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We all know that food plots help provide food and cover to our favorite game, but cover crops are different—they are legumes, grasses, grains, and root vegetables that are typically planted after row crops like corn and soybeans are harvested. Like food plots on a much larger scale, the benefits of cover crops to soil, water, and wildlife are significant.
Some benefits are obvious to farmers: If cover crops are not planted, a field might be left bare for up to seven months while waiting for the next row crop planting. And, as our nation learned during the days of the Dust Bowl, that bare soil is vulnerable to erosion caused by wind, rain, and snowmelt.
Losing healthy soil, even incrementally, is bad for business, like losing pennies on every dollar. And the problem worsens—both for landowners and for fish and wildlife habitat—when more than just soil runs off the farm in a rainstorm. Large amounts of nitrogen fertilizer end up in our rivers, lakes, and streams, causing catastrophic algal blooms that can keep you from being able to fish.
This is why one of the most popular features of the Farm Bill’s Environmental Quality Incentive Program is its incentives for landowners and farmers to incorporate cover crops into their planting rotation.
While cover crops improve farm fields and our favorite lakes and streams, they can also serve as prime habitat for a variety of our favorite critters. And farmers’ interest in cover crops is on the rise, because integrating soil health practices can help combat climate change by capturing more carbon.
Here are four standout cover crops and how they benefit fish and wildlife.
Algal blooms caused by nutrient pollution can put a damper on summertime fishing by limiting access and shortening seasons. From the Gulf of Mexico to Utah Lake, the Ohio River, and Vermont’s Lake Carmi, fish and anglers would benefit from the increased use of cover crops—like clover, radishes, winter wheat, and rye—that slow the incremental loss of nutrient-rich topsoil.
As our friends at QDMA can attest, radishes can make great food plots for whitetails. Deer are attracted to them during the fall and especially during late season when other foods are typically scarce. During the winter months, the large tap root can provide much needed energy to those post-rut bucks. The tap root also serves as a natural tiller as it drills down and breaks up compacted soil, reducing the need for a field to be heavily tilled before the primary crop is planted.
In the spring, clover and alfalfa are great sources of protein for wild turkeys, and they attract some of the bird’s favorite insects to help draw gobblers out of the hardwoods. In the late season, turkeys will appreciate the hearty meal provided by grains like winter wheat, that also help prevent soil erosion between planting seasons.
For pheasants and quail, various cover crops like clovers, rye, and brassicas can provide some nesting and brood-rearing habitat so long as they are not tilled or sprayed during the nesting/brood rearing season. Cover crops that mature in late summer and early fall as the commodity crop is growing, will also provide both forage and bugs into fall after the crop is harvested.
This story was originally posted on May 2, 2018 and has been updated.
UPDATE (August 30, 2021): In a press release today, the department announced that this proposed rule has been finalized in time for the 2021-2022 hunting season. The original post discusses the proposal.
Last week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced its intention to allow hunting and fishing on an additional 2.1 million acres of land across 90 national wildlife refuges and one national fish hatchery.
This follows similar moves to expand access under the Trump Administration in 2019 and 2020, which we called out as one of the recent successes the Biden Administration could build upon to benefit sportsmen and sportswomen. According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, the expansion proposed in this rule is the largest in recent history—including last year’s, which itself was larger than the previous five rules combined.
If the rule is finalized after a public comment period, Americans will be able to hunt and fish on seven wildlife refuges previously off-limits to these activities and access new lands on another 83 refuges. Public lands in all 50 states are included in the new proposed rule, and the changes would go into effect in time for the 2021-2022 hunting seasons.
All told, the new rule would boost the total number of huntable national wildlife refuges to 434 and make fishing available on 378. The Fish and Wildlife Service is also working with states to make sure hunting and fishing regulations on federal refuges are more consistent with local laws and seasons.
