By Doug Leier
Without looking over my shoulder through the columns I’ve written in May over the past decade, I’m pretty sure the top three topics have been fishing, fishing, and probably … fishing.
This year, however, I feel justified in deviating from the norm, as the Conservation Reserve Program is making headlines with a new signup period underway. Hunters and anglers alike need to take a moment to consider the future of this important habitat that younger generation may assume has always been and will always be around.
Most of the rest of us can recall the limited pheasant numbers, and to some extent white-tailed deer numbers, in the two decades prior the start of CRP in the mid-1980s. Grassland habitat, whether it’s cropland idled through the CRP, or precious native prairie, is a foundation that prevents soil erosion and serves as a filter within the important water cycle.
It’s widely known that North Dakota has lost nearly half its CRP acres since 2007 – from about 3.4 million acres down to about 1.8 million acres right now. In recent signups, landowner interest has remained relatively high, but a variety of factors have contributed to the decline in acres enrolled in North Dakota.
Nationally, the number of acres allowed in the program has been reduced. Many landowners who wanted to reenroll were not able to because their land no longer qualified, or was not accepted because their land was not ranked high enough against offers made in other states.
And of course, with today’s strong farm economy, many landowners with expiring contracts have left the program because land rental rates and commodity prices provide a better financial picture for their operation than if they had those acres in CRP.
This time around, producers interested in submitting bids to enroll land in Conservation Reserve Program acres have through June 14. Applications received during the CRP signup period will be ranked against others according to the Environmental Benefit Index.
Kevin Kading, North Dakota Game and Fish Department private land section leader, said there are some EBI factors that producers can influence. “Game and Fish Department private land biologists and other conservation partners such as Ducks Unlimited and Pheasants Forever can help producers find the best possible combination of factors that will positively influence their EBI score, which may increase their likelihood of being accepted into the program,” Kading said.
Game and Fish offers cost-share assistance and additional incentives if producers enroll their CRP into the department’s Private Land Open To Sportsmen program to allow walk-in access for hunting.
“Game and Fish will make arrangements with contractors to assist producers with land preparation, grass seeding and CRP management,” Kading said. This service is offered for producers who enroll CRP in PLOTS in Dickey, Ransom, Sargent, LaMoure, Burleigh, Emmons, McLean, Sheridan, Stark, Hettinger and Adams counties.
Producers should contact the county Farm Service Agency office, or Game and Fish or other conservation partner biologists, for more information about the general signup and opportunities with PLOTS. A series of short videos with tips and advice on how producers can maximize their CRP offer, and information about PLOTS cost-share and grass seeding assistance, is available on the Game and Fish website, gf.nd.gov.
While the current signup won’t mean a return to more than 3 million acres of CRP in North Dakota, the Game and Fish Department is hoping that prospects for potentially higher rental rates, and a concerted effort to help producers increase their EBI scores, will help offset acres that are expiring in 2013, or even gain a little ground.
I mean grass.
Leier is a biologist with the North Dakota Game and Fish Department.