Birds, Bees, and the CRP

  • 6/23/2018 3:22:24 PM

The Conservation Reserve Program works for quail, pollinators, and people

By Jason Jenkins

For more than three decades, farmers and ranchers across the United States have been able to voluntarily walk into their local USDA Farm Service Agency office and enroll in one of the nation’s largest conservation programs — the Conservation Reserve Program. 

First signed into law in 1985 by President Ronald Reagan, CRP’s initial goal was to curb soil erosion due to agricultural practices. But through expansion of the program over time, CRP also became an effective tool to improve water quality and increase habitat for wildlife, including waterfowl such as ducks and geese, upland game birds such as pheasants and quail, and a whole bevy of native pollinators, including bees and butterflies.

The CRP/Pollinator Connection

“CRP has become the most widely used tool for our biologists,” says Kelsi Wehrman, state coordinator for Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever in Nebraska. “Within CRP, there are two specific practices on which our Farm Bill Wildlife Biologists really focus, and that’s CP38, or the “SAFE” program, and CP42, which is for establishing pollinator habitat.”

While conservation efforts for pollinators have increased in recent years due to heightened awareness of the plight of the monarch butterfly, Wehrman says that at least in Nebraska, pollinator conservation has been on the radar since about 2010. “It’s part of our language here every day. We talk about pheasants, quail and pollinators,” she says. “And that’s because what’s good for pollinators is also good for upland birds.”

Seed mixes with a high diversity of blooming broadleaf plants provide nectar on which pollinators can feed throughout the spring, summer, and fall. These plants, along with native grasses, provided excellent nesting and brood-rearing cover for young pheasant and quail chicks.

“During the first six weeks of their lives, these chicks feed exclusively on soft-bodied insects,” Wehrman explains. “That diverse mix of native plants attracts their food source.”

A safe haven for pollinators

But the benefits of CRP don’t stop with soil, water and wildlife. U.S. farmers and ranchers who enroll acreage in the program for a period of 10 to 15 years receive annual rental payments and cost-share assistance. Wehrman says that’s an economic benefit to both farmers and their rural communities.

“Typically, these acres are planted on farm ground that is unproductive, land that might even lose money when you try to grow corn or soybeans,” she says. “But in CRP, the land is protected, the wildlife species benefit, and the landowners can focus on making their other acres more productive for agriculture. CRP can also provide haying and grazing benefits to cattle ranchers. The program is often used to convert cropland into permanent grass with the long-term goal of adding those acres to a ranching operation. The pheasants, quail and pollinators get 10 to 15 years of high-quality habitat during the life of that CRP contract.”

Pollinators in Peril 

Last fall, CRP reached a 24-million-acre limit outlined in the 2014 Farm Bill. The result has been a waiting list of producers who wish to enroll but can’t. As a result, Wehrman says, habitat acres are down because farmers can’t find options that are as appealing as CRP.

While USDA did resume accepting CRP applications this month, neither CP38 nor CP42 practices are included in the limited sign-up.

Currently, the 2018 Farm Bill is being debated in the U.S. Congress. While both the House and Senate versions of the legislation call for increasing the acreage cap for CRP past its current 24 million acres, they are drastically different. CRP acres would rise to 29 million acres in the House’s version, but the Senate is proposing a more conservative increase to just 25 million acres. Where the cap lands is yet to be determined, but for the nation’s upland wildlife and native pollinators, no debate in Washington, D.C. is more important.