Prairie Habitat

February 18, 2009 by  

By Doug Leier

It’s July but I’m thinking of fall. And with good reason.

Last year’s pheasant harvest was likely higher than in any year since the mid-1940s. The past winter was relatively mild which should have meant fairly good carryover of birds. While abundant rains over much of the state could inhibit nest success and brood survival to some extent, across the board, winter weather, habitat and hatching conditions haven’t shifted too far out of the average ranges.

As we know, that’s just this year. Like most, I feel a bit hesitant going through another fall, almost expecting a hum-dinger of a winter to meet us head on. Let’s just say change is inevitable, and one of the winters we’ll be shoveling more than we’d care to.

One element regarding future fall prospects that is a little more easily gauged than if and when the next Alberta Clipper hits ( I can’t believe I typed those words in June), is the status of the Conservation Reserve Program, a huge component of prairie habitat which is the backbone for much of the fall bounty we’ve experienced.

Kevin Kading, Game and Fish Department private lands section leader, says: “After last year the immediate picture is a little more clear. Much of the state was offered CRP extensions or reenrollments ranging from 2-15 years, but fast forwarding a few years it again becomes a little tougher to gauge.

In 2007, Kading saidy, 84 percent of North Dakota’s CRP acres were accepted for either long-term reenrollments or short-term contract extensions. Over the next three years, however, many of those short-term extended contracts will expire, which would reduce North Dakota’s CRP acres by another 10 percent by 2010.

“A new federal farm bill could result in continued extensions and more reenrollments,” Kading added, “It’s really hard to say, .things could go the other way too and people should be aware that the future of CRP, and how it will look down the road are still undertermined as discussions for the 2007 Farm Bill are just getting underway. ”

Landowner interest and financial considerations drive much of the CRP, and Game and Fish private land programs. Essentially, if the funding incentive for putting or keeping land in CRP doesn’t match, for example, a corn-driven ethanol market, or CRP criteria changes so less land in eligible, we can expect a significant change in our prairie landscape.

Since a good share of the Department’s Private Land Open to Sportsmen program, or PLOTS, is based on CRP acres, Game and Fish biologists haven’t been sitting on their hands waiting to see what happens. Within the wheel of private lands programs are spokes which include the CRP access program.

Game and Fish has $2 million specifically targeted for these programs and we pays $1-$4 per acre in an upfront lump sum to landowners with CRP renrollment or extension agreements. The variation in payments takes into account factors such as whether the land is in the heart of pheasant range, or on the fringe.

“Initially last year we had more than 500 landowners express interest in the program,” Kading saiy, “which resulted in 100,000 new acres coming into the PLOTS program.”

Game and Fish is also working with landowners who opt out of CRP, but still want to keep the land in grass, rather than returning it to cropland. “Maybe they want to graze it, but not break the sod,” Kading said, “so even if the land is not currently enrolled in CRP, but has been before we still have our working lands program we can plug in.”

The PLOTS program is nearing the benchmark of 1 million acres. It’s hard to imagine that a little over a decade ago the PLOTS program was just a concept, but Kading understands there’s still more work ahead.

“We’ll take a step back and look at our programs and results and ask ourselves questions as hunters and biologists,” Kading said. “What’s working? What can we do better? It’s hard to predict how corn and other commodity prices will impact interest in our programs or what changes may come through the farm bill, but we are already looking ahead to see how we can make things better for landowners, wildlife and hunters of North Dakota.”


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