Does new’ CRP mean improved?

Associate Editor

St. Paul In just a couple weeks, thousands of Minnesotans clad
in blaze orange, along with their dogs, will hoof it across the
state’s terrain in search of pheasants. And there’s little doubt
this year they’ll find them.

Sharing the credit for a 65-percent increase in the state’s
pheasant survey in 2003 are mild winters, the federal Conservation
Reserve Program, and other factors. And while CRP a program that
pays landowners to set aside land for wildlife habitat has been
hailed by conservation groups as the best federal conservation
program going, some are expressing concerns following this year’s
general signup period.

Only 48 percent of project applications were accepted this year.
While the federal budget was set to accept 2.8 million acres,
signup fell about 800,000 acres short, said Dave Nomsen, Pheasants
Forever vice president of governmental affairs.

“County by county, across the country, there wasn’t adequate
technical assistance for the landowner,” Nomsen said. More help is
needed to improve the acceptance level, he said. That could come
from groups like PF, or from the federal Natural Resources
Conservation Service and Farm Service Agency, both part of the U.S.
Department of Agriculture. FSA is the principle administrator of
CRP.

In Minnesota, applicants for CRP were successful to the tune of
about 52 percent, Nomsen said. And of about 156,000 acres offered,
just under 80,000 were accepted. Current enrollment in the state is
about 1.72 million acres.

Could that number have been higher following the ’03 signup?
Perhaps, said John Monson, FSA state executive director in
Minnesota. But there were good signs. Changes in the formula that
prioritizes offered tracts allowed the state to enroll certain
types of land.

“The counties that had environmentally sensitive land had higher
success rates,” Monson said. Many of those tracts are in
southeastern Minnesota.

In Houston County, for example 107 of 110 offers were accepted,
effectively enrolling 2,600 acres. And in Fillmore County, 135 of
152 were accepted, good for another 4,100 acres. Ninety-five of 105
were accepted in Winona County, for about 1,600 acres. And 61 of 78
were accepted in Wabasha County, good for about 2,000 acres
enrolled.

While the state was able to put about 79,000 acres into the
program during this year’s signup period, about 64,000 acres will
expire this month.

Nationwide, about 38,000 offers were accepted, for about 2
million acres. Monson expects there may be another signup period
next year.

Haying and grazing

Under the terms of the 2002 Farm Bill, land enrolled in CRP may
be hayed or grazed in two ways as a managed conservation practice
and for emergency reasons.

Further, it was left to states to decide when haying and grazing
would be allowed. In Minnesota, CRP may be hayed or grazed once
every three years, from Aug. 1 through Sept. 15.

“That’s after primary nesting and brood-rearing are complete
(for ground-nesting birds), and we make sure there’s some time for
regrowth,” Monson said.

Other states have been more liberal with haying and grazing
allowances.

“Other states have been more aggressive, and that’s where we
have concerns,” Nomsen said.

In Indiana, for instance, haying and grazing are allowed after
June 15. Other states have made similar changes.

“While some state FSA leaders are following wildlife experts’
guidance, others are not,” states the Wildlife Management Institute
in its news bulletin. “When and where sound wildlife science isn’t
applied to these decisions, grassland birds which are declining
faster than those of any other avian group could be seriously
jeopardized.”

Managed haying or grazing result in a 25-percent reduction in
payments to the landowner. However, the value of the forage usually
offsets that loss.

But there also are conservation benefits to periodic
“disruption” of the CRP, wildlife officials say. Rotational
grazing, Monson said, has been shown to improve water quality.

“Wildlife professionals support carefully applied grazing and
haying in most of the CRP areas, because these practices can
invigorate grass and forb stands, improving and enhancing them as
nesting and brood-rearing cover in subsequent years,” according to
the Wildlife Management Institute. ” if they do not occur during
the primary nesting and brood-rearing period, haying and grazing
can provide significant wildlife health benefits.”

Each CRP contract holder must have a conservation plan spelling
out the details for a haying or grazing plan. The provision
allowing managed haying and grazing began this year.

Beyond managed haying and grazing, there also is a provision in
the Farm Bill for emergency haying and/or grazing. Monson said a
level “D-3” must be reached before emergency haying and grazing
could occur. However, he said managed haying and grazing might
already provide the tool for dealing with drought.

There’s one other point that concerns some conservation
officials. In the past, haying could only be done on 50 percent of
a tract, and grazing on 75 percent. The new rule allows for the
entire tract to be hayed or grazed.

“Sportsmen and women need to continue to be vigilant,” Nomsen
said. “CRP has stood as a flagship USDA program for many years, and
we don’t want it to lose that status.”

The Food Security Act of 1985 authorized CRP, a program whose
aim is to protect topsoil from erosion and safeguard natural
resources.

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