It’s going to be a tough hunting season for North Dakota’s outdoorsmen and women.
The availability of deer-hunting licenses is at its lowest point in 20 years. The pronghorn antelope season will again be closed due to low populations for the third year in a row. But perhaps most concerning is the fact that North Dakota will lose a large swath of wildlife habitat this year.
The state’s Conservation Reserve Program, better known as CRP, will lose more than 650,000 acres, bringing total CRP acreage in the state down to 1.6 million acres, according to the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. In comparison, five years ago CRP covered 3.3 million acres in North Dakota.
CRP, administered by the USDA’s Farm Service Agency, provides landowners with payments in exchange for land conservation measures that help reduce soil erosion, increase wildlife habitat and protect environmentally sensitive areas. CRP acreage in North Dakota has an especially large impact on birds, such as ducks and pheasants, which depend on the state’s “prairie pothole” habitat.
“We’ve spent a considerable amount of time thinking about the implications of rapid and widespread CRP loss on duck populations,” said Johann Walker, biologist and director of conservation planning with Ducks Unlimited. He pointed to data from the eastern Dakotas that show duck nests have a higher hatching probability in landscapes with more perennial grass cover, including CRP land.
Multiple factors are causing the decline in CRP participation, and the primary reason is perhaps the most obvious: money. Ag commodity prices are skyrocketing thanks to hot, dry weather conditions causing drought in many parts of the nation. Also, federal crop insurance programs are more heavily subsidized by taxpayers now than in years past, giving farmers additional incentive to plant more acreage.
Taxpayers now pay approximately 62 percent of federal crop insurance premiums, with no “conservation strings attached,” and North Dakota is the second biggest benefactor of this subsidy in the nation, second only to Texas, according to the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting public health and the environment.
Walker said making the conservation program more flexible for farmers and ranchers might be a solution to the declining enrollment in CRP. Offering competitive CRP rental rates are also a key factor in continuing the program, he said.
We’ve advocated consistently in our policy efforts to try to broaden the sweep of uses that landowners might be able to put CRP land to use,” he said. “For example, we’ve consistently advocated for some kind of CRP program that maybe allows landowners to graze on CRP land or cut it for hay a little more frequently or on some sort of schedule, which would be a little different than the current emergency-only basis.”
Economic conditions are also threatening native grasslands currently used for pasture, which shapes a large portion of waterfowl habitat.
“We’re focusing quite a bit on protecting native grass area as well,” Walker said. “(Compared to CRP) that’s a much larger proportion of the land cover within the eastern Dakotas. We think set-aside programs like CRP are really darn important – don’t get me wrong – but we also have to keep an eye on our overall habitat base.”
The PLOTS (Private Land Open To Sportsman) program is led by the North Dakota Game and Fish Department to provide hunters access to private lands. It, too, is seeing acreage dwindle. According to Game and Fish officials, the program will incur a net loss of nearly 60,000 acres this hunting season, mostly due to the loss of CRP acreage, bringing total PLOTS acreage to 890,000.
Access to land is an ongoing concern for many outdoorsmen and women.
Keith Berger , an outdoorsman in Bismarck, said he worries about the effect of the CRP land losses. “I feel it’s a big loss for hunters, losing all the CRP land,” he said. “There are a lot of birds in the CRP land – whether pheasants or ducks, they all nest in there.”
Berger said he’s also concerned about access to hunting land, especially when he thinks about passing his family’s tradition of pheasant hunting to his two teenage sons. “Getting on land seems like it’s getting harder all the time,” he said, referring to some farmers who had a bad experience with hunters at one point, causing them to close access for the rest of the outdoorsmen.
Berger said he wonders what pheasant hunting will be like in a future with less wildlife habitat. “I suppose there will still be coverage for upland game,” he said. “We’ll just have to go to different spots, like tree rows and alfalfa fields.”
-Beth Schatz Kaylor is a freelance writer for the Great Plains Examiner.