As pheasant and duck hunters prepare for their upcoming seasons, they'll do so knowing that their success depends in part on policies hashed out in the nation's capital.
Specifically, the federal Farm Bill's conservation provisions have a direct correlation to the number of birds on the ground — or on the water. The amount of private land enrolled in the bill's Conservation Reserve Program, a staple of the Farm Bill, correlates strongly with duck and pheasant numbers, especially in Upper Midwest states such as Minnesota, the Dakotas and Montana.
"CRP has historically produced a net increase of 2 million ducks a year in North and South Dakota and Montana," said Kellis Moss, director of public policy for Ducks Unlimited.
Under CRP, farmers and landowners may elect to take some of their land out of production and plant it with native prairie grasses or other approved cover. Landowners are reimbursed for doing this by the federal government
Ducks and pheasants use the dense grasslands for nesting, and, later in the year, pheasants use CRP land for roosting. The expansive fields of native grasses mitigate the effect of predators on the gamebirds.
Pheasants Forever, the Minnesota-based conservation group, has compiled state-by-state statistics showing a strong correlation between years of high CRP acreage, high pheasant populations and high hunter participation. Not all hunters understand that connection, said Jared Wiklund, public relations director for Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever.
"There is still a percentage of hunters and landowners on the landscape who believe CRP does not have any effect on pheasant production, harvest or hunter numbers," Wiklund said. "... It has everything to do with these categories and more — even access. More CRP lands produce more birds, and higher enrollment equates to more ground to ask for hunting permission, thus access."
CRP cap limits acreage
But CRP acreage, once as high as 37 million acres nationwide, is now capped at 24 million acres. That has contributed to lower pheasant numbers and fewer hunters going afield, say Pheasants Forever biologists
In Minnesota, pheasant hunters had excellent years in the mid-2000s, when CRP acreage in the state was high, according to a compilation of state small-game reports by Pheasants Forever. The pheasant harvest hit 655,000 in 2007 when CRP acreage in the state was at 1.83 million acres and hunter numbers were 118,000. By last fall, Minnesota's CRP acreage had fallen to 1.1 million acres, and the pheasant harvest was 196,141 with fewer than 60,000 hunters in the field. Other Midwestern states showed similar trends.
Demand by farmers for CRP sign-ups waned a few years ago when crop prices were high. Farmers preferred to have their lands in crop production, which was more lucrative. More recently, with crop prices down, demand for CRP sign-ups has increased.
In Minnesota, farmers and landowners put in 1,367 offers totaling 31,662 acres during recent CRP sign-ups, but due to the cap only 149 offers totaling 2,966 acres were accepted, said Jim Inglis, director of governmental affairs for Pheasants Forever. Nationwide, only 410,000 acres were enrolled in CRP from 1.57 million acres offered by landowners, the lowest acceptance rate in the program's 30-year history
"There's never been a situation before where there was such demand from landowners, but they couldn't enroll," Inglis said.
Action this fall?
Conservation groups will be pushing Congress to raise the CRP cap.
"We've been asking for some pretty aggressive CRP increases," DU's Moss said. "Certainly, we're hopeful for an increase in the Dakotas, Minnesota and Montana."
Leaders of agriculture committees in the U.S. House of Representatives say they want to take up the 2018 Farm Bill this fall, Moss said, though it will take months to hammer out. The current Farm Bill was passed in 2014 and expires in September 2018. The 2014 Farm Bill provided $489 billion in mandatory spending over five years, of which about $6 billion annually goes to land conservation programs that benefit wildlife.
While Minnesota congressional representatives are generally supportive of conservation policies in the Farm Bill, they'll be up against a Congress that is looking to cut government spending to reduce taxes, Moss said.
"The Trump administration's budget would have cut $21 billion from the USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture)," Moss said. "Thankfully, Congress hasn't followed suit. But conservation funding is going to be squeezed for sure. It always turns into a money discussion."