Planting the Seeds of Conservation

It makes farmers happy and creates habitat for wild creatures. What's not to like about the farm bill?

  • Gary Turbak
  • Oct 01, 2001

"I GUESS I'M KIND OF A NUT for wildlife," says Kenneth Walters, who raises beans, wheat, corn--and wildlife--on his 650-acre farm in northern Missouri. Thanks to Walters' conservation ethic and some timely government programs, nearly half his farm is now covered with native grasses and wetlands. The quail population has not rebounded the way he had hoped, but pheasants and turkeys are doing well.

To help nature along, Walters plants wildlife food plots--milo, millet, corn and beans--near the best cover, and he plans to burn some spots to stimulate plant growth. Last year, a Canada goose nested on a tiny island in a pond on his land. When the water level dropped and it appeared predators might soon be able to reach the goslings, Walters pumped in extra water. "On my farm, wildlife is important," he says.

Across America, thousands of other farmers are also setting aside parts of their farms for wildlife and wildlife habitat. Making all this possible is a series of federal government programs contained in a legislative package called the Farm Bill (officially known as the Federal Agriculture Improvement and Reform Act of 1996). "Farm Bill programs have done more to restore wildlife habitat and to retard the degradation of wildlife habitat on private land than anything else we've done since early in the last century," says Donald McKenzie of the Wildlife Management Institute.

As the law comes up for reauthorization late this year or early next year, "Congress has the opportunity to increase significantly the benefits to wildlife, water quality and landowners by renewing and expanding federal conservation programs," says Lesli Gray, a legislative representative for the National Wildlife Federation.

Historically, the agricultural industry has been hard on wildlife habitat. Although patchwork family farms often provided a place for wildlife, modern technology and farming practices have intensified the habitat decline. Today, many farmers till or graze livestock fencerow-to-fencerow, and as corporations buy up small farms, even the fencerows disappear.

Grasslands have been hit especially hard, and only 1 percent of the nation's original tallgrass prairie remains. In Indiana, for example, seven million tallgrass acres have gone under the plow, leaving only 1,000 acres in scattered patches. In Illinois, only 2,600 prairie acres remain from an original total of 25.6 million acres. In North Dakota and Nebraska, nearly 75 percent of the mixed-grass prairie has been destroyed. As a result of grassland loss, many wild species have suffered. "Intact native grasslands are now one of North America's most endangered ecosystems," says Catherine Johnson, the National Wildlife Federation's grasslands program manager. "With the broad-scale loss of grassland habitat, we are witnessing dramatic declines in grassland wildlife species from black-tailed prairie dogs to sage grouse."

A few decades ago, pheasant populations in many states plunged, and the reproductive success of upland-nesting ducks--pintails, mallards, teal, gadwalls and others--threatened to dip below replacement level. Bobwhite quail numbers fell by 73 percent in the Southeast, and in the Midwest at least 13 species of grassland birds became state-listed as threatened or endangered. Swift foxes, burrowing owls, meadowlarks, loggerhead shrikes, kingbirds, dickcissels, savannah sparrows and other species also declined.

Meanwhile, more than half of America's original 224 million acres of wetlands has been lost, often to cropland. With about 900 animal species--including one-third of all North American birds--believed to rely to some extent on a wetland environment, wildlife has suffered.

Farming, of course, is not responsible for all these losses. Weather, urban encroachment on habitat, flood control and other factors have also played a role. And when farmers do eliminate wildlife habitat, it's usually because they are trying to eke out a living from the land, not because they have something against wildlife. Still, much habitat loss does occur on agricultural land.

The Farm Bill is helping to change this legacy, however. Actually a collection of varied agricultural legislation that is lumped under a single moniker, the Farm Bill comes up for renewal about every five years. For decades, this package focused on agricultural subsidies--payments made to farmers based on the crops they grew or didn't grow--but in 1985, Congress added environmental objectives (primarily the reduction of soil erosion) to the mix. In 1996, at the urging of conservationists, other environmental benefits, including wildlife habitat, also became Farm Bill goals.

The law's flagship environmental component is the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which pays farmers to plant native grasses or trees instead of crops on highly erodible land. Once enrolled in the program, land must remain unfarmed for at least ten years. Millions of trees have taken root under CRP, but most of the program's acres have been planted with grass in the prairie states. "Virtually overnight, CRP put nearly 35 million acres of permanent vegetative cover on the ground--something no other program will probably ever match," says McKenzie.

Birds probably benefit the most. CRP has helped triple the pheasant population in South Dakota and double it in North Dakota, Minnesota and Ohio. In Missouri, more than half of all bobwhite nests occur in grass planted through the program, even though it covers only 15 percent of the landscape. Thanks to CRP, Columbian sharp-tailed grouse are on the increase in Colorado, and prairie chickens have quadrupled their numbers in Minnesota and have returned to parts of Texas where they haven't been seen in years.

