Wednesday, February 8th, 2023
Wednesday, February 8th, 2023

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Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program expands in South Dakota

The Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program is expanding across eastern South Dakota. Enrollment in the new Big Sioux River watershed program is capped at 25,000 acres. (Photo by John Pollmann)

Landowners in the Big Sioux River watershed are now eligible to enroll acres in the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program as a part of an expansion of this voluntary, incentive-based habitat program directed and funded jointly by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the state of South Dakota.

Enrollment for the Big Sioux River Watershed CREP opened in November with a cap of 25,000 acres. Similar to the Conservation Reserve Program, landowners participating in CREP enter into a rental agreement that provides a per-acre payment on marginal cropland or pasture that is restored into grasses, wetlands, or other approved vegetation. Participating landowners will also be eligible for cost-share assistance from the state to help fund grass plantings, livestock fencing, and more.

Rental rates for CREP are 40% higher than traditional CRP rates, however, and in exchange for the larger payment, every acre enrolled in CREP is open year-round to public hunting and fishing for the life of the contract, which varies between 10 and 15 years.

Landowners in South Dakota have been actively participating in CREP since 2009, but eligibility has
been limited to ground within the James River watershed. The low
gradient of the James River makes it one of the slowest-flowing rivers
in the country. Couple the relaxed flows with the flat topography of the
surrounding landscape, and you have a river that’s not only susceptible
to flooding, but also one that recedes slowly.

For those reasons, natural resources conservation along the James River –
or “The Jim” – has long been a concern. When CREP was enacted in 2009,
the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department selected the James
River watershed as its focus for establishing permanent vegetative cover
to help mitigate flooding, reduce soil erosion, and improve water quality.

The attention now shifts to the 3.8 million acres found
within the Big Sioux River watershed and the unique set of challenges
that they bring with them. As the artery through South Dakota’s most
populated counties and a region of intense agricultural activities,
water quality is a serious concern for the Big Sioux River. Monitoring
efforts along the Big Sioux frequently show elevated levels of fecal
coliform bacteria, attributable to livestock waste, as well as sediment,
which comes primarily from erosion and runoff, though livestock access
to the river and associated riparian areas also plays a role.

GF&P Secretary Kevin Robling says that water quality and soil health are
focuses of the CREP expansion into the Big Sioux River watershed, and
he’s optimistic about what the program will do for wildlife and hunter access.

“One of the things that we really like to focus on is habitat and access, and the
Big Sioux CREP is going to do exactly that,” Robling said. “It’s going
to provide incredible grass habitat for ground-nesting birds and
waterfowl. It’ll provide fawning habitat for deer. And then the other
component of this is the access. It’s going to provide public access on
up to 25,000 acres of habitat that will be in a CRP contract for 10 to 15 years. It is a very exciting opportunity.”

Enrollment in the James River CREP was capped at 100,000 acres, and the GF&P
reached that maximum level in 2021. The GF&P credits the creation of
the state Habitat Stamp, which is required of those wishing to purchase
hunting, fishing, or furbearer licenses, for providing the state
funding necessary to reach this level of habitat conservation.

The Habitat Stamp costs $10 for residents and $25 for nonresidents.
Pheasant hunters, in particular, have benefited from the success of CREP
in the James River watershed, as the grasses, cattails, and trees
typically found on these acres provide the habitat necessary to both
produce birds and provide quality hunting opportunities throughout the season.

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