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Farm bill puts grasslands in focus

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Saturday, Feb. 15, 2014, at 10:17 p.m.

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The recently signed farm bill has drawn myriad responses from wildlife experts. Some are happy, some are sad and some are just relieved.

“It seemed like forever, it’s been about a three-year process,” said Julie Sibbing, National Wildlife Federation agriculture and forestry programs director. “They came up with several versions that they couldn’t get passed, and we’re just pretty amazed they got a bill passed that has something for wildlife. It’s been pretty hard to get anything passed in Washington lately.”

The current farm bill, which goes through 2018, is budgeted to cost about $488 billion. Of that, about $28 billion goes to conservation programs. Roughly 80 percent of the farm bill goes to nutrition programs such school lunches and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Sibbing said some of the other proposed versions had little for wildlife and would have drastically cut or altered the Conservation Reserve Program, which pays landowners to take highly erodible, poor-production lands out of crops and put them into native grasses. The recent bill authorizes up to 24 million acres for enrollment in the program. That’s down from 32 million from the 2008 farm bill. The reduction will take place over the five years of the current bill.

“That’s a pretty significant cut right there,” said Aviva Glaser, National Wildlife Federation agriculture policy specialist. “But before that it was 39 million. In less than a decade, we’ve gone from 39 million to 24 million acres. That has a big impact on wildlife.”

Ron Klataske, Audubon of Kansas president, referred to the reduction as a “big, big cut,” and said CRP has been the largest wildlife habitat program in American history. Other purposes of the program have been to reduce grain surpluses and improve soil and water quality. He said the cuts come at a bad time, because America has been losing a lot of native prairies and other habitats.

“From 2008 to 2011, four years, we lost about 23 million acres of grasslands, wetlands and other habitats that were made into croplands,” Klataske said. “Most of that was on the Great Plains, from the middle of Texas up to North Dakota. Grassland birds have declined the most in the last 40 years of any type of birds.”

Klataske, a rancher and sportsman, said areas that lose large amounts of CRP lands lose entire ecosystems that have developed since the program began about 30 years ago, from tiny rodents to the raptors and coyotes that feed upon them. Some of Kansas best populations of quail, deer and pheasants live in CRP grasses.

“When they replace those CRP fields with croplands, because of the sterile nature of croplands, there’s not enough there for a pheasant or a mouse or anything,” he said.

Matt Smith, Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism farm bill coordinator, said the legislative reduction may not be all that noticeable because many landowners have voluntarily taken their lands out of CRP, and are again farming them to take advantage of high grain prices a few years ago. Smith said there are about 25 million acres in CRP in the nation, which is about two million below the current maximum allowed by the previous farm bill. Kansas has about 2.3 million acres in the program, which is down from about 3.2 million in 2007.

Klataske said the current trend of falling grain prices could cause more landowners to consider enrolling their lands in CRP, and it’s important there be plenty of acres be available for enrollment.

Eric Lindstrom, a North Dakota-based Ducks Unlimited biologist, said his group is excited the government has relinked crop insurance payments to the landowner’s conservation compliances. Basically, the more a property could offer wildlife, the less the farmer could be paid for insurance that pays in the event of poor harvests.

“The landowner has every right to farm their land, and the landowner has the right to convert native grass (into croplands),” Smith said. “But they’ll get less from crop insurance for those kinds of lands. It saves taxpayers money, it’s good for wildlife and I’d call it a fair deal for farmers, too.”

Smith and Sibbing said their groups were also pleased the new farm bill authorizes up to about $40 million dollars, nationwide, to be paid to landowners to offer public access to their lands, while improving wildlife habitat.

“We had something like that in the last farm bill and Kansas did get a little over $2 million,” Smith said. “We were able to increase our (Walk-In Hunting Area) program and other states were able to enhance their programs or start one. It’s good.”

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