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Wildlife on Working Lands

In 2000 Congress created the State Wildlife Grants program. In doing so, Congress asked each state and U.S. territory to craft a comprehensive wildlife conservation strategy that explains key fish and wildlife conservation needs and outlines an action plan to meet those needs.

The state wildlife action plans that resulted are wildlife conservation road maps for each state. They focus on practical, proactive measures to conserve and restore important land and water resources, curb the spread of invasive species, and address the most pressing wildlife conservation needs. Congress provides about $74 million per year across the country to implement state wildlife plans, but that falls far short of the funds needed to meet these important needs. In some states, USDA “working lands” conservation programs are being used to pay for practices that meet both state wildlife plan goals and USDA goals for resource conservation.

EQIP Helps Nebraska Wildlife

In 2007, Nebraska Game & Parks Commission employees asked the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to set aside $1 million out of Nebraska’s $29.5 million Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) allocation for 2008 to provide payments to farmers and ranchers to implement EQIP-eligible practices that address resource needs identified in the Nebraska Natural Legacy Plan (the state’s wildlife action plan). The NRCS State Technical Committee agreed, and Nebraska’s NRCS State Conservationist approved the proposal.

Setting aside the funds in a separate pool meant that EQIP applications that qualified for the program would be ranked against each other, rather than included in the larger pool of general EQIP applicants.

Only applications from “Biologically Unique Landscape” areas identified in the state wildlife plan were eligible, and applications from areas where implementation actions were already underway were given higher priority in ranking project applications.

The Nebraska Game & Parks Commission and partner organizations focused their outreach efforts in areas where remnant native tallgrass, mixed grass and shortgrass prairie resources are a primary concern. These private lands are typically managed for livestock grazing.

Just over half of the designated funds were used to help landowners restore grasslands by removing Eastern red cedars and other brush or carrying out prescribed burns.

Another 39% of the funds helped ranchers improve their grazing management in ways that also benefit wildlife, by installing fence and water facilities and implementing managed rotational grazing systems. Funds were also used to establish conservation cover or other habitat, to fence livestock out of streamside areas, and to restore wetlands.

“The dedicated pool of EQIP money allows us to work cooperatively with interested landowners and local NRCS staff to improve land management, by finding the overlap between grassland health, wildlife, and production goals,” said Tim McCoy, Nebraska Game & Parks Commission Farm Bill coordinator. “With focused outreach, the EQIP special initiative funds resulted in a landscape scale impact in several focus areas.”

The program resulted in better land stewardship and wildlife benefits on more than 51,000 acres of land in just one year. Because of its success, NRCS set aside another $1 million in 2009 for practices related to Nebraska’s state wildlife plan. The number of Biologically Unique Landscape focus areas was expanded, and the eligible practice list was extended to include removal of invasive aquatic plants from riparian areas.

CSP and Missouri Quail

The 2002 Farm Bill launched a new Conservation Security Program (CSP) designed to help some of the best land stewards further improve their environmental performance. The program was implemented very differently from state to state, but Missouri’s success at using the program to restore wildlife habitat made it a model for other states.

Scott County, in southeast Missouri, is in the Mississippi River alluvial plain. The county is intensively farmed, with some 95% in row crop production. Soybeans, corn, wheat and some cotton are produced on large fields with little residue on the fields and little woody cover in the area.

Portions of Scott County had been designated a quail focus area, but progress had been slow in convincing farmers to convert cropland to quail habitat.

Despite good rainfall, one-third of the farmland in the county is irrigated due to the sandy alluvial soil in the area. The widespread use of pivot irrigation systems provided an opportunity to target the pivot corners, as well as borders along fields, for the establishment of quail habitat.

In 2005 and 2006, the Conservation Security Program was made available in two watersheds covering most of the Scott County quail focus area. Because wildlife was included as a local resource of concern in the watersheds, Missouri Department of Conservation biologists worked with NRCS employees to develop wildlife habitat criteria and habitat appraisal guides.

They designed wildlife enhancements needed to help farmers meet the criteria, including quail friendly practices like field borders, shrubby cover, diverse crop rotations, no-till farming and leaving rows of unharvested grain standing in fields. NRCS offered attractive incentives for adopting the quail-friendly wildlife practices through Conservation Security Program contracts. CSP contracts were combined with other programs—such as Conservation Reserve Program contracts for field borders—to put some of the practices in place.

NRCS staff, the Scott County Soil and Water Conservation District, and the Missouri Department of Conservation worked together to promote the program aggressively among area farmers.

According to Bill White, Missouri Department of Conservation private lands program manager, the results have been impressive. “Quail habitat has been established on over 7,000 acres of field borders and pivot corners enrolled in the program,” he said. “Another 2,000 acres of habitat have been restored outside of the incentive program.”

At a landscape level, 10% of the acres enrolled in the CSP were put into wildlife habitat. That meant that 3.5% of the county’s cropland was converted to quality quail habitat.

Scott County became the first in the nation to meet the county-level quail habitat goals outlined in the Northern Bobwhite Conservation Initiative.

The quail population has rebounded. Conservation agent roadside quail counts are up 200%. Hunters report seeing more quail and larger coveys of birds. A local Chamber of Commerce official says she is pleased to see more hunters in area restaurants.

Working Lands Programs

In the 2008 Farm Bill, Congress extended and expanded the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. EQIP remains USDA’s largest conservation program that focuses on “working lands”—land that will remain in crop or livestock production.

If Congress upholds the promises of the 2008 Farm Bill, EQIP will grow to $1.75 billion by 2012, from $1.2 billion in 2008. Other states can readily follow Nebraska’s example and set aside funds to promote on-farm conservation that also helps implement state wildlife plans.

Congress overhauled the Conservation Security Program, creating a new Conservation Stewardship Program. The new program will be available nationwide, but will focus in each local area on a short list of the soil, water, wildlife and other resources of particular concern in that area.

Where fish or wildlife is designated as a local resource of concern, the Missouri experience provides a great model for focusing funds on an integrated approach to restoring fish and wildlife habitat that fits well with existing farm and ranch operations.

This is one of a series of Conservation Success Stories published by National Wildlife Federation with support from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

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