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Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center

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The Conservation Reserve Program and Grassland Birds


Several bird species that breed in the temperate grasslands of North America, many of which winter in the Neotropics, declined in abundance during the past quarter century. The Lark Bunting (see Table 1 for scientific names) and Grasshopper Sparrow, as examples, declined by about half during that period, as indexed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Breeding Bird Survey. Populations of other grassland species have also diminished steadily, if not as spectacularly.

Why so many species declined is not known, but continued conversion of perennial grassland to annually tilled cropland is a suspected cause. A test of this possibility is offered by the Conservation Reserve Program, a program of the United States Department of Agriculture that caused the reversion of millions of hectares of marginal cropland to perennial grassland. Under this Program, landowners are paid to plant perennial vegetation on certain eroding or highly erodible fields. They receive annual payments during the 10 years of the contract. Although the primary objectives of the Program involved reduction of crop surpluses and protection of soil from erosion, wildlife habitat was listed as a secondary objective.

We evaluated the use by breeding birds of selected Program fields in eastern Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, and western Minnesota. These four states have about four million hectares of land enrolled in the Program.

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