It comes as a surprise to some that hunting and fishing are allowed on refuges, which were established to conserve, restore, and enhance fish, wildlife, and their habitats. These lands, however, are not off-limits to other uses, and six wildlife-related activities are prioritized by law: hunting, fishing, photography, wildlife watching, environmental education, and interpretation.
When, where, and how hunting or fishing is allowed is dependent on several factors, and the decision to permit these activities is made on a case-by-case and unit-by-unit basis by local refuge managers and biologists. Considerations include objectives of each refuge or hatchery, its biological soundness, and the public demand for and economic feasibility of providing recreation while protecting other resources. Learn more about the history of allowing hunting and fishing on refuges here.
“Hunters and anglers are some of our most ardent conservationists and they play an important role in ensuring the future of diverse and healthy wildlife populations,” says USFWS Principal Deputy Director Martha Williams. “Our lands have also provided a much-needed outlet to thousands during the pandemic and we hope these additional opportunities will provide a further connection with nature, recreation and enjoyment.”
Here are 26 places across six regions where this proposal may enhance your hunting and fishing opportunities by this fall.
Some of the proposed changes in the West would open new opportunities for species or types of hunting that were not previously available. In Montana, for instance, both the Charles M. Russell NWR and the UL Bend NWR would allow mountain lion hunting on acres of the refuges already open to other types of hunting. Similarly, both the Las Vegas NWR in New Mexico and the Camas NWR in Idaho would allow elk hunting, which would be the first big game hunting opportunity offered by either refuge.
On the Ouray NWR in Utah, pronghorn and sandhill crane hunting would be allowed in areas already open to sportsmen and sportswomen pursuing other species. Likewise, the National Elk Refuge in Wyoming would allow deer and pronghorn hunting in areas already open to other hunts.
In some places, hunters would see a sea-change in opportunity. On the Muleshoe NWR in Texas, sportsmen and women will be able to hunt whitetail deer, mule deer, quail, and doves, which would amount to the refuge’s first big game, upland game, and migratory bird hunting seasons.
While some changes create hunting and fishing opportunities where they previously did not exist, others expand existing opportunities to a greater area of the refuge. For example, in addition to opening migratory bird hunting for the first time, changes proposed for the Mackay Island NWR in North Carolina/Virgina would also expand current opportunities for deer hunting.
Several refuges would create additional opportunities through youth-only hunts. Among those proposed in Arkansas are a youth deer hunt on the Big Lake NWR, a youth turkey hunt on the Bald Knob NWR, and youth hunts for deer, rabbits, and squirrels on the Holla Bend NWR.
Anglers in the region would for the first time get to enjoy sportfishing on the Grand Bay NWR, which straddles Alabama-Mississippi border, and the Florida Panther NWR in Florida, while waterfowlers in Alabama would see the first-ever duck and goose hunting season on the Choctaw NWR.
Both the Great Swamp NWR and the Supawna Meadows NWR in New Jersey could offer new opportunities to hunt, among other species, turkeys, and both could also expand existing deer hunting opportunities.
In Virginia, the proposed rule would open migratory bird hunting, upland game hunting, and sportfishing for the first time at the Eastern Shore of Virginia NWR, while also expanding existing opportunities there for whitetail hunting. The Great Dismal Swamp NWR, James River NWR, Occoquan Bay NWR, Prequile NWR, and Rappahannock River Valley NWR would all allow turkey and coyote hunting for the first time, among other opportunities.
In Michigan, the Harbor Island NWR would allow migratory bird hunting, upland game hunting, and sportfishing for the first time, while also expanding current opportunities for deer hunting and bear hunting to additional acreage within the refuge.
In Maine, waterfowl hunters would enjoy the first-ever migratory bird hunting opportunities at the Franklin Island NWR and the Pond Island NWR, which also extends into New Hampshire. Likewise, anglers would for the first time be able to fish at the Pine Tree State’s Green Lake National Fish Hatchery.
Top photo by Wyman Meinzer/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via flickr.
