chance is forbidden. This famous hunting event inspired the first widespread discussion of the modern code of “fair chase,” a tenet of the Boone and Crockett Club which Roosevelt founded. It is the oldest conservation organization in North America and the second oldest in the world.

Although Roosevelt did not count the hunt as “successful,” the press thought it a most delightful story and spread word of it across the country. Roosevelt’s refusal to kill a defenseless animal was far more newsworthy than the taking of a trophy bear, and as the news spread, Brooklyn toy store owners Rose and Morris Michtom wrote to ask his permission to name their stuffed toy bears after him. The President approved, and “Teddy’s Bears” were born.

James L. Cummins is executive director of Wildlife Mississippi, a Regular Member of the Boone and Crockett Club, and a member of the TRCP Policy Council.



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