New farm bill needed to revive Conservation Reserve Program

Jane Beathard Staff Writer

November 27, 2013

Absence of a new federal Farm Bill hurts Ohio farmers, and at the same time, threatens the state’s pheasant, quail and wild turkey populations, according to state wildlife experts.

The 2008 Farm Bill expired on Sept. 30 and a contentious Congress has not yet passed a new version of the legislation.

Victims of legislative stalemate include the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and its offshoot Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP). Both are funded through the Farm Bill.

Beginning in 1985, CRP contracts paid farmers to idle their land in order to benefit the environment and reduce crop surpluses. Ohio implemented the similar CREP about 10 years ago, targeting three environmentally sensitive watersheds — Lake Erie, the Scioto River and Upper Big Walnut Creek.

Acreage held in both programs provide important nesting habitat for upland game birds, as well as many songbird species, said Nathan Stricker, a researcher with the Ohio DNR Division of Wildlife.

But that habitat is diminishing as farmers, uncertain of future federal subsidies, opt out of CRP and CREP to plant more profitable row crops.

“CRP acres are disappearing and there is less interest in signing up new acres,” said Jeff Burris, a private lands administrator with the wildlife division. “Even more alarming is the increase in new ground being broken out that has not previously been farmed.”

The state lost 19,152 acres of CRP land in 2012 as farmers either paid penalties and withdrew from the program or failed to renew existing contracts. In addition, plows turned another 9,642 acres not previously cultivated. Ohio’s numbers reflect a nationwide trend, Burris said.

In northwest and north central Ohio, CRP and CREP acres support the grassy habitat pheasants need to breed, raise young and thrive.

Stricker said early CRP contracts “plugged a hole in the dam” and allowed pheasant numbers, then in decline, to stabilize in some areas.

“It helped maintain pheasant populations in northwest and north central counties,” Stricker said.

Birds in Defiance, Williams, Fulton and Henry counties benefited from set-asides, as did those in Wyandot, Marion, Union, Madison, Fayette, Ross and Pickaway counties, Stricker said.

But a surging demand for ethanol, a fuel additive derived from corn, sent pheasant numbers spiraling downward.

Stricker estimated Ohio lost 40 percent of its wild pheasants over the last five years as farmers turned game bird habitat into corn fields.

“You need 15 to 20 percent of a township-sized parcel of land in pheasant habitat in order to maintain a population,” Stricker said. “We’re now down to 5 percent in many places.”

He doesn’t see it getting any better.

In southwest Ohio, where the whistles of male bobwhite quail once echoed, numbers of the popular game birds now decline 9 percent annually. They’ve been in decline since 1970, Stricker said.

Popular belief that severe winters in 1977-78 killed off Ohio’s quail is only partially true. Stricker said the birds were disappearing prior to those years.

Quail need grassland, early successional forest cover — and especially fence rows — to survive snowy winters.

Fences are a rarity on Ohio’s agricultural landscape these days as farm fields stretch “ditch to ditch” to make every acre count.

Stricker estimated Ohio has lost 90 percent of its native quail population since the 1980s.

He’s also starting to worry about the effect of habitat loss on wild turkey. Turkeys live primarily in forests, but need “little, scrubby” openings to nest and rear young. Those spaces are disappearing.

“In northwest Ohio, we see nothing but row crops,” Stricker noted.

He pins hopes for an upland game bird resurgence on relaxed ethanol-fuel requirements by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and a new Farm Bill.

“We rely on that (Farm Bill) to help birds rebound,” Stricker said.