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Jane Ahlin, Published September 04 2011

Ahlin: Loss of CRP acres threatens North Dakota’s quality of life

Sunsets are earlier, nighttime temperatures dip into the low 50s; big yellow school buses are everywhere. Rational folks allow a moment on Labor Day weekend to sigh and bemoan the end of summer; yet, not everyone experiences that normal sense of loss. For instance, nature’s signs that summer is changing to autumn put a smile on my husband’s face and a spring in his step, and I swear there’s a giggle in the dog’s bark. For them, the only thing of importance is that hunting season is right around the corner.

Generally predicted to be a good season this year in North Dakota – actually, a pretty doggoned wonderful season for duck hunters – there are rumblings that don’t bode well for game bird populations in future years. The problem? Habitat: More to the point, loss of habitat.

My husband and I are fans of “North Dakota Outdoors,” the magazine published by the Game and Fish Department of North Dakota. Writing in the July issue, editor Ron Wilson told the story of CRP (Conservation Reserve Program, today’s version of the old Soil Bank program of the 1950s and 1960s). He sounded an alarm that the number of acres in CRP is plummeting and with the change – sooner or later – will go the near-idyllic hunting of recent years, not to mention the added economic punch non-resident hunters have provided for North Dakota.

Part of the story is that 25 years ago when CRP was begun, nobody was sure how much effect it would have on wildlife. The gap between the Soil Bank program and CRP had been 15 years – 15 years when hunting had been below average – a period of time in the 1970s and early 1980s when hunters were downright glum and conventional wisdom seemed to be that the state would never again see the grand hunting of the late 1950s and early 1960s. (Ah, the good old days, gone forever.) Even folks in game management didn’t see CRP as the magic bullet it turned out to be.

Of course, the purpose of CRP had nothing to do with habitat for ground-nesting birds. As Wilson reported, CRP “was designed to reduce grain surpluses (in order) to jump-start commodity prices and (to) decrease erosion on marginal croplands.”

No question those goals were accomplished. The surprise was that among other good things that happened, nothing was more dramatic than the enormous rebound of wildlife. (It turned out that ducks need tall grass for successful nesting almost as much they need water in potholes.) When the 1993 onset of the current wet cycle coincided with the remarkable success of CRP, North Dakota’s hunting situation went from predicament to paradise. Yes, weather mattered, but CRP was crucial.

Wilson included a chart showing the correlation between the numbers of pheasants harvested each year since 1956 and the number of acres in Soil Bank or CRP. When the Soil Bank program was decreased and then, ended, pheasant numbers remained at or near 100,000; when CRP was instituted the numbers grew quickly to as many as 900,000 in 2007-08.

Now CRP is on the wane. Nationally, the cap on CRP “was cut from 39 million acres to 32 million in the 2008 farm bill,” and it’s expected to be cut much more. For North Dakota that has meant a negative change of

1 million acres – a number projected to continually go down over the next decade. (From over 3 million acres in 2007, North Dakota is likely to have decreased to 200,000 to 300,000 acres by 2017.) Today, eight North Dakota counties have lost more than 40 percent of their CRP acres since 2007 and 15 more counties have lost more than 25 percent.

That’s worrisome for anyone who loves wildlife – hunters like my husband and non-hunters like me. Although, to be honest, the CRP issue hasn’t yet gained traction with most North Dakotans. That’s due in part to the wet cycle and to high commodity prices, which make farmers eager to turn CRP into cropland. In part, it’s due to the nation’s financial problems and recognizing that farm programs – like everything else – will take a hit.

Still, we now know CRP’s added value. As one expert told Wilson, “(T)he long-term benefits to wildlife resources and quality of life to this state … shouldn’t be ignored.”

Ahlin writes a Sunday column for The Forum. Email janeahlin@yahoo.com