New program hopes to improve quality of land in North Dakota

Farm Forum

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — More than 1 million acres of grassland in North Dakota have been converted to other land uses since 2007, and the state could lose thousands more as Conservation Reserve Program contracts expire, according to the North Dakota Natural Resources Trust’s application for an Outdoor Heritage Fund grant.

“There’s been a change, whether there’s CRP expiring or because of an additional need for producers to have more crop production,” said Terry Allbee, business manager and biologist for the trust.

The North Dakota Game and Fish Department’s 2015 State Wildlife Action Plan attributed the declining populations of some birds – including the state bird, the western meadowlark – to grassland losses, which could be exacerbated by fewer CRP acres nationwide.

The breaking up of grassland acres also affects livestock producers looking for pasture land, according to Allbee. A consortium of conservation groups is aiming to halt some of that depletion with a new partnership.

The Working Grasslands Partnership, a program funded by the North Dakota Outdoor Heritage Fund, is working to help landowners keep their land in grass and use it for grazing after it exits CRP, The Bismarck Tribune ( ) reported.

The primary organization behind the WGP is the North Dakota Natural Resources Trust. Allbee said the partnership will help provide working lands for cattle producers while maintaining grass cover for declining grasslands bird species.

The trust has partnered with the North Dakota Association of Soil Conservation Districts, Ducks Unlimited and Pheasants Forever and has the support of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Farm Service Agency and the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in the endeavor.

CRP is a federal program in which farmers voluntarily stop farming on sensitive land and plant species to improve the quality of the land in exchange for a yearly rent payment. The program’s goal, according to the Farm Service Agency, is to improve water quality, prevent soil erosion and reduce loss of wildlife habitat.

A few years ago, when commodity prices were record high, some producers began breaking up land formerly held in CRP as soon as their contracts expired in order to use the land to plant valuable cash crops. Other grassland also was converted to cropland.

“We did lose a relatively large amount of CRP in a short period of time,” said Jonas Davis, Ducks Unlimited’s manager of conservation programs for North Dakota.

Commodity prices have dropped, and the tilling on former CRP land and other grassland has slowed as well, but it hasn’t stopped. Additionally, the number of acres accepted for CRP contracts has gone down. Allbee said the WGP will provide farmers some resources for keeping their land in grass.

The biologists who work with the participating partners already tout other conservation programs, and Davis said the WGP will be another tool they can offer landowners who want assistance in implementing conservation practices.

The WGP received $1,097,250 from the Outdoor Heritage Fund. That money will be used to help landowners add fences or water resources to land formerly held in CRP so the land can be used for grazing, either by the landowner or a renter. The involved partners also will offer technical assistance. Landowners will be responsible for 40 percent of the cost and must keep the land in grass for 10 years, Allbee said.

Additionally, the North Dakota Natural Resources Trust will provide an incentive payment for producers participating in the program whose CRP contracts expired this year or will expire next year, Allbee said. That part of the program will not use OHF funds.

The program is limited to lands in southwestern North Dakota and the Missouri Couteau. Those are areas that the Game and Fish’s State Wildlife Action Plan identified as areas of concern for grassland losses that have hurt some bird species, Davis said.

“We’re trying to be proactive and be sure those types of species are OK in the future,” he said.

While there is no requirement that participating landowners provide public access for hunting, biologists will promote the Game and Fish Department’s Private Land Open to Sportsmen program, Davis said.

Allbee said CRP contracts expiring in 2016 just ended Sept. 30, so he expects a lot of activity between now and the end of the year as landowners decide what to do with their land. The program already is working with a couple dozen producers, he said.

The partners involved are aiming for the program to provide an effective way for landowners to transition out of CRP without getting out the plow.

“It’s a win-win for producers as well as wildlife. It’s additional funds that wouldn’t be possible without the Outdoor Heritage Fund,” Davis said.