The federal government is allowing North Dakota landowners to enroll more acres into two Conservation Reserve Program projects aimed at protecting environmentally fragile land and boosting wildlife habitat.
The additional acres could help boost game bird populations at a time of declining habitat in North Dakota due to the booming energy industry in the west of the state and the general loss of CRP acres to lucrative crops.
"We are seeing loss rates not seen since the Dust Bowl" era of the 1930s, when severe drought and land erosion led to large dust storms, said Eric Lindstrom, government affairs representative for Ducks Unlimited.
North Dakota is getting a total of 82,800 more acres that can be enrolled in the Farmable Wetlands Program and the State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement program, or SAFE. The two are part of the larger Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to idle environmentally sensitive land.
"We can accept more applications to enroll more acres in North Dakota for farmers and ranchers interested in protecting local pheasant, prairie chickens and waterfowl," said Aaron Krauter, state director for the federal Farm Service Agency, which oversees CRP.
The additional acres were approved because the two programs have been under-utilized in other states, said Brad Olson, the FSA's program director for conservation in North Dakota. The state Game and Fish Department and conservation groups such as Ducks Unlimited and Pheasants Forever supported the request.
"We worked to increase North Dakota's acreage for the SAFE program because it helps not only our farmers and ranchers, but also sportsmen," said Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee. "The SAFE program allows our producers to optimize their CRP acreage to encourage wildlife populations, which in turn increases hunting opportunities."
The additional approved acres for North Dakota bring the available total in the Farmable Wetland Program to 150,000 and the available total in the SAFE program to 120,640.
The FSA expects a lot of interest in the additional acres.
"The last time we had an increase in the allotment, within a month we used up the allocation in the SAFE project," Olson said. "There's such a demand for these types of programs."
The amount of land in North Dakota enrolled in the general CRP has declined from the peak of 3.1 million acres in 2007 to 1.5 million, as farmers have looked to capitalize on good market prices for many crops. The Farmable Wetland and SAFE programs within the larger CRP apply to smaller chunks of land and are more targeted, making them more popular, Olson said.
For example, the Farmable Wetlands program, which aims to restore previously farmed wetlands, can help farmers who have found those areas flooded during recent wet years. Unable to farm the land anyway, they can obtain federal payments on the acres. And money for the SAFE program is divided among three specific geographic areas — to benefit pheasants, prairie chicken and grouse, and waterfowl such as ducks and geese. The program is popular among farmers and ranchers, many of whom also are avid hunters.
"This will provide good benefits for our agricultural producers and also wildlife, and sportsmen opportunities for hunting," Lindstrom said.
Many landowners get a double benefit by enrolling federal SAFE acres in the state PLOTS program — Private Land Open to Sportsmen. It pays landowners to open their land to public hunting.