March 29, 2022
By Jace Bauserman
When you think of CRP (Conservation Reserve Program), what vision pops into your brain? Likely, thousands of acres of native grasses waving in the wind, right? Or, possibly, the site of a gagger whitetail buck, or a pair of coyotes yapping away? However, there is much more to this program than meets the eye. This voluntary, incentive-based program provides excellent nesting habitat for waterfowl and is scientifically proven to boost duck production. More ducks mean fuller flyways, which leads to more spent shotshells and fuller totes.
Farmers benefit greatly from enrolling their land in CRP. This land is mainly marginal land that likely won't produce an outstanding yield. By registering, farmers pen a contract (typically 10-15 years) and receive a Rental Rate Incentive that usually falls around the $150 per acre mark.
Continued Work with Private Landowners
Seventy percent of land in the U.S. is under private ownership. This $3.2-million grant will allow for the expansion of CRP — getting more landowners involved — creating additional habitat for waterfowl. It will also boost habitat restoration projects.
Earlier this year, the USDA released a research announcement specific to the climate mitigation potential of the Conservation Reserve Program in terms of reestablishing forests, grasslands, and wetlands. Ducks Unlimited, of course, places a strong emphasis on wetlands, particularly in the breeding grounds, and the role of agriculture in mitigating climate change is essential to duck habitat. Through this program and work with private landowners, DU can more effectively establish new habitats and maintain existing ones.
According to DU's Ecosystem Services Specialist, Dr. Ellen Herbert, DU, naturally, knows a lot about what ducks need from a biological standpoint. One of the organization's goals is to tell the story more broadly to other parts of society (non-hunters), and help these folks understand why they should care about maintaining wetlands and restoring them to the landscape.
"We know one of our significant knowledge gaps is telling society, specifically non-hunters, about the services wetlands provide, and how those services directly impact them. This grant gives us the ability to research and talk about the benefits of priority waterfowl habitats. There is an actual tangible potential right now through this grant to show people how wetlands can boost water quality and help with climate mitigation. Many people who care about water aren't waterfowl hunters, and this grant will help us bring habitat awareness to this group. This grant allows us to study these systems, work with a large group of researchers at the top of their field and restore isolated wetlands. We can build a coalition around the research and fill the knowledge gap."
More scientific research is always better, and this project will allow DU to work with the Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center in Jamestown, North Dakota, a leader in the wetland conservation space. With the help of the NPWRC, DU can take what has been accomplished in the Prairie Pothole region and replicate it through the Midwest and southern Great Plains States.
"We are also working with the University of Missouri, the University of Texas, Kenyon College in Clemson, Penn State, Lincoln College, the United Tribes Technical College, and others on this project," Herbert said. "The remarkable thing is that Lincoln College is predominantly an African American college, and the United Tribes Technical College has lots of Native American students. Working with this many groups, we will expose so many students that otherwise wouldn't have been to the importance of waterfowl conservation. So many ideas will sprout that will lead to the most effective ways to conserve wetlands. There will be research technicians, graduate students, and post-doctorate scholars from a diversity of institutions. In general, the natural resources branches of science and conservation are not very diverse. One of our goals is to help support the education of students coming into the field, take different ideas around land management, bring those ideas to the table and find best practices. We will be training a new workforce and be cross-pollinating between academia and conservation."
According to Herbert, an exciting part of this program is helping hunters understand the true benefits of CRP. In southern parts of the United States—anywhere south of the prairies—hunters are used to seeing waterfowl piled up in massive groups. When waterfowl are breeding, they need space. CRP provides this type of space. Plus, DU will be working with its sister organization (DU Canada) on this. This project will work into a similar vein DU Canada is currently working on, and this will help the future of this and other projects.
"It's a little bit harder to get funding for restoration," Herbert said. "Historically, there has been a pretty stark difference between understanding and manipulating natural systems and restoration and how restoration performs over time. This is just such a big opportunity, and one we are all very excited about. Plus, we will be working directly with two other significant groups—grasslands and forests. As waterfowlers know, grasslands and wetlands go together."
According to Herbert, seven times more carbon is stored in soils than in the atmosphere. "Plants pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and place it in the soil," Herbert said. "When you have something like a farming operation where you're constantly harvesting crops and tilling the soil, that carbon dioxide is being released. One of the consequences of this is that carbon has been building in the ground for millennia. Think of your lawn. You dig it up, and the soil is a grayish color and contains little if any dead plant matter and like. In a flourishing wetland, however, you sink in dark, sticky mud. You pull your boot up, and you see leaves and other plant matter attached to them. There is dead plant material all the way down. Soils are so crucial to the global carbon cycle. CRP traps this carbon in the ground, which helps with habitat. We need more natural ways of pulling carbon out of the atmosphere and putting it back in the soil and keeping it there."
Again, this is the largest-ever scientific research grant in organization history granted by the USDA. It's a massive win for conservation, and something every waterfowl hunter needs to keep up with.