By Eric Lindstrom
In February 2014, Congress passed a new Farm Bill that authorized several agriculture and conservation programs through 2018. This nearly half-trillion-dollar legislative package provides more than $28 billion in funding over five years for voluntary conservation programs on farms and ranches across the United States. The future of waterfowl is inextricably linked to the conservation of wetlands and other important habitats on private lands, and the Farm Bill is a key component of these efforts. The vast majority of the land in many of Ducks Unlimited's highest-priority conservation areas-including the Prairie Pothole Region, Mississippi Alluvial Valley, Great Lakes, Gulf Coast, and California's Central Valley-is privately owned, and agriculture is the predominant land use.
As a result, DU's conservation success largely depends on developing and maintaining strong partnerships with farmers and ranchers. The new Farm Bill contains many programs that provide economic incentives and resources to help agricultural producers conserve wetlands and other important wildlife habitats. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) administers most of the conservation programs authorized in the Farm Bill in cooperation with local, state, and federal partners. Following is an overview of some of the most promising and effective Farm Bill conservation programs that the USDA, DU, and others are delivering in partnership with our nation's farmers and ranchers.
Helping Producers Preserve the Prairies
In years of good wetland conditions, the Prairie Pothole Region of North Dakota, South Dakota, and Montana hosts nearly one-third of North America's surveyed breeding ducks. Maintaining the capacity of this important landscape to support healthy waterfowl populations is central to DU's mission and the future of our waterfowling traditions. For decades, the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which offers landowners an annual rental payment to restore perennial cover on highly erodible croplands for a period of 10 to 15 years, has been the flagship conservation program across this region. Researchers estimate that CRP land in the Prairie Pothole Region added more than 2.2 million ducks to the fall flight each year during peak program enrollment. In recent years, however, the prairie landscape has been changing rapidly as market conditions, agricultural policies, and modern farming technologies have encouraged many producers to bring land formerly enrolled in CRP back into crop production. As a result, grassland loss is now occurring at a pace and scale not seen since the Dust Bowl era. At current rates, fewer than 4.5 million acres of CRP land will remain in the U.S. portion of the Prairie Pothole Region in 2015, a nearly 50 percent decrease from a peak of 8.3 million acres in 2007. Sadly, the downward trend in CRP enrollment is only expected to continue on the prairies over the next five years.
To address this challenge, DU is working with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and other partners to develop new and innovative ways to keep grasslands and wetlands on the landscape through Farm Bill conservation programs. One such approach is the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), which helps private landowners maintain working agricultural lands and enhance wildlife habitat. Among the most popular and well-funded conservation programs in the new Farm Bill, EQIP will provide between $1.35 billion and $1.75 billion a year in cost-share assistance to private landowners through 2018.
By leveraging federal, state, and private resources, the NRCS, DU, and other partners are working to keep recently expired CRP land in grass cover by offering producers a variety of EQIP incentives that conserve and enhance productive rangelands and wildlife habitat. These efforts will not only conserve valuable upland cover for nesting waterfowl and other wildlife, but also help maintain a healthy ranching economy on the prairies. Under a new EQIP partnership developed in North Dakota, the NRCS and DU recently worked with agricultural producers to conserve more than 24,000 acres of grassland. With many more landowners wanting to enroll, the USDA has announced a new three-year, $35 million commitment to continue this program in North Dakota and expand it to other states in the Prairie Pothole Region.
Across North Dakota, South Dakota, and Montana, DU is partnering with the NRCS and state agencies to share the cost of stationing private lands biologists in USDA field offices. These dedicated professionals work directly with farmers and ranchers to help them determine which Farm Bill conservation programs are the best fit for their operations. For example, EQIP generally provides farmers and ranchers with short-term incentives to improve agricultural lands under three- to five-year contracts, while the new Agricultural Conservation Easement Program helps private landowners conserve wetlands and grasslands for longer periods of time. By offering landowners a variety of incentives tailored to their specific needs, this public-private partnership among DU, state agencies, and the NRCS is an effective model for Farm Bill conservation delivery across the Prairie Pothole Region and in other parts of the United States.
