Doug Leier: Habitat is key to wildlife conservation in North Dakota – Grand Forks Herald

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Doug Leier is an outreach biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. Reach him at [email protected].

WEST FARGO – The single most important factor in sustaining or growing wildlife populations – ducks, deer, pheasants, you name it – is habitat.

If you want more deer tags available, more pheasants in the field or ducks in flight, the habitat is where the conversation starts. We often connect habitat to the federal Conservation Reserve Program and for good reason. CRP acres have been an important part of the habitat for 35 years.

It’s easy to say, “we just need more CRP.” While that is not incorrect, the way to create more habitat and CRP is not that simple.

Studies have shown that CRP contributed to a 22% increase in the number of ring-necked pheasants for every 4% increase in CRP-enrolled acres.
Between 1992 and 1997, CRP in the Prairie Pothole region of North Dakota, South Dakota, and northeastern Montana contributed to a 30% improvement in duck production, or an additional 10.5 million ducks.

A central study of deer in North Dakota concluded that fawns select beds composed of native grasslands and CRP more than 70% of the time. The study also concluded that continued loss of native grasslands and CRP will reduce the vegetation available for fawn bed selection during the first 60 days of life. Evidence of the point about how a stronger habitat through CRP improves wildlife populations. But to get there is expensive to say the least.

At its peak of 3.4 million acres in 2007, annual CRP payments to North Dakota landowners totaled over $120 million. In comparison, the annual budget of the Game and Fish Department’s Private Land Open to Sportmen program is approximately $6 million. Currently, there are approximately 1.2 million acres left in CRP in North Dakota.

If all remaining CRP contracts in North Dakota expire and no new acres are registered in the next five years, the state will have only 500,000 acres of CRP by opening day of the pheasant season in 2026.

High raw material prices, increasingly complex program requirements, changing demographics and other factors are driving more manufacturers to opt out of CRP instead of enrolling in CRP. This is happening nationwide.

Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack recently noted that only 1.8 million of the 4 million expiring CRP acres will be re-registered.

The balance for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department remains a competitive financial option for landowners while balancing the needs of production agriculture. In simple terms, our philosophy is not to expect landowners to take a loss with the aim of not increasing competition on rental rates. We cannot expect a landowner conservation program to be an option only for those who can afford a loss without increasing the cost to local rental rates.

The continued downward trend in CRP acres and the loss of native grasslands will have a significant impact on soil health, water quality and wildlife habitat. Wildlife habitat is not more important than all other facets, but the Wildlife and Fish Department continues to prioritize short- and long-term habitats for the conservation and growth of wildlife populations.

The challenge continues in a never-ending balance between grassland and production agriculture. I would encourage any landowner interested to ask a Game and Fish private land biologist or contact a local Natural Resources Conservation Service office as programs, eligibility and rental rates continue to evolve. New programs are added and priorities shift.

Why not inform?

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