Minnesota wildlife managers were hoping for more out of the 2018 Farm Bill, but conservation groups across the country supported the legislation last week in the form it was approved by Congress.
Generally similar to the previous Farm Bill of 2014, the conservation programs inside the bill are collectively the largest single source of federal funding for the care of private land in ways beneficial to wildlife, soil and water. Expected to be signed in the coming week by President Donald Trump, the package includes a mild increase in Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres, continues walk-in-access programs for hunters and introduces a cover crop program unique to Minnesota and five other states that will create 50,000 new acres of nesting habitat for pheasants and other ground-nesting birds.
“I wouldn’t say I’m jumping for joy here. It’s a modest, solid bill,” said Dave Nomsen, a government affairs expert and vice president of Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever.
For the past several years, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has been calling for a major boost in CRP — a program that pays farmers to set aside land with strategic conservation value. The new bill increases CRP acreage to 29 million, up 3 million acres from the 2014 bill but far short of the 40 million acres sought by the DNR and many other agencies and organizations.
“We were looking for a major gain in CRP because of the ecological and wildlife benefits,” DNR Fish and Wildlife Director Jim Leach said. “I’m glad they took action, but we had a very modest gain for CRP.”
Gov. Mark Dayton’s Minnesota Pheasant Plan, launched in 2015 to revitalize the state’s tradition of upland hunting, was counting heavily on a resurgence of CRP. Some of the state’s biggest ringneck harvests happened from 2003 to 2008, when CRP enrollments provided 1.7 million acres of habitat.
Today’s CRP enrollments in Minnesota cover about 1 million acres, and the annual pheasant harvest — along with hunter participation — has plummeted in a tight correlation with the drop in CRP.
Nomsen said he will be working to drive more program acres to key states. Minnesota and other pheasant states should receive a specific allocation of acres for sign-up. In past sign-ups, there has been a surplus of applicants and “horrendous” acceptance rates, he said.
Aside from CRP, Nomsen said, hunters and wildlife managers should take stock in a new program called Soil Health and Income Protection Program, or SHIPP. It doesn’t lock acres out of production for as long as CRP, but it pays farmers to plant early successional cover crops benefiting soil health and creating critical spring nesting cover for pheasants.
It starts as a 50,000-acre program in Minnesota, South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, Nebraska and Iowa.
Another hunter-friendly program in the Farm Bill, known as the Voluntary Public Access-Habitat Incentive Program, received a 25 percent increase. There will be $50 million earmarked over the five-year life of the bill to support walk-in hunting on designated private land.
DNR Southern Regional Director Scott Roemhildt said the grant program to state agencies applies to many states. There’s no explanation yet how the money will be allocated.
“Our desire in Minnesota would be at a minimum to maintain the [Walk-in Access] program at 30,000 acres, with the potential to add counties and grow,” Roemhildt said.