The Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) is a Farm Bill program delivered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). RCPP was designed to leverage public and private contributions to address natural resource concerns in targeted geographies. Immediately Ducks Unlimited (DU) conservation and policy staff recognized opportunities to use RCPP to achieve goals in DUs conservation priority areas.
The Prairie Pothole Region is DUs highest priority landscape because of its importance to breeding waterfowl. Recognizing much of this landscape is privately owned and used for agriculture, DU focuses on working-lands conservation as a way to retain critically important habitats and to sustain working farms and ranches.

RCPP provides a perfect opportunity to bolster funding of successful NRCS programs like the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP).

In 2017, DU was awarded its first South Dakota RCPP grant, the James River Watershed RCPP, to address excess and insufficient water, livestock production limitations and inadequate wildlife habitat. The project leveraged $2.9 million in partner contributions to secure an additional $2.3 million from the NRCS in Farm Bill programs. Conservation solutions included, increasing soil health on croplands, restoring marginally productive croplands to perennial species and increasing livestock grazing opportunities on grasslands and croplands.

Integrating these practices increased water infiltration into soils to reduce runoff and increase livestock forage, provided wildlife habitat and increased soil health and carbon sequestration. The practices also increased productivity of wetlands and grasslands for hundreds of wildlife species that rely on this region for breeding and migration habitat.

The successful project wrapped up last fall. Partners included the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Realty Division, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Partners for Wildlife Program, South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks, South Dakota Habitat Conservation Fund, James River Water Development District, Beadle Conservation District and dozens of supporting landowners.

The partnership restored 216 acres of grasslands and wetlands, incorporated 11,973 acres of cover crops into cropping rotations, improved livestock grazing infrastructure and management on 7,055 acres of grasslands and croplands and protected 4,754 acres of grasslands and wetlands with working-lands conservation easements.

Through the RCPP agreement, NRCS leveraged partner contributions to bolster existing Farm Bill programs. Ducks Unlimited coordinated with NRCS staff to hold three signups for EQIP that prioritized conservation practices which included cover crops, reduced tillage, crop rotation, prescribed grazing, range planting and grazing infrastructure improvements. Similar activities were delivered through CSP.

NRCS impacted more than 60,000 acres of working lands in DUs highest priority landscapes of South Dakota through RCPP.

"Its important to note that these contributions are in addition to South Dakotas normal EQIP and CSP allocation and help address the needs of farmers and ranchers," said Bruce Toay, manager of conservation programs for DU in South Dakota. "We are still finding tremendous demand for grazing infrastructure improvements in the region and cost share for cover crops. For example, through RCPP-EQIP we funded more than 60 miles of fence, 28 miles of pipeline and 77 watering facilities to improve livestock grazing distribution across grasslands, croplands, and wetlands."

Phase 2
In September 2020, NRCS announced an $8.7 million award to DU for the Scaling Soil Health in the Prairie Pothole Region project. This three-state project (South Dakota, North Dakota and Montana) will use the new Alternative Funding Arrangement (AFA) framework to deliver NRCS practices to producers. AFA will allow increased flexibility to combine land management practices and rental activities into a single contract. The five-year program began in 2021.

"The focus of this project builds on of the success of our James River Watershed project," said Brian Chatham, an agronomist for DU. "We will add diversity and reduce disturbance in cropping systems, restore marginally productive croplands to perennial forages and retain wetlands and grasslands through profitable, conservation-friendly practices."

The project will offer financial assistance to agricultural producers for these practices and integrate on-farm data collection to quantify changes in soil health, profitability and ecosystem services. Project partners will help producers with education and mentorship to incorporate regenerative farming practices.

"We want to learn whats working in South Dakota and quantify those benefits. We also want to help cooperators learn from the experience of others and improve scalability," said Chatham.

The project includes contributions from 20 partners across the three states, including USFWS, Second Century Habitat Fund, South Dakota. Game, Fish and Parks, Beadle Conservation District, Millborn Seeds, South Dakota Grassland Coalition and South Dakota Soil Health Coalition. New partnerships with Soil Health Institute and Soil Health Academy will provide critical roles for soil health data collection, education and consultation.

"RCPP has helped DU forge new partnerships and increase our capacity to conserve habitats on working farms and ranches in the prairies. We are excited about the new opportunities and flexibilities provided by the program," said Toay.