Improving the Health of Key Watersheds
DU is also working with the NRCS and other partners to implement Farm Bill conservation programs throughout the Great Lakes and Chesapeake Bay watersheds, which provide vital breeding, migration, and wintering habitat for many species of waterfowl. In these regions, conservation partners are working to reduce nutrient runoff and sedimentation, improve water quality, and eradicate exotic species such as carp and phragmites, which degrade wetland habitat. The USDA, DU, and others are delivering a number of Farm Bill programs aimed at meeting these conservation priorities. For example, through the new Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP), DU has joined a broad coalition of partners to develop carefully targeted conservation plans on private lands in the Lake Erie, Lake Michigan, and Chesapeake Bay watersheds.
In Minnesota and Iowa, DU is working with the NRCS to restore thousands of formerly drained wetlands on marginal land through the Wetland Reserve Easement (WRE) program. Formerly known as the Wetlands Reserve Program, WRE provides landowners cost-share assistance to enroll and restore unproductive lands and drained wetlands back to their natural state. As part of DU's Living Lakes Initiative, this partnership conserves high-quality waterfowl migration and breeding habitat in the heart of the Mississippi Flyway. DU has partnered with the NRCS in Minnesota to hire several field biologists and engineering technicians to help private landowners enroll in this program and to deliver habitat restoration plans. In addition, DU has worked with private landowners in Iowa to restore 6,740 acres through this program over the past four years.
Sustaining the Future of Rice Farming and Waterfowl
The USA Rice Federation and DU recently formed an ambitious partnership to conserve limited water resources, working rice lands, and waterfowl habitat in the Gulf Coast region, Mississippi Alluvial Valley, and California's Central Valley. These high-priority conservation areas produce over 3 million acres of rice and support half of the continent's dabbling ducks each year. The RCPP, authorized in the new Farm Bill, promises to make this partnership even more effective by bringing together resources from agriculture, business, conservation, and government agencies. Through this initiative, USA Rice, DU, and many other partners plan to help 800 rice producers conserve water resources and waterfowl habitat on nearly 340,000 acres of rice lands. This innovative partnership is a true "win-win" for agriculture and conservation, with the potential to sustain both rice farming and healthy waterfowl populations for many years to come.
Restoring and Enhancing Working Wetlands
Across the southern wintering grounds, DU continues its strong partnership with the NRCS and others to restore wetlands and associated habitats on private lands through the WRE program. Since the late 1990s, the NRCS and DU have worked together to restore an impressive 282,000 acres through this program across Texas, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, Alabama, North Carolina, and Florida. This voluntary incentive-based program continues to be one of the most popular and successful private lands conservation efforts in the nation.
In northeastern California and southern Oregon, DU is working with agricultural partners to conserve flood-irrigated pasture lands through a variety of Farm Bill programs. This region is one of the Pacific Flyway's most important staging areas for waterfowl, supporting 30 percent of the continental population of northern pintails and many other at-risk migratory birds. Millions of waterfowl rest and feed at these crucial stopover habitats each spring on their long journey back to their northern breeding grounds in the Prairie Pothole Region, Western Boreal Forest, and Arctic. These wet meadows and irrigated pastures are also the lifeblood of agricultural producers, providing hay and forage for their livestock. Protecting and enhancing these unique agricultural habitats through Farm Bill programs will not only provide vital spring staging habitat for waterfowl and other migratory birds, but also help landowners improve forage quality, replace aging irrigation systems, and prevent the loss of agricultural land to development.
Future Challenges and Opportunities
Planning and implementing conservation work on private lands is often challenging and complicated by a variety of economic, social, and political factors. As global demand for food, fiber, and fuel intensifies, conserving wetlands and other wildlife habitats on private lands will become increasingly important to sustaining the future of waterfowl populations. With most of the nation's highest-priority waterfowl breeding, migration, and wintering areas under private ownership, delivering effective Farm Bill conservation programs will be essential to achieving DU's mission.
To accomplish this, DU and others in the conservation community must adapt to new challenges on the landscape. Programs that worked well 10 years ago may not be as appealing to farmers and ranchers today and in the future. As a result, DU and its partners must continue to develop new ways to work with private landowners to conserve wetlands and other waterfowl habitats in ways that are economically sustainable and attractive to landowners. With less federal funding available today and in the foreseeable future, it will also be important to form innovative new partnerships that bring together agriculture, business, and conservation interests to leverage our collective resources. Clearly, Farm Bill conservation programs provide an excellent opportunity to achieve these goals. DU looks forward to continuing to work with farmers and ranchers to help ensure a bright future for agriculture and waterfowl across our great nation.
Eric Lindstrom is a government affairs representative at DU's Great Plains office in Bismarck, North Dakota.