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State of the Birds Report

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Game Birds

Conservation Reserve Program

Photo by Jason Johnson, USDA-NRCS, Iowa

Halting grassland conversion and maintaining habitat

Soaring commodity prices for corn, soybeans and wheat have resulted in a new wave of plowing up grasslands, wetlands, and shrublands. The Sodsaver provision—a proposal being debated for the Farm Bill—would eliminate any type of subsidy payment on a piece of ground that was plowed up with no prior cropping history.

While landowners could still plow up native grasslands, they would not receive any federal assistance for farming those acres, thereby relying solely on the free market value of the crop planted for profit. Many of the lands still uncultivated in the 21st century are marginal lands for crop production (for example, prone to drought). These lands tend to be more prone to crop failure. From 1997 to 2006 in South Dakota, the counties with the highest rates of grassland-to-cropland conversion had average annual net crop insurance per acre payments that were nearly twice as high as the average payments for other counties in the state.

If  implemented, Sodsaver is estimated to save taxpayers as much as $1.4 billion over a 10-year period, making it both a sound fiscal and conservation policy.

  Photo by Jason Johnson, USDA-NRCS, Iowa   

The 1985 Farm Bill established the Conservation Reserve Program. Originally this program was established to manage commodity surpluses, reduce soil erosion, and improve water quality. CRP is a voluntary program that provides growers with economic incentives and cost-sharing for the restoration and reestablishment of perennial habitat on environmentally sensitive lands with a cropping history. In April 2013, about 27 million acres were enrolled in CRP nationally.

Although wildlife habitat was not one of the original goals of CRP, it has made a tremendous difference in establishing habitat for grassland birds. Lands enrolled in CRP harbor secure nesting habitat for numerous species. Waterfowl breeding data from 1992 to 2004 in the Prairie Pothole Region in the Dakotas and northeast Montana showed that CRP acres created habitat that increased waterfowl production by about 26 million ducks, about 2 million per year. A recent evaluation of estimated CRP benefits in the central mixed-grass prairie bird conservation region found that CRP acres constituted 1% of the region's land cover in Kansas but contributed about 30% of the population goal for Eastern Meadowlark. In Oklahoma, CRP acres constituted 3% of the region's land cover but contributed about 44% of the population goal for Dickcissel, and Texas CRP acres constituted 4% of the region's land cover but contributed nearly 31% of the Grasshopper Sparrow population goal. A recent study in the Dakotas suggested that if CRP acres were put back into annual crop production, populations of several species of grassland birds (including Sedge Wren, Grasshopper Sparrow, Dickcissel, Bobolink, and Western Meadowlark) would experience significant population declines, ranging up to 56%.

CRP creates large blocks of grassland habitat for sensitive species like Greater and Lesser Prairie-Chicken, the latter proposed for listing as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A landscape assessment in Nebraska’s Eastern Tallgrass Prairie region found that CRP acres contributed 40% of suitable habitat for Greater Prairie-Chickens. A complementary assessment of Lesser Prairie-Chicken habitat in Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas found that CRP acres adjacent to existing grasslands made up larger blocks of habitat that provided 6% of the habitat goal for this species.

CRP Enrollment - April 2013 



Map prepared by FSA/EPAS/NRA; Northern Bobwhite by Vivek Tiwari,

To maintain sustainable populations of grassland birds (as well as waterfowl that rely on grasslands for nesting), CRP enrollment should be targeted where it can provide maximum benefits. CRP’s State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement program does just that, identifying priority habitat to be conserved through CRP contracts for wildlife species that are threatened or endangered, have suffered significant population declines, or are important environmentally, economically, or socially. SAFE areas have created habitat via CRP acres for Columbian Sharp-tailed Grouse in Colorado, Idaho, and Washington; Northern Bobwhite in Missouri; American Woodcock, Henslow’s Sparrow, Sedge Wren, and Grasshopper Sparrow in Indiana; Upland Sandpiper in Maine; and Ferruginous Hawk in Washington.

Recent increases in crop prices, and corresponding increases in land values and rental prices, have spurred the conversion of expiring CRP acres back to cropland. In just the Prairie Pothole Region alone, 1.8 million acres, or 22%, of the region’s CRP lands have been lost due to expiring contracts without re-enrollment. In North Dakota, almost half of CRP acres (about 1.6 million acres) in the state were lost, and in Montana more than 40% of CRP acres (about 1.5 million acres) were lost. Some of these expired acres could yet be conserved, perhaps by signing them to conservation easements to maintain them as grasslands. It is imperative for grassland bird conservation that CRP remain a strong component of the Farm Bill, and for conservationists to continue to target efforts to deliver CRP acres in those areas where they have the greatest potential to positively influence priority and sensitive species.


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