CRP And The Duck Factory

Nesting ducks face many challenges. The Conservation Reserve Program, since its initiation, has helped solve a portion of those problems on U.S. prairies.

Nesting ducks face many challenges. CRP, since its initiation, has helped solve a portion of those problems on U.S. prairies.
Photograph by BillMarchel.com

After 20 years, the Conservation Reserve Program has become an institution on America's prairies. I'm beginning to accumulate quite a bit of gray hair at my temples, and even I have trouble remembering what the heartland was like between the end of the federal Soil Bank program in the 1960s and the first multiple-year contracts under CRP.

About all I can recall now are images: Traveling across Iowa in the first soft days of April sometime in the mid-1970s, I remember the shrinking snow banks in the road ditches, not white but dark gray from the prairie topsoil that had blown off the fall-plowed fields to the north of the road. It was to be a recurring theme over the next decade.


I was in southwestern Kansas for the pheasant opener several years later, driving the back way over the high plains to meet some folks in the little town of Ulysses. As I cruised the county roads, I was surprised to note the almost total absence of fences -- farmers in that part of the world had conceded the business of raising livestock to the big feedlots and were specializing in growing grain. And, when I did see a fence, it was centered in a berm of dirt, the top six inches of the posts just showing, the strands of wire buried. These were topsoil drifts, like Dorothea Lange photos of the Dust Bowl.



I think it was the summer of 1980 that U.S. Highway 54 across southern Kansas was closed for a day because of blowing dust. I went out that afternoon with a camera. I've got a picture somewhere of the Waldeck, Kansas, grain elevator. The picture shows the top 30 feet of the building with the red hazard light blinking exposed -- a wall of dust obscures the remaining 150 feet below.

When locals say it's "blowing" on the high plains, they aren't talking about the wind, which is a constant companion in that part of the world; they're talking about the soil. I watched the country "blow" that day, the fingers of silt creeping across the fields and the pavement of the highway while the finer, powder-dry dust rose into the sky.


This change in the agricultural landscape had a predictable effect on the wild things that try to make a living in farm country. Roadside pheasant counts in Iowa dropped by 50 percent from 1965 to 1975 and trends farther west were comparable. The same problems emerged for cottontails, bobwhite quail, prairie chickens, sharp-tailed grouseÉand ducks.


Exceptionally wet years helped sustain mallard numbers in the early and mid-1970s while upland bird populations were dropping with the amount of permanent cover, but greenheads failed to respond to several good water years in the first half of the 1980s because the amount of available nesting habitat had continued to decline.

The advent of CRP in the Dakotas and eastern Montana changed that pattern. The drought of the late 1980s delayed the response, but when water came back to the prairies in the mid-1990s, mallard numbers rose to highest levels in the history of waterfowl surveys. The best production shifted south out of prairie Canada where there wasn't any funding for long-term retirement of farm land, to the northern prairies of the U.S., where there was.

That's where we've been for more than a decade -- instead of praying for a combination of good water and good upland cover, we've had the luxury of praying for the water alone, secure in the knowledge that CRP will provide a base of upland habitat for breeding prairie ducks.

That may be about to change.

The year 2007 could be a turning point for prairie ducks and the people who care about them. In that year, a huge portion of the CRP contracts in the northern prairies will expire. North Dakota will lose 1.72 million acres currently under CRP contract; Montana will lose 1.68 million acres, mostly in the eastern part of the state, which is the western edge of the pothole region; and South Dakota will lose more than 700,000 acres. More than four million acres of the Duck Factory could go back under the plow in 2007 alone.

Of course, it's possible that some or all of these contracts could be renewed, but in order for that to happen, the federal government has to accept the acreages back into CRP and find enough money to pay for the new contracts. Right now, neither one of these circumstances is assured.

CRP contracts start with the farmer, who approaches the Department of Agriculture with an offer to retire a piece of land. The Farm Service Agency (FSA), one of the divisions of USDA, scores each offer, and properties with the highest scores get CRP contracts. The scoring uses a system called the environmental benefits index (EBI), which considers the potential for reducing soil erosion, run-off, leaching nutrients from the soil and the possible benefits to wildlife. It's a complicated process, and small changes in the way it's applied can make big changes in who gets contracts.

For many years, states in the high plains have landed a substantial proportion of all the CRP contracts in the U.S., which is good for ducks but has led to criticism from Congressional representatives in other parts of the country. Statistics from the most recent CRP sign-up demonstrate that someone has been listening to the criticism.

Across the country, FSA has accepted about 48 percent of the acres offered for CRP contracts. Farmers in Tennessee did much better -- FSA accepted 84 percent of acres offered. More than 60 percent of the acreage offered in Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, Wisconsin, Washington and Oregon was accepted for CRP enrollment.

Meanwhile, only eight percent of the land offered in North Dakota will go into CRP this year. FSA accepted 16 percent of the acres offered in South Dakota and 22 percent of the acres offered in Montana. If this pattern continued through 2007, the potholes could lose more than 3.5 million acres of cover currently protected under CRP.

Last August, the USDA announced its intention to keep that from happening. The agency intends to offer early re-enrollment and contract extensions for the CRP contracts that begin expiring in 2007. In the past, about 85 percent of the acres that have been enrolled in CRP were offered again when their contracts expired. If farmers in the potholes continue to show that kind of enthusiasm for CRP over the three years and the USDA follows through with its commitment, the CRP habitat base in the prairie potholes will remain more or less intact.

Forgive me if I'm a little uneasy about the prospects. Discussions about CRP's mission and effects were intense over the last half of 2004. USDA is trying to decide whether it should offer re-enrollment without competition, which is to say, without scoring the old CRP acres under the environmental benefits index and comparing them to the rankings of other acres that may be offered for new contracts. Right now, the EBI doesn't seem to favor land in the northern prairies -- if it is used to pick the acres that will be re-enrolled, CRP in the potholes could still be at risk.

The other possible sticking point is cold, hard cash, in this case, appropriations from Congress. A combination of massive tax relief and increased federal spending has made the federal budget deficit one of the nation's highest-profile political issues -- again. Can we depend on Congress to appropriate money for CRP when thousands of other special interests are lobbying for a share of federal largesse?

If conservationists take the future of CRP for granted, the answer is, "Probably not."

No conservationist should sit still for a reduction in funding for CRP and the other conservation programs the USDA supports. There are few places we can spend a conservation dollar with more benefit than on wetlands and associated upland cover. These systems support a greater diversity and abundance of wildlife than any other habitat in North America.

CRP and its sister programs also protect the most valuable natural resource on the continent -- topsoil. Control of soil erosion improves the quality of our air and water as it secures our ability to feed the earth's inhabitants.

In addition, these programs help farmers. Price supports only encourage farmers to produce surpluses -- land retirement preserves the innate fertility of our farm ground and may help reduce grain supplies a little, which could even help sustain commodity prices. And these federal programs are a buffer against the vagaries of farming -- they help keep people on the land, something that is especially important in the northern plains where rural populations are dropping.

The deliberations over CRP in the next two years could well be a watershed in the history of waterfowl conservation. Those of us who care about prairie ducks should keep our eyes peeled and our noses to the wind.

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