CRP – Make the Call

September 29, 2010 by  

By Nick Simonson

Last winter was one of the harshest I can recall since my senior year of high school. That winter of 1996-97 kicked off with a cold and snowy November and weekly storm events occurred straight on through the “Flizzard” in April, which flooded both Fargo and Grand Forks, N.D., ending the most difficult winter in decades with the worst spring flooding on record. The average high temperature in my journal was 7 degrees in the month of February, 1997. There were nights where it would drop to thirty below, with sixty below wind chill and it still managed to snow five inches, despite the old adage “Too cold to snow.” Everything that winter aligned and my last year of high school was shortened by fifteen snow days.
But while the winter brought me regular relief from my bouts with senioritis, the season brought misery to wildlife populations across the upper Midwest. Record snowfalls filled sloughs and reserve areas, eliminating habitat and forcing animals to find new cover. Record cold temperatures taxed wildlife to their limit, as fat stores were used up by mid-season. As a result, mortality rates were some of the highest recorded by wildlife agencies across the region as pheasant, deer and other popular game animals, as well as watchable species, could not escape the old man’s icy grasp.
By 2004, wildlife populations had rebounded, partly due to the fact that the winters, starting in 1998, were mild “El Nino” seasons, highlighted with people playing golf and fishing open water right up until Christmas throughout the region. The other key element in fostering winter survival of wildlife was the expansion of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) contracts throughout the upper Midwest.
These marginal lands, set aside due to one of a number of factors that lent them better to conservation and soil protection than farming practices, were utilized by ducks, deer and upland game, along with furbearers and predators to form a stronger and more vibrant food web. Whether it was a lowland slough which was once a field prone to flooding, or a rolling hillside grassland that was unfit to plow, the record CRP acreage of the late 1990s and early 2000s provided habitat for wildlife to procreate and survive; just one of the benefits of a program with its roots in a 1954 act designed to prevent erosion.
CRP has helped not only the recovery from the winter of 1996-97, but also has provided long-term growth in the populations of waterfowl. Since the 1990 Farm Bill expanded the reach of CRP to a wide variety of marginal acres eligible for the program, duck populations in the Prairie Pothole Region of western Minnesota, South Dakota and southern North Dakota have grown by over thirty percent. Studies have shown that a four percent increase in the amount of CRP land in South Dakota resulted in a twenty-two percent increase in the population of ringneck pheasants.
But with the 2010 Farm Bill, the number of acres enrolled in CRP took a major hit. The most recent and notable change to the Conservation Reserve Program was the reduction in federally-funded land contracts from 39.2 million acres to 32 million, a reduction of nearly one-fifth; and many elements have once again come together against wildlife, and with the 2010 Farm Bill, this time it is not just the weather, as other economic factors raise the opportunity cost of sidelining land.
A booming bio-fuels market, along with increased demand for commodities like corn, wheat and soy driving prices to record highs makes farming those marginal acres more worth it than it was thirty years ago, even if a bad crop or tough weather wipes them out. Couple that with a cash-strapped government in the midst of two wars half a world away, all while struggling its way out of a economic quagmire at home, and the funding for some seven million acres is tough to squeeze out of the old turnip.
So we find ourselves again at the turn of the season, looking toward a future filled with less and less CRP for deer, ducks and dozens of other animals to live in. CRP is the basic building block of conservation, water and air purification, and soil retention. Without this program, the time we spend outdoors, from the moment we lace up our boots to the last step we take down the ladder stand, would be much less successful, and probably less enjoyable. If it’s important to you to have birds to shoot today, as well as in the future or deer to stalk this year, next year and ten years down the road, contact your senators and representatives to voice your concerns and question your district’s candidates about their views on CRP during this election season.
It may only be a matter of time before CRP is half of what it once was, and the easiest way for a bad thing to happen is for good people to sit back and do nothing. As the first chilly mornings arrive and fall brings an uncertain winter one day closer, pause and think of the important role CRP plays not only in the lives of the game you pursue, but in the life you lead in the field, on stand or at the water’s edge. And as you rattle the antlers, or make that first call toward the sky, make a mental note to make a little noise with the people who can help bring more CRP acres back and make a phone call…for our outdoors.


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