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OPINION

Letter to the Editor: Conservation Reserve Program benefits prairie grouse and more

Submitted by Gary Huschle
Crookston Times

    A USDA news release announcing signups for the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) recently caught my eye. The General CRP signup runs from January 4 to February 12, and the CRP Grasslands signup from March 15 to April 23.  Both programs are competitive and provide annual rental payments to farmers and ranchers who wish to establish and protect grasslands, provide erosion control, improved water quality, habitat, and safeguard pasturelands.

    CRP grasslands are very special to me.  Nearly all of my sharp-tailed grouse and prairie chicken hunting occurs on these private lands.  My sincere thank you to all landowners that allow people to hunt their CRP.  It has turned out to be a great program for farmers and ranchers, conservation, wildlife, hunters and wildlife watchers, and local communities.   

    During it 35 years of existence, CRP has:

    • Prevented more than 9 billion tons of soil from eroding, which is enough soil to fill 600 million dump trucks;

    • Reduced nitrogen and phosphorous runoff relative to annually tilled cropland by 95 and 85 percent, respectively;

    • Sequestered an annual average of 49 million tons of greenhouse gases, equal to taking 9 million cars off the road which helps reduce global warming;

    • Created more than 3 million acres of restored wetlands while protecting more than 175,000 stream miles with riparian forest and grass buffers, which is enough to go around the world seven times; and

    • Benefited bees and other pollinators, and increased populations of ducks, prairie chickens, sharp-tailed grouse, grassland songbirds, deer, and turkey.

    While CRP is not intended to be a supply management program it clearly has an impact on crop prices.  A report by the Agricultural Policy Analysis Center in 2006 showed that elimination of the CRP results in increased crop production and export volume, however, the value of the crops drops so farm income is reduced instead of increased.  The cost to the Government is also increased because the increase in direct payments, loan deficiency payments, marketing loan gains, and counter cyclical payments are much more than the CRP rental payments.

    The need for CRP and its positive impacts to wildlife, and the people and communities who benefit from that wildlife, cannot be overstated.  In the Great Plains, grassland birds have declined 2% annually due to massive loss of grassland habitat.  From 2009 to 2015, 53 million acres of native grassland was lost in the Great Plains. Grassland birds have declined from historic levels more than any other bird group.  

    Included among grassland birds are sharp-tailed grouse and prairie chickens of northwest Minnesota. These native grouse require large tracts of grassland to survive and reproduce.  When their populations are doing well, so are many other species that need grasslands.  The number of sharp-tailed grouse dancing grounds in northwest Minnesota in the 1980s was about 80, averaging 6 to 9 males per dancing ground.  In 2005, during the peak of CRP, the number of dancing grounds increased to about 150, averaging 11 to 13 males per dancing ground. Similarly, during the 1980s, the prairie chicken population ranged between 700 and 1500 males on 80 to 150 booming grounds in spring.  However, during the peak of CRP, there was a minimum of 2,958 males on 243 booming grounds!  Since 2010, both of these prairie grouse have seen population declines that follow the loss of nearly 324,000 acres of CRP in the six counties of northwest Minnesota.   

    General CRP and CRP Grasslands are critical conservation tools in returning grasslands to our farm and ranch country, and protecting them for their many benefits.  They provide habitat, hunting and other outdoor recreation, clean water, clean air, and reliable farm income. It is a win-win for farmers, ranchers, and conservation.  

    The Minnesota Sharp-tailed Grouse Society (sharptails.org) and Minnesota Prairie Chicken Society (prairiechickens.org) encourage farmers and ranchers to learn more about CRP and enrollment by visiting their local Farm Service Agency office.

Gary Huschle

Leonard, Minnesota

Northwest Minnesota Representative

Minnesota Sharp-tailed Grouse Society