Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center
North Dakotans who remember traveling across the state during the bleak "snirtstorm" winters of the 1970s, when black, plowed cropfields dominated the landscape, have seen the face of North Dakota change for the better during the late 1980s. The landscape of the earlier era, with many steep hills and areas of light soil cultivated under the fencerow-to-fencerow agricultural policies of the day, often suffered severe erosion and permanent loss of soil fertility. Today's travelers see many of these landscapes clothed in green in summer and white in winter because of increased vegetative cover.
These changes are the result of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Conservation Reserve Program under the Food Security Act of 1985. By this program, USDA leased highly erodible cropland for 10 years if landowners established and maintained stands of perennial vegetation and agreed to leave the land idle for the length of the lease. The CRP particularly benefitted migratory birds. To many birds, the perennial vegetation on those highly erodible acres means "home" in the form of added breeding habitat.
The CRP was established primarily to bring crop production more in line with demand and to conserve and improve soil and water quality. The emphasis was on reduction of soil erosion and stream sedimentation and on improvement of water quality on erodible or eroding lands and tilled wetlands.
Another objective was to enhance wildlife habitat. Because the program has a target of restoring permanent cover on as many as 45 million acres nationwide, it presents enormous potential benefits for wildlife. North Dakota farmers found CRP especially attractive, and enrolled 2.88 million acres or about 10 percent of the state's cropland.
The Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service, which administers the program, offered landowners the choice of 14 different land uses under the 1985 Act. Most North Dakota farmers opted for tame grass plantings. Nationwide, tame and native grass plantings were about 82 percent of the total enrolled area during the first nine sign-up periods.
CRP distribution across the state generally reflects the distribution of highly erodible lands and tilled wetlands (Fig. 1 ). Eddy, Hettinger and Kidder counties have the greatest percentages of area in CRP, whereas Stutsman, McHenry and Kidder counties have the greatest amounts of enrolled land. At the other extreme, Traill, Cass and Cavalier counties have the lowest percentages of enrolled land, and Traill, Oliver and Cass counties have the fewest acres.