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For the birds

As grain prices rise, critical habitat disappears

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In summer months, northern pintails scatter across the grasslands of Montana where they settle in to nest. There, they eat seeds, weeds and aquatic insects near ponds and shallow potholes.

Dabbling ducks like the pintail need grasslands—where groundcover protects their eggs from predators—if they are to survive. But the draining of wetlands and the conversion of grasslands into grain fields in the “Prairie Pothole Region” of eastern Montana has significantly affected the pintail and other dabblers.

When grain production goes up in the region, as it did during the second half of the last century, the only grass cover available for waterfowl are small sections at the edge of fields, and these often are not tall enough to hide eggs from the searching eyes of foxes.

The mid-’90s saw an increase in waterfowl in the region—with numbers double the average for the previous 40 years—and most biologists credited the controversial Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) for adding much-needed grasslands that ducks like the pintails thrive in. In fact, U.S. Fish and Wildlife research for the Prairie Pothole Region demonstrated a 46 percent higher nest success rate for dabblers in CRP areas than in non-CRP areas.

But that land is now in jeopardy. Nationwide, 1.1 million acres in CRP contracts are set to expire this month, with more than 8 million acres set to expire in 2009 and 2010. In Montana, there were 3.4 million acres of CRP land in fall 2007, according to Farm Service Agency data. If no new contracts are signed, that number could be cut to 1.2 million by fall 2012, a loss of 63 percent. And while CRP land can always be brought back into production in the future, dwindling wildlife populations would face a tough road ahead if their habitat is threatened now.

“Rising grain prices are making it more likely that land under CRP contract will be farmed to grain again after the [current] CRP contract expires,” says Donald D. Nelson, an agricultural researcher at Washington State University.

The CRP originated in the Farm Security Act of 1985 and has been renewed in subsequent farm bills. The program offers farmers a way to rest less-productive lands by paying them to plant native grasses, trees and shrubs on erosion-prone property. The main goals of the CRP are to save soil from erosion, protect ground and surface water from runoff, and offer habitat to wildlife displaced by farming. In the CRP, farmers sign 10- to 15-year contracts with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The USDA then “rents” the land, paying the farmer a set price for the duration of the contract to not farm the land.

While conservationists call the program a success, critics have labeled it a wasteful handout to landowners. The USDA, for instance, spent $1.7 billion in CRP payments to landowners in 2005. But the argument becomes moot if landowners choose not to renew their contracts.

The high price of wheat, which is the grain of choice for many Montana farmers, is one reason farmers are turning away from the CRP. Just a few years ago, wheat prices were near $3 a bushel, but recently they have gone up to as high as $15 a bushel. That price is being driven up in part by government subsidies for corn-based ethanol, which have motivated many farmers to plant corn on every available acre. More corn means fewer acres available for wheat production, curtailing the supply and driving up prices.

With such high commodity prices and low CRP rental rates, “it makes less sense [for farmers] to put land in CRP,” says John Youngberg, vice president of government relations at the Montana Farm Bureau. The CRP should be restricted to the poorest quality land, Youngberg believes. “CRP limits the ability of farmers to expand and of young people to get into farming,” he says, because it ties up land in government contracts.

Scott McLeod, a farm bill specialist with the conservation group Ducks Unlimited, which supports CRP, estimates that the average CRP rent in Montana runs $33 an acre, while the current going rate to rent land for grain production is twice that number. That disparity makes it difficult for farmers to stay in the CRP.

And if farmers do leave the program, there may be far-reaching consequences.

“Much of the land in this part of the country that was enrolled in CRP was marginal land and probably shouldn’t have been farmed to grain in the first place,” explains Nelson. “Putting this land back into grain production will cause an increase in soil erosion from wind and water.”

The USDA recently opened CRP contracts for grazing and hay production, and pressure to allow grain production is growing.

And while ethanol—the product that started this grain-price snowball effect—has been touted a “green” energy source that can reduce climate change, putting CRP land back into grain production will release carbon into the atmosphere. That’s because undisturbed grasslands pull carbon out of the air and hold it in the soil. When farmers plow the land up for grain production, the stored carbon is released back into the atmosphere.

According to Ducks Unlimited estimates, the 5.6 million acres of CRP land that will expire in the next few years in Montana and the Dakotas has sequestered 172 billion pounds of carbon dioxide in the past decade.

“The amount of carbon that will be released in the Prairie Pothole Region [in] the next four years from plowing up Conservation Reserve Program grassland,” a Ducks Unlimited report says, “will equal 15 million new cars on the road.”

As debates about ethanol subsidies and climate change rage on, the northern pintail and other waterfowl may find that much of their habitat is gone. And that, says Nelson, will mean falling bird populations in the years to come.

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