If the axiom is true that one acre of prairie grass can grow one pheasant, a major new initiative costing nearly $800 million would produce enough new buffer strip vegetation in Minnesota to add 100,000 ringnecks to the outdoors landscape.
The proposed five-year program, to be funded 80 percent by federal sources and 20 percent by the state, was formally pitched this month to U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. If state officials are accurate in their projections, an agreement will be reached quickly and the first of more than 3,000 land deals will be signed this spring.
In terms of funding, it would be the largest Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) ever created between a single state and the federal government. Its purpose is to simultaneously address water pollution and make up for lost wildlife habitat in 54 counties in southern and western Minnesota.
“This would be the largest CREP ever done,” said Bill Penning, a conservation section chief at the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources (BWSR). “It’s CREP on steroids.”
For the Dayton administration, the project will feed two primary conservation goals: cleaning up heavily polluted streams, rivers and lakes in farm country and reviving the state’s pheasant population. If launched on time, it would precede the implementation of new buffer-strip requirements passed by the 2015 Legislature at the governor’s behest.
While the new law prescribes minimum strips of filter vegetation between farm fields and waterways, the CREP buffer strips will be wider and more diverse. Besides hosting pheasants, the buffers will provide habitat for deer, wild turkey, badgers and other nongame species such as meadowlarks, bobolinks, snakes, bees and butterflies.
“They are done in a way to allow for wider and larger parcels of grassland,” said Tabor Hoek, an official with BWSR, the lead state agency on the project. “We are not about achieving minimums with CREP.”
Minnesota has partnered with the USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) twice before on less expensive CREPs. The first, also covering 100,000 acres, was a success. But the second ran into trouble and fizzled because it was not well received by farmers at a time when grain prices were high.
But in Dayton’s Dec. 2 application letter to Vilsack, the governor said landowner interest in environmental set-aside programs in Minnesota “far exceeds available funding and resources.” The governor also stressed that the program will help clean surface water in our state’s critical “top of the watershed” location at the headwaters of the Mississippi River and Red River of the North. Farm runoff in Minnesota has contributed to so-called dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico and Lake Winnipeg.
“We look forward to signing a CREP agreement in the coming weeks, so that we can begin work this spring,” the letter said.
Earlier this month, the initiative received a combined $20 million in state support from the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council. In the council’s most recent round of funding recommendations, completed Dec. 3, CREP was by far the biggest funding target. Companion funding has come from the state’s Clean Water Fund and BWSR has been tucking the money away to leverage the federal dollars that will come from the FSA.
John Jaschke, BWSR’s executive director, said the primary strategy is to tie blocks of private land together in corridors. Farmers will be paid under 15-year contracts for permanently setting aside the large buffers, including wetlands. But unlike other conservation set-aside programs, the conservation easements will be perpetual, prohibiting their return to agricultural production regardless of future ownership changes.
While the easement land can’t be hunted without landowner permission, the state will heavily favor parcels that connect to wildlife management areas and other public land that can be hunted. The new set-asides will begin to replace more than 500,000 acres of Minnesota CRP contracts that will expire over the next five years, officials said.
“These will be corridors for wildlife travel, feeding and sometimes for nesting,” Jaschke said.
Pheasants Forever wrote a letter of support for the proposed project, saying it’s a “win, win, win” for surface water, participating landowners and wildlife.
“We certainly think it makes a lot of sense,’’ said Matt Holland, director of grant development for Pheasants Forever.
Penning of BWSR said the project proposal will require a lot of “back and forth” between the state and FSA before final agreement is reached. But he said there is hope that the first landowners can be signed up in the spring.
“It’s a very aggressive timeline, but we are ready to do this,” Penning said.