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Published April 30, 2012, 09:13 AM

Wildlife habitat: here today, gone tomorrow?

WATERTOWN, S.D. — When I was a youngster growing up in Watertown, S.D., during the Soil Bank Program days in the late 1950s and early 1960s, we could go out at noon and easily have our pheasant limit and be back in a half hour to watch the Vikings game.

By: Gary Howey, Agweek

WATERTOWN, S.D. — When I was a youngster growing up in Watertown, S.D., during the Soil Bank Program days in the late 1950s and early 1960s, we could go out at noon and easily have our pheasant limit and be back in a half hour to watch the Vikings game.

The Soil Bank Program was designed to divert land regularly used for crop production to conservation uses, which was a huge boost to wildlife, as it created habitat, and as anyone who’s spent much time in the outdoors knows, habitat is the key to good wildlife populations.

Like anything else, things change, which included the government programs when planting crops become the top priority and the Soil Bank Program went by the wayside.

For many years, habitat in some areas was pretty slim, as was the pheasant population. When the Conservation Reserve Program came into being with the 1985 farm bill, habitat improved, as did the wildlife populations.

Last year, I hunted several states, and in many areas, had to look hard for what I could call good habitat.

There were spots where you’d find some habitat, with the CRP and the sloughs being the best habitat around. Unfortunately because of the dry fall this past year, many of those sloughs will be plowed, disked, planted, tilled and drained. In many of these areas the CRP acres are due to come out of the program in 2012.

Last year in the Northern Plains states, there were 800,000 acres pulled out of the CRP with an additional 6.5 million acres scheduled to be pulled nationwide this year.

CRP is not just for wildlife; it serves numerous purposes, including wetlands restoration, improving water quality and helping prevent soil erosion.

In the 25 years that CRP has been in existence, more than 2 million acres of wetlands have been restored, as have 2 million acres of riparian areas, which are buffers between land and water that act as a filter, preventing millions of pounds of nitrogen and phosphorous from flowing into water.

Just how much land may be coming out of CRP in 2012?

There are 640 acres in a square mile, so if we divide the acres by 640, we should come up with the square miles of land that could possibly and may well be taken out of the program and converted to cropland.

CRP acres

In Iowa, there will be 232,000 acres (362.5 square miles) coming out of CRP, while in Minnesota, we’ll see 292,000 acres (456.25 square miles). In South Dakota, 227,000 acres (354.69 square miles) with 840,000 acres (1,312.5 square miles) of habitat being plowed and planted in North Dakota. In Nebraska, where I live, another 202,000 acres (315.63 square miles) will go under the plow as well as 520,000 acres (812.5 square miles) in Kansas, plus a whopping 697,000 acres (1,089.06 square miles) in Montana.

The total acres in the Northern Plains states that will be coming out of CRP is more than 3 million acres, or 4,687.5 square miles which is about the size of Connecticut.

We’re talking “big” numbers here as nationwide there will be 10,156 square miles of acres of CRP coming out, more acres than in the states of Vermont (9,615 square miles), New Hampshire (9,283 square miles), Massachusetts (8,262 square miles), New Jersey (7,790 square miles) Hawaii (6,459 square miles), Connecticut (5,006 square miles), Delaware (2,026 square miles and Rhode Island (1,213 square miles).

Economics

The reason for all these acres coming out of CRP is simple “dollars,” because corn and bean prices are up. As of this writing, corn is bringing about $6.04 a bushel, while beans were at $12.05 per bushel.

Locally, cash rent on dry-land runs $250 to $350 per acre, while irrigated ground is bringing $375 to $525 an acre.

The payments offered in the latest CPR signup in Cedar County, Neb., where I live, the price paid runs from $113 to $180 per acre, which is based on the soil rental rates.

The loss of thousands of acres of CRP habitat along with the severe winters and wet springs we’ve had, has been tough on the pheasant population. Fortunately, we had a mild winter, and, with a decent spring, the pheasants may have a decent hatch and in areas where there’s decent habitat, the population should rebound.

With the loss of all this habitat, some folks think pheasant hunting may be a thing of the past, and in some areas, it may be a tough go, but we need to remember that in several states there are still areas with good numbers of birds and even though their numbers may be down, there still will be good hunting in certain areas, those areas with habitat.

With the loss of millions of acres of CRP, pheasant hunting that was here yesterday may be gone tomorrow, as without habitat, wildlife just can’t survive.

Editor's Note: This editorial first appeared in the Watertown (S.D.) Public Opinion

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