From 2007 to 2016, North Dakota lost 1.84 million acres of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). Another 400,000 acres of CRP will expire in North Dakota by 2018. That's like losing another 360,000 football fields worth of crucial nesting habitat for wildlife. In North Dakota, only (7 percent) of landowners who applied for the 49th general CRP sign-up were successful; in South Dakota it was less than (1 percent).

Ducks Unlimited and North Dakota conservation partners are working to stem that tide with two voluntary programs that help landowners keep grasslands intact when their CRP contracts expire. Along with helping farmers and ranchers, the partnership will be vital for ducks, pheasants and grassland birds with diminishing populations.

Through the Working Grasslands Partnership (WGP), North Dakota Natural Resources Trust, DU, and partners will provide landowners with voluntary incentives to retain expired and expiring CRP grasslands through a working-lands approach that benefits both wildlife and agricultural producers..

"This program will offer landowners who currently have CRP contracts that have recently expired or are near expiration the opportunity for habitat improvements, grazing land incentives and technical guidance," DU's North Dakota Biologist Tanner Gue explains.

N.D. landowners can get assistance on developing farmable wetlands and growing vegetation to reduce salinity, as well as creating duck nesting habitat and restoring wetlands.

The WGP is generously funded by the Outdoor Heritage Fund (OHF). With dollars matched by DU and partners at a minimum of one-to-one. Partners include North Dakota Natural Resources Trust, N.D. Association of Conservation Districts, Pheasants Forever, N.D. Game and Fish, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Farm Service Agency, and USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.

DU has also secured funding from the Enbridge Energy Ecofootprint Program to provide farmers and ranchers additional incentives to restore grassland habitat on marginal lands. The program provides cost-shared grazing infrastructure, such as fencing and watering systems, on expired and expiring CRP. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program is helping implement the program.

These programs provide options for landowners to retain working grasslands, improve grazing infrastructure, reduce soil erosion and enhance wildlife habitat.

The 2014 Farm Bill reduced the national cap for CRP enrollment, limiting the acres landowners can enroll in CRP.

CRP was signed into law in 1985, in part, because of growing concerns about soil erosion. CRP provides incentives for landowners to convert cropland on highly erodible soil to natural cover, such as trees or native grasses. CRP contracts are usually 10-15 years long, where landowners receive an annual rental payment for the term of the contract.

According to USDA, CRP reduces soil erosion, improves water quality, establishes wildlife habitat, decreases sedimentation in streams and lakes, and enhances forest and wetland resources. Ducks, geese, pheasant and grouse are just a few species that use CRP for nesting in the spring.

The original CRP authorization bill allowed 45 million acres of grassland to be protected, but between 1985 and 2008 the cap on acres was dropped to 36 million. With the 2014 Farm Bill, the CRP cap was reduced again to 24 million acres by 2018.

The continuous signup for CRP is still available but cropping history is required with your signup.

Returning CRP acres to crop production diminishes all of the benefits the program provided during the last 10-15 years, affecting water quality, increasing soil erosion and reducing wildlife habitat.

For more information on how Ducks Unlimited can help go to the North Dakota Conservation Programs Biologists page.