Haying taking a bite out of walk-in area program
St. Paul — As pheasant hunters head afield this weekend, they may find that places they’d hoped to hunt aren’t what they’d expected. Midwest drought-induced emergency haying and grazing on some privately owned, set-aside acres effectively removed bird habitat in some parts of the state, including on some of the lands enrolled in the state’s Walk-In Access program.
At the same time, the state in the past couple weeks realized a net loss in conservation acres under federal contracts. An estimated 292,000 Conservation Reserve Program acres have left the program, replaced during the past fiscal year (which ended Sept. 30) by around half that much (though officials say other conservation program enrollments have further reduced the gap).
Still, gains made in the pheasant population during the past year promise a good hunting season, and in most cases, haying and grazing of program lands was deemed minimal by officials.
For example, while there are about 15,000 acres enrolled in the state’s WIA program, the vast majority of which also are enrolled in the federal CRP or other conservation program, only about 1,200 acres were affected by emergency haying or grazing, mostly grazing in the case of WIA acres, according to MaryBeth Block, the DNR’s Working Lands and WIA coordinator.
According to a policy created by the DNR and Board of Water and Soil Resources, those WIA enrollees who chose to partake in haying or grazing the land were penalized 25 percent of their yearly payment, and most approved plans only allowed for up to 50 percent of contract acres to be hayed or grazed.
There, too, was an end date, and Block had hoped some grasses would grow back after haying/grazing ceased.
“After (haying or grazing) was shut off … the grasses really didn’t grow back,” she said. That’s mostly because drought conditions persisted in most of the 21 counties where the WIA program is operational.
However, Block added, in those areas where no haying or grazing was allowed, native grasses did well in non-moist conditions.
Information regarding sites open to public hunting is available on the DNR’s website. There’s also information regarding locations where haying or grazing occurred.
Block said she expects the WIA program to remain about the same size for this year and next, but eventually would like to see the program expand to perhaps a base of about 25,000 acres.
Funding will continue to be a determining factor. Seed money from the federal Farm Bill got the program off the ground, and a new version of the bill currently is in limbo in Congress.
A new option for hunting license buyers – donating to the WIA program – hasn’t exactly been a hit, Block said. A recent check found that about $7,500 had been donated.
Besides hunter access, she said there’s value in the program in that it might provide the financial incentive landowners need to keep their lands set aside for conservation – especially during a period of record-high commodity prices for corn and soybeans.
The extent of emergency haying and grazing varied across Minnesota CRP acres this year, according to Wanda Garry, USDA Farm Service Agency chief of conservation programs for Minnesota.
Garry said the tally isn’t final yet, “but we had requests from all over the state” to take part in the haying or grazing allowance. The total acreage wasn’t yet determined, but FSA offices fielded more than 2,300 requests, she said.
Most recently, the FSA pegged Minnesota’s CRP enrollment at about 1.23 million acres, down from about 1.5 a year ago.
Garry said while CRP acres may have been lost in the state at the end of September (expiring contracts), other programs are picking up the slack, though favorites Grasslands Reserve and Wetlands
Reserve programs have been frozen temporarily for lack of a new federal Farm Bill.
State landowners have expressed interest, she said, in other options, like a continuous signup program for highly erodible lands, as well as State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement, and a new “pollinator habitat initiative.”
CRP losses in Minnesota varied from county to county. Liz Ludwig, FSA county executive director for Yellow Medicine and Chippewa counties, said Yellow Medicine incurred about a 4.7-percent loss in program acreage this year, while Chippewa County lost about 7.8 percent of its acreage, Ludwig said.
Next year, the state is slated to lose about 129,000 CRP acres due to contract expiration.