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Wildlife may decline due to after-effects of farm bill

PIERRE, S.D. -The potential future loss of the state’s wildlife habitat leaves South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks officials concerned for the future of wildlife.

This year, there were 42,352 acres of South Dakota land submitted by landowners for the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) during general sign-up. Of the land offered, 101 acres were accepted in South Dakota, said Mark Norton, the hunting access and farm bill coordinator for GF&P, on Monday.

That’s despite the approximately 58,000 acres in South Dakota that are set to expire on Sept. 30.

One of the goals of CRP is to provide habitat for wildlife, and cuts to the program could negatively impact wildlife populations, said Norton. The program is designed to set marginal acreage aside for wildlife habitat and pays landowners to do so.

“It really impacts all wildlife species,” Norton said. “Pheasants and deer are more notable because they are game species that hunters pursue, but it impacts the full ecosystem all the way from insects, reptiles, amphibians, birds all the way up to coyotes and humans.”

The severity of the impact will vary around the state, but Norton said there will “definitely be noticeable reductions of wildlife populations.” And the effects of the cut don’t stop there, Norton said. Financial issues could also ensue.

Due to a section of the farm bill passed in the U.S. Legislature in 2014, the national amount of acres allowed in CRP was capped from 32 million to 24 million by fiscal year 2017 and 2018, according to the National Agricultural Law Center at the University of Arkansas. Since the federal fiscal year ends Sept. 30, 2016, the 8 million acre cut is expected to be met by then.

“Really the only thing that can be done to help improve these programs or add money to improve acres is for congressional and senate representation to do what they can in Washington, D.C. to make sure these programs continue and increase, if possible,” Norton said.

If, and when, the government passes another farm bill, Norton said they will most likely receive pressure from conservationists to increase the cap, and if commodity prices stay low, landowners will want a higher cap as well.

Landowners can get paid for CRP land anywhere from $32 to $239 an acre depending on the productivity of the soils, Norton said.

But, Congress will also have pressures to cut budget deficit nationwide, Norton said. So, it won’t be easy to increase funding to any conservation programs.

“They’re playing a balancing act in Washington, D.C.,” Norton said. “I believe next year there will be quite a few more acres expiring, so they may do another general sign-up. But, without a doubt, it’s going to be more competitive, and there will be less of an opportunity for producers and landowners to enroll in CRP.”

Since the cap for CRP acreage has been lowered by 8 million acres, this forces the United States Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency (FSA) to be more selective when allocating the acreage. The national FSA office allocates acres for both general and continuous sign-up.

Each offer of land through the general sign-up is only accepted during a set time period and is ranked on an Environmental Benefits Index. Norton said this rank is based on criteria such as the type of cover the landowner plans to seed, the soils and how erosive they are, air quality, water quality and wildlife habitat points. Then, based on the offers’ ranking nationwide, the national FSA decides which offers get accepted.

There is also continuous enrollment for CRP, which like the name implies, accepts offers at any time. But, there are different acres allotted to each continuous initiative or program by the national FSA, and once people have signed up and been approved for all the acres allotted, no one else can enter the initiative or program until those contracts expire. Each contract lasts 10 to 15 years. The state may ask for additional acreage to be allotted for specific continuous programs or initiatives, but the allotment may not be granted.

Though Norton does not have more up to date numbers, he said as of May, a few continuous programs have acre availability. The Duck Nesting Habitat Initiative had more than 9,000 acres open, the Wetlands Restoration Initiative (both floodplain and non-floodplain) had more than 43,000 acres and the Farmable Wetlands Program had more than 15,000 acres.

In theory, general sign-up should allow more acres to be enrolled at the same time than continuous sign-up because, for continuous sign-up, certain acres are allocated for different initiatives and are targeted for specific environmental benefits, Norton said. But, general sign-up enrollment has been less than half of continuous enrollment in South Dakota for a few years.

Total CRP enrollment as of May 2016 was 976,799 acres in South Dakota. Of that, 303,502 acres were from general sign-up.

“General (sign-up) used to make up more acres than what was enrolled in continuous. It has transitioned that way because South Dakota has become less competitive in general sign-up and we’ve done a pretty good job of creating initiatives that work for South Dakota producers,” Norton said. “And so, they have figured out continuous is easier and more convenient to get what (land) they want into the CRP program, and it has accumulated over time.”

As of Sept. 30, 2016, about 58,000 acres are set to expire from CRP in South Dakota. In 2017 and 2018, more than 46,000 and 51,000 acres are set to expire, respectively. But, for the 2016 federal fiscal year, which lasts from Oct. 1, 2015 to Sept. 30, 2016, over 60,000 acres have been enrolled through the continuous CRP sign-up.

So, the enrollment from continuous sign-up for 2016 has offset the loss of acres expiring from the program this year and increased the statewide total.

“We’ve been kind of fortunate to be bucking that trend the last 3-4 years now, so we can maintain the total. The total enrollment is probably the highest statewide total CRP acres we’ve had now in almost 5 years,” Norton said. “But, I guess I’m not sure if that will continue next (fiscal) year because it will be the first year restricted by the 24 million cap. Even the continuous initiatives that are still available for enrollment, I’m not sure how many more acres will be allocated to them once they are gone, so total CRP acres may start declining again next year.”

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