by Bret Amundson
Host, Prairie Sportsman
“Optimistic is a pretty good word to describe the upcoming season,” Jared Wiklund, public relations specialist from Pheasants Forever said when I asked him for “one word” about his feelings about this fall. “We had a very, very light winter. It was almost non-existent in a lot of places.”
Weather can play a vital role in whether or not wildlife thrives during a certain year, but the role habitat plays is even bigger. If Pheasants Forever has its way, the new Farm Bill would increase acreage available in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) to 40 million acres.
“Landowners, farmers and ranchers are knocking down the door of USDA service centers to get CRP enrolled on their property, ” Wiklund said. “And rates right now are incredible. There’s guys getting between $200 and $300 per acre for CRP depending on where you are at.”
There were 37 million acres available ten years ago, but that number has dropped to 24 million today.
“In North Dakota alone, their acreages fell from over 3 million acres in 2007 down to less than 1.5 million acres now, “ according to Wiklund.
Some numbers to chew on courtesy of Pheasants Forever:
Looking back over the last ten years can give you a glimpse of how important habitat is to wildlife. In 2007, Minnesota (1.83 million), North Dakota (3.39 million) and South Dakota (1.56 million) had their highest number of CRP acres, and as a result had the highest number of pheasants harvested. (655,000 in Minnesota, 907,434 in North Dakota and 2.1 million in South Dakota.) Conversely, in 2015 Minnesota had dropped to 1.1 million acres of CRP and only harvested 243,176.
CRP and programs like it not only offer habitat for pheasants, ducks, deer and pollinating insects, but offer protection for landowners during dry times like what the Dakota’s are experiencing right now.
“They’re having one of their worst droughts in 30 years,” said Wiklund. There’s not a lot of research out there on what drought does to pheasants, other than the fact that dry weather doesn’t produce as many bugs, which in turn really hurts pheasant broods as that’s their number one source of protein.”
A lack of pheasant food isn’t the only outcome of drought that affects wildlife.
“Ranchers are really struggling because they haven’t had the grass capacity to feed their cattle, so there’s emergency haying and grazing going on right now on CRP.”
Combine the loss of CRP with emergency haying and grazing and you lose even more habitat suitable for nesting and raising young pheasants. While the plight of CRP has been well documented for the last ten years, could there be a habitat reversal in the future?
CRP isn’t the only program available. In Minnesota, the CREP (Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program) program has been gaining steam. It’s been popular with buffer strips and it becomes permanent habitat protection for landowners.
CREP is funded with $500 millions dollars, with $350 million from the USDA and $150 million from the state of Minnesota. The goal is to “prioritize water quality and habitat through the restoration and protection of marginal cropland.” This is accomplished through buffer strips, wetland restoration and wellhead protection areas. It will protect 60,000 acres in 54 counties in western and southwestern Minnesota. It stays privately owned and is permanently restored and enhanced for conservation benefits.
“Even if it changes hands as far as ownership goes, there are restrictions on what you can do with that property,” Wiklund explained. “It has to stay in some sort of cover. “
A common recommendation is combining the CREP program with the REINVEST IN MINNESOTA (RIM) conservation easement program.
“You get an overall payment for the life of that contract,” Wiklund said. “So you get a payment on CRP and also a payment from RIM on top of that.”
“If you’re a farmer out there and you’ve got some unproductive acres next a stream or if you’re trying to tidy up some corners on your property, it’s a great program to enroll it in, “ Wiklund said. “It can produce a lot of pheasants, especially depending on the width of that buffer. It can really do great things for wildlife.”
But what about CRP? With demand for more acreage coming from farmers and another Farm Bill on the horizon, could we see an increase of available funding for the program?
“We’re working hard with our team in Washington DC to try and get the cap back up over 30 million acres,” Wiklund said. “We’d love to see 40 million acres, that’d be close to where we were not that long ago. It’s good for pheasants, it’s great for other wildlife, it’s great for water quality and it’s also a safety net for the farming and ranching community when things like (drought) happen.”
What could be more important than the benefits to wildlife is how these conservation programs impact water quality. Reducing nitrates, restoring hydrology and providing flood mitigation are all goals of the CREP program.
Buffer strips along creeks, drainage ditches and rivers give natural filtration and slow runoff, therefore improving water quality. But they also offer cover for pheasants and other wildlife. They could also help Minnesota stay out of court.
Other states are dealing with lawsuits where organizations are filing suit against counties for the amount of nitrates that are coming downstream.
November 1st, 2017 is the deadline for public water buffer strips and November 1st, 2018 is when compliance for public ditches (and public waters where a conditional compliance waiver) takes effect.
“It has the opportunity to conserve up to 120,000 acres in buffers,” Wiklund said. “There’s a lot of programs out there for landowners if they need to put a buffer in.”
While large tracts of grasslands can benefit all sorts of wildlife, pheasants also have the ability to thrive in strips of cover like buffers or even roadside ditches.
And there are a lot of ditches.
“Here in Minnesota, I think the number they throw out is that there is an extra 500,000 acres of habitat in roadside ditches-which is an incredible amount,” Wiklund explained. “It’s very important.”
Which is also why he’s a big proponent of delaying roadside ditch mowing.
“I’ll actually call the city and the county and tell them not to mow the roadsides along my property,” Wiklund said. “I have signs up that say ‘Roadsides for Wildlife Do Not Mow.”
Despite seeing a lot of mowing for the last couple of months, there is a law on the books that is meant to prevent roadside mowing prior to August 1st.
“Beginning of August is when it’s supposed to begin, but there are a lot of caveats with it,” Wiklund explains. “There was a bill introduced to have landowners submit a permit application if they’d like to mow roadside ditches. When you look at Minnesota as a whole and especially the western counties where there’s not a ton of CRP, upwards of a third to half of the pheasant population can be hatched in a ditch. Not just pheasants, but ducks love hatching in roadside ditches. It’s great for pollinators like honeybees and monarch butterflies so ditches are a very important part of the conversation. “
It’s amazing how well a pheasant can hide in those ditches. And this year, I’d been surprised at how well they’ve been hidden as I’ve driven around western Minnesota. I asked Wiklund if I should be concerned about the lack of broods on the gravel roads.
“I don’t think so. Hen pheasants do a great job of disguising their broods and keeping them off the roadsides. They come out for a short time here, that’s why we have August roadside counts coming up, when we’ve got some dew on the ground, (then) they’ll come out to the roadsides a little bit more. “
Whether it’s ditches, buffer strips or big blocks of CRP, this habitat is what pheasants need to hide from predators, seek cover from the weather and raise their young.
“We had a very warm spring,” Wiklund said. “We had above average temperature which is good for the birds. The first ten days to two weeks, (chicks) can’t control their body temperature, they rely on the hen pheasants to do that. So if we can get out of the rainy weather, get above average temperatures and some dry weather, things will look good. The only thing we really have to worry about is hail.”
Hail, the loss of habitat, and the decline of quality drinking water are all issues worthy of our attention. Two of which we can do something about. As long as we have programs like CREP, RIM and CRP available to landowners, we should be able to find solutions that appeal to hunters, farmers, landowners, conservationists, politicians, fisherman and water-drinkers around the region.