Upland-nesting ducks have flocked to prairie-pothole CRP land, where their reproductive success has more than doubled from a low of about 10 percent in the 1980s. Although habitat in the reserve program covers only 6 percent of the land in this region, it produces nearly one-third of the duck nests--and in 1999 helped fill America's skies with an estimated 103 million waterfowl.

A 1995 study by the Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center in Jamestown, North Dakota, found that reserve land composed only 7 percent of North Dakota, but supported more than 20 percent of many bird species. Another study in 1997 in six Midwestern states found that CRP land had as many as 10 times more birds, 13 times more nests, and produced 15 times more young birds than did nearby farmland.

Feathered beneficiaries of this Farm Bill program include the northern harrier, sharp-tailed grouse, short-eared owl, greater and lesser prairie chicken, willet, sage wren, savannah sparrow, lark bunting, grasshopper sparrow and meadow lark, to name a few.

But the reserve program is not just for the birds. White-tailed and mule deer also have taken to the thick CRP cover, and the program has helped increase pronghorn herds in Oklahoma and improve elk habitat in California. Mice, rabbits and other small animals also do well in CRP fields, and these creatures provide food for predators. In all, the 35 million acres of new wildlife habitat created by CRP is equal in size to the entire National Wildlife Refuge system and all state-owned wildlife areas combined, excluding Alaska.

Another major component of the Farm Bill is the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP), which was added to the legislative package in 1990. WRP buys easements to existing wetlands or helps pay for the restoration of previously drained wetlands. About 1 million acres are under WRP protection in 47 states, primarily in the South.

In the lower Mississippi River Valley, WRP is playing a major role in the restoration of 521,000 acres of bottomland hardwood wetlands, an essential wintering ground for millions of waterfowl. In Wisconsin, the 1,732-acre restored wetland known as Duffy's Marsh has turned nine farmers' former corn, mint, carrot and onion fields into habitat for ducks, geese, swans, herons, egrets and other wildlife. In Indiana, WRP projects provide habitat for threatened or endangered species such as the interior least tern, copperbelly water snake and swamp rabbit. In Iowa, WRP projects along the Iowa River aid the trumpeter swan.

Another wildlife-friendly Farm Bill measure, created in 1996, is the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP), which provides federal money for a variety of habitat improvements on all types of private land, not just farmland. Many WHIP projects benefit threatened or endangered species, including the gray bat, kit fox, Louisiana black bear, red-cockaded woodpecker, Florida panther, Sonoran pronghorn and bull trout.

In addition to paying farmers for taking marginal land out of production, the Farm Bill also discourages them from putting new marginal land into service. A provision known as "sodbuster" eliminates most federal payments for farmers who cultivate previously unfarmed, highly erodible land. Another, dubbed "swampbuster," stops payments to farmers who convert wetlands to croplands. "This carrot and stick approach has been extremely good for habitat," says Steve Brady, a biologist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, a federal agency.

Farmers appreciate the many benefits of the program. In a single step, they can stop working unproductive land, improve soil and water conservation, create wildlife habitat--and get paid to do it. "The payments helped us through some rough times, and the CRP has been good for wildlife," says Walters. As a result, farmers are lined up to get land into the programs.

But the line isn't moving. Congress capped CRP enrollment at 36.4 million acres and WRP at 1.075 million acres. Both programs are near those limits, which means some landowners are still cultivating marginal land they would rather set aside as wildlife habitat. In addition, WHIP funds are already allocated through 2002.

When the Farm Bill was last reviewed in 1996, only a major lobbying effort by conservation organizations got the wildlife-friendly provisions passed, and that battle is likely to be replayed this time around. Wildlife proponents would like to see the acreage caps raised, but conservation measures must compete with other programs for limited Farm Bill dollars. Over the past decade, notes NWF's Gray, spending on conservation has been reduced from 30 percent of the U.S. Department of Agriculture budget to less than 10 percent.

Conservation groups are working to keep wildlife-friendly provisions intact and to convince Congress to retain and expand what has become one of the most successful conservation endeavors in the history of American agriculture. "The evidence is clear that Farm Bill programs have been very beneficial to wildlife," says Brady, "and it's crucial that they continue."

Montana-based journalist Gary Turbak is a regular contributor to this magazine.

NWF Takes Action 
Farming for Wildlife

Farms, ranches and forests cover more than 55 percent of the 48 contiguous states, and the pending reauthorization of the Farm Bill will determine federal policies toward many of these lands. Voluntary programs set up by the bill, such as the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), along with soil conservation and wetland protection requirements for those receiving federal funds, have helped improve wildlife habitat and water quality, and reduce soil erosion. The National Wildlife Federation and its affiliates are working to retain and expand CRP and other Farm Bill conservation programs, which reward landowners for being good stewards while retaining open space and keeping farmers and ranchers on the land.

