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Conservation Reserve Program:
Benefit for Grassland Birds in the Northern Plains

Introduction


During the past few decades numbers of some species of upland-nesting birds in North America have declined. Duck species such as mallard (Anas platyrhynchos), northern pintail (A. acuta) and blue-winged teal (A. discors) have declined since the early 1970s and have remained low since 1985 (Caithamer et al. 1993). Some grassland-dependent nonwaterfowl species also have declined since 1966, as indicated by the North American Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) (Robbins et al. 1986). For prairie-nesting ducks, population declines can be attributed mostly to low recruitment, partially as a result of low nest success. Klett et al. (1988) concluded that nest success (probability of ≥1 egg of clutch hatches) in much of the U.S. Prairie Pothole Region was inadequate to maintain populations of the five most common upland-nesting duck species studied, and that predators were the most important cause of nest failure. Over the years, as grassland areas have been converted to cropland, ducks have concentrated their nesting in the remaining areas of available habitat, where predators such as red fox (Vulpes vulpes), striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis) and badger (Taxidea taxus) forage (Cowardin et al. 1983).

The reasons for declining populations of grassland nonwaterfowl birds are not clear but the loss of suitable grassland-nesting habitat probably is an important factor. Currently, approximately 95 percent of the land in North Dakota is used for agricultural purposes, of which over 60 percent is used for annual crop production (Haugse 1990). Of the grassland that remains, 95 percent is used for livestock production. This probably had a severe impact on grassland bird species that seek idle grass cover for nesting.

The 1985 and 1990 U.S. Farm Bills include provisions under the Food Security Act to fund a cropland-idling program called the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). Over 36 million acres have been enrolled nationwide in the CRP since 1985 (Osborn 1993), and up to 25 percent of cropland in some counties has been converted primarily to grass. In North Dakota, nearly 3 million acres have been enrolled. Over 90 percent of the CRP plantings in North Dakota are grass and grass-legume mix composed primarily of wheatgrass (Agropyron spp.), smooth brome (Bromus inermis), alfalfa (Medicago saliva) and sweetclover (Melilotus spp.). Mixes of these species have been reported to attract high densities of nesting ducks (Duebbert and Kantrud 1974). According to the CRP provisions, the land must remain idle for the 10-year contract period, with the exception of emergency provisions for haying or grazing. CRP appears to have great potential for benefiting many species of grassland-nesting birds.

There have been efforts to document the importance of the CRP to migratory birds in the Upper Great Plains of the U.S. Kantrud (1993) studied duck nest success in CRP cover and concluded that nest success was higher than in planted cover on U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) Waterfowl Production Areas (WPAs). Johnson and Schwartz (1993a) measured the use of CRP fields by nonwaterfowl birds and reported that several species have responded positively by colonizing CRP fields. They concluded that CRP has the potential to help reverse the population declines of several species.

We investigated the importance of CRP to upland-nesting ducks and certain other grassland-nesting birds. For ducks, we compared nest success in CRP cover with nest success in planted cover on WPAs in the same period (1992-93) and with that of an earlier period (1980-84). For nonwaterfowl, we used BBS data to compare the trends in populations of certain species found in CRP, for the periods 1966-86 (pre-CRP cover establishment) and 1987-92 (post-CRP cover establishment) in North Dakota.


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