Farm Bill 2014

Congress Gives Wildlife a Boost

Conservation leaders say the final 2014 Farm Bill does much for Montana’s pheasants, ducks, deer, songbirds, and other grassland wildlife. By Todd Wilkinson

This story is featured in Montana Outdoors September-October 2014 issue

Few pieces of federal legislation are more important and farther reaching for hunters, anglers, and wildlife watchers than the Farm Bill. The 2014 version, passed by Congress and signed into law this past February, is no exception. Though conservation experts say the bill, which authorizes $956 billion in spending over the next decade, came up short in some respects, it still contains many important wildlife-friendly provisions that prevent topsoil erosion and conserve clean water, wetlands, native grasslands, forests, and other wildlife habitat. “It is definitely a bill to cheer about,” says Steve Kline, director of government relations with the Washington, D.C.–based Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, which has strong involvement in Montana.

Catherine Wightman, FWP’s Habitat Program and Farm Bill coordinator, says many wildlife conservation leaders worked to ensure that the Farm Bill provided economic support for farmers and ranchers while also supporting stewardship of important wildlife habitat. “The final bill did a good job of striking that balance,” she says. “We didn’t get everything we wanted, but on the other hand there were a few bonuses in there we hadn’t counted on.”

Crop insurance and sod saver
For years, conservation leaders have pushed to create provisions in the Farm Bill that reward landowners for being good land stewards. To that end, a new regulation requires that landowners who wish to qualify for federal crop insurance meet conservation objectives. The notion of tethering conservation to crop insurance isn’t new, but it hasn’t been part of Farm Bill mandates since 1996.

“Depending on how you look at it, it’s either a reward for sound stewardship or a financial disincentive to those who might be making hasty decisions that could negatively impact wildlife habitat,” says Dan Bailey, Montana regional director of Pheasants Forever. “If you are going to drain a wetland, or plow up virgin sod, or farm on highly erodible land, then the decision comes with greater risk. Now you’ll no longer be eligible for federal crop insurance, which could be an important factor for many farmers.”

A parallel component of the new Farm Bill, known as Sod Saver, provides similar economic disincentives to landowners considering busting native prairie and sagebrush into new cropland or pasture. Montana is one of six states—including the Dakotas, Nebraska, Minnesota, and Iowa—in the Sod Saver program. “We’re hopeful these programs can help slow or reverse wildlife habitat loss,” Bailey says.

Conservation Reserve Program
Since 1986, the biggest Farm Bill program affecting wildlife has been the U.S. Department of Agriculture Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). The program pays farmers to take highly erodible cropland out of production and plant it to native grasses. Most famously, CRP has been a boon to pheasants. According to USDA statistics, a 4 percent increase in CRP grassland acres is associated with a 22 percent increase in pheasant counts.

Yet the popular program’s vast grassland acreage also benefits sharptails, Hungarian partridge, sage-grouse, waterfowl, shorebirds, and prairie songbirds. Big game, too. “How many times have you been on the prairie and had a big whitetail buck jump up out of the grass in front of you or spooked a band of pronghorn?” says Bailey.

Unfortunately, recent high grain prices—fueled largely by a federal mandate on ethanol production—have convinced many landowners to plow up their CRP grasslands and plant them to corn or wheat. Across Montana, CRP acreage has declined by 42 percent with a loss of 1.48 million acres. In the pheasant- and whitetail-rich region along the Hi-Line, CRP acres have dropped more than 55 percent since 2006, a loss of more than 800,000 acres.

The previous Farm Bill, passed in 2008, set a cap of 32 million acres enrolled in CRP, a target unmet because market forces made putting land into commodity crops too attractive. The 2014 Farm Bill lowers the CRP cap to 24 million acres, actually drawing down the amount from its current level of around 27 million acres, which itself represents a 25-year low. The only bright spot, says Kline, is that now the USDA is required to continually examine its CRP payments to make them more competitive with crop revenue. “CRP payments can never compete one on one with what a farmer will get renting his land for corn production, but at least it can be more competitive,” he says. What’s more, says Kline, conservation groups meet regularly with USDA officials, urging them to reject low-wildlife-value acreage and accept only higher- quality wildlife habitat as CRP acreage.

A brand new component of the 2014 Farm Bill that will attract large amounts of new private and federal funding to conservation is the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP). The program will competitively award federal funds to conservation projects designed by local partners specifically for their region. Eligible partners include private companies, universities, nonprofit organizations, local, state, and tribal gov­ernments, and others. They will join with agricultural and conservation organizations and producers to invest money, manpower, and materials in conservation projects, says Erik Suffridge, assistant state conservationist for programs at the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in Bozeman.

The USDA will spend $400 million in the first year of the program and require partners to provide an equal match in funding, labor, or other contributions. The total five-year USDA contribution nationwide will be $1.2 billion, awarded through grants.

Priority for the new conservation dollars, says Suffridge, will go to projects that have multiple partners, including those at a state or regional level. “The RCPP empowers lo­cal decision making,” he says. “It brings together conservation groups, landowners, cities and townships, universities, agricultural associations, and others to design conservation projects tailored to our needs here in Montana.”

According to Kline, the TRCP government relations director, creation of the RCPP in Washington’s contentious political climate shows strong support for private lands conservation across the political spectrum. “People know that conservation is important, even if they live in a city and don’t hunt or fish,” he says. “A lot of people in downstream states understand that the water running through their rivers or reaching them at the drinking fountain started its course passing through rural farmland and ranchland.”

Other wildlife programs

“The big issue for sage-grouse in eastern Montana is landowners giving up on cattle because it’s no longer profitable,” says David Naugle, a wildlife professor at the University of Montana and science adviser for the SGI. “That means they sell or convert their land to crops with no value to sage-grouse. The SGI helps set up grazing regimes that are good both for sage-grouse habitat and ranchers’ bottom lines.”

The issue is especially timely, given that western states are drafting individual conservation plans for sage-grouse. In 2015, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is expected to announce whether it will list the bird under the federal Endangered Species Act. Part of the determination will rest on arguments made by Montana and other western states that sufficient habitat safeguards are in place, such as those provided by the SGI.Bear bullet

Todd Wilkinson of Bozeman is a conservation journalist and author of Last Stand: Ted Turner’s Quest to Save a Troubled Planet.