Congress's upcoming reauthorization of the Farm Bill represents an important opportunity to give farmers, ranchers and foresters the tools they need to make America's working landscapes a conservation success story.

Keeping Wildlife Down on the Farm

While farmers appreciate the federal payments they receive for idling their land, some of them participate in Farm Bill programs as much for the wildlife benefits as for the money. Consider the following:

Jean and Dennis Fagerland 
When the Fagerlands began working their 1,600-acre farm in Marshall County, South Dakota, in the 1970s, the ground lay pocked with former "prairie potholes" (glacially formed, seasonal wetlands) that had been drained and converted to crop or pasture land. In the late 1980s, Dennis and Jean started putting these and other acres into the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), helping to improve their bottom line. "We felt that wildlife and agriculture could coexist, and the CRP payments helped us be sure of keeping the farm," says Dennis.

The Fagerlands' goal is to restore their land to the original prairie pothole topography. About two dozen potholes have refilled, creating habitat for ducks, geese, raccoons and many other species. Northern pike and perch have returned to one deep lake, bringing with them fish-eating pelicans and cormorants.

The high CRP grass provides cover for a burgeoning herd of white-tailed deer, and the pheasant population is on the rise. Sharp-tailed grouse and prairie chickens are staging comebacks, too. Occasionally, a wandering moose crosses the farm, and a wolverine, cougar and wolf have even made appearances. "Wildlife is important to us," says Dennis. "It's exciting having all these animals around. CRP is working well for us."

Velma and Vivian Keerbs 
Sisters Velma and Vivian Keerbs grew up on a farm in northern Iowa, where their father ran a dairy herd and raised hogs, poultry and grain. After his death in the 1950s, the women remained with their mother on the farm and rented out the land for corn and bean planting. Part of the place included a low-lying spot where water destroyed crops three years out of five, and in the mid-1990s, the women opted to put these 53 acres into the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP).

With a restructured drainage system in place, much of this area is now filled with water, and the edges have been planted with native grasses. Wildflowers and ash trees provide accents. The Keerbs' permanent WRP easement means this land will never again grow crops. "I'm glad it's out of production," says Velma.

Velma and Vivian--now 72 and 69, respectively--still raise a few ducks and chickens and occasionally drive a tractor, but they also spend time enjoying their WRP wildlife. "We especially love to identify the ducks-- we named 18 species one spring," says Velma. A spotting scope perched on a barrel near the house lets them keep tabs on the reserve acreage a few hundred yards distant. They've watched white-tailed deer raise fawns in the grass, and played host to four migrating sandhill cranes. Pheasants and songbirds are common. "Once, I even got to see an upland plover up close--that was really exciting," says Velma.

Velma and Vivian sometimes go for drives to check out other WRP land in the area. "But we like ours the best," says Velma. "We feel so privileged to have all this." 


Scott Davidson 
When Scott Davidson started working for the Natural Resources Conservation Service and needed to reduce the amount of land he farmed, he turned to CRP. In 1992 he put 160 of his 800 Nebraska acres into the program, and later added 40 more acres. "A lot of the ground is highly erodible and not terribly productive, so CRP was a logical choice," says Davidson. He grows corn, soybeans and alfalfa on the rest of his farm, but works almost as hard making the CRP all that it can be.

Some of his reserve acres are filter strips--100-foot-wide swaths of grass that parallel the farm's creeks. These grassy buffers help keep runoff, sediment and farming chemicals out of the streams. Davidson has seeded alfalfa and clover into much of the CRP grass. These plants add nitrogen to the soil and attract the insects on which pheasant chicks rely. He also has planted 12 acres of wildlife food plots in the form of strips of corn and milo. And recently he added a mixture of 20 native wildflowers to the grassy habitat, giving it color as well as diversity. "The greater the habitat diversity, the more wildlife communities there'll be," he says.

In addition, Davidson has enrolled his CRP in a state program that pays him five dollars per acre for opening the land to hunters and other visitors. "I'm glad there can be so many benefits from idle land," says Davidson. But there's one reward he probably didn't anticipate. Davidson allows beekeepers to set up hives on the land, and each year they give him 20 gallons of honey--making his CRP literally sweet.

IMPROVED VIEW: Native prairies in America's heartland were often plowed under to make room for crops. But under the Farm Bill's Conservation Reserve Program, landowners have replanted millions of acres of grassland. Among the beneficiaries of this program are creatures that depend on prairie lands, such as swift foxes.

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