The prairie pothole region—which spans the Dakotas, Minnesota, and Iowa—is known for being the most productive waterfowl habitat in the world. The prairie potholes themselves are depressional wetlands that filter rain and snowmelt each year, some appearing on the landscape seasonally and others lasting all year. Together, the thousands of these wetlands serve as habitat for more than half of North America’s waterfowl. They are also central to the hydrology of the Northern Great Plains and provide some of our nation’s most high-value carbon sinks.
More than three decades ago, Congress saw the wisdom in conserving wetlands and ensured that landowners who converted or destroyed them wouldn’t be eligible for farm bill benefits. This policy, which has traditionally been referred to as “swampbuster,” was a good idea then and remains a good idea today. Hunters and anglers have supported this kind of accountability for decades, but to be truly effective and keep at-risk wetlands on the landscape, sound legislation isn’t enough.
We need credible agency implementation of compliance checks, as well. Ideally, compliance checks target wetlands at greatest risk to conversion and ensure that natural wetlands continue to serve their ecological function. But this may not be happening.
Last week, the Government Accountability Office released a study that revealed U.S. Department of Agriculture wetland specialists only reported a fraction of the wetland compliance violations that they encountered. Of the 417,000 tracts of land subject to swampbuster in the Dakotas, the GAO found that the Natural Resources Conservation Service had reported less than five violations between 2014 and 2018, indicative of a nearly non-existent enforcement regime.
NRCS wetland specialists explained that they do not report potential violations unless it is on a tract of land being inspected. Any wetland drainage visible across property lines, in view of the road, or on aerial imagery is not reported because doing so would undermine the relationships between landowners and the NRCS field staff providing technical assistance.
In short: The NRCS doesn’t want to be the bad guy, and wetlands get drained as a result.
Other farmers don’t want to the bad guys, either. The GAO study revealed that Farm Service Agency-run county committees, which are made up of neighboring landowners tasked with assessing good faith attempts at compliance, approved appeals on violations at wildly differing rates across county and state lines and often without clear justification.
This isn’t the first time there has been an issue with USDA’s enforcement of wetland compliance. In 2017, the agencies responsible were referring to outdated maps rather than going on real-time site visits to confirm wetlands were not being drained.
And this week’s report unveiled other complications. NRCS offices in all four Prairie Pothole Region states failed to follow the agency’s guidance to conduct annual quality control reviews from 2017 to 2019. The officials from NRCS headquarters in Washington, D.C., who are directed to oversee these reviews, were not involved.
Finally, despite the agency’s own guidance handbook, the NRCS selected properties for compliance checks—just one percent of the total lands subject to enforcement—based on random selection and not based on which lands are at highest risk of conversion. According to the GAO, between 2014 and 2018, the NRCS carried out compliance checks on 5,683 tracts in the four PPR states, that’s just over 0.5% of those subject to wetland compliance.
With its report, the GAO included a set of recommendations for the agency to improve their effectiveness in the field, available here. But sportsmen and sportswomen should demand that anyone compromising wetlands habitat, especially when it supports so many of our hunting and fishing opportunities within the PPR region and beyond, should not be able to benefit from the farm bill.
High commodity prices in the early 2010s resulted in record numbers of wetland determination appeals, as landowners sought to put more acreage into production. As agricultural markets recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, the pressure on prairie potholes and wetlands is only going to increase. We cannot afford for the USDA to turn a blind eye as bad actors take advantage of farm programs and the American taxpayer. The TRCP and its partner organizations will continue to work with Congress and USDA leadership to develop and bring to bear the policy and culture changes necessary to stem this tide of habitat loss.
Image courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
In the last two years, policymakers have committed to significant investments in conservation, infrastructure, and reversing climate change. Hunters and anglers continue to be vocal about the opportunity to create conservation jobs, restore habitat, and boost fish and wildlife populations. Support solutions now.Learn More