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The Conservation Reserve Program:
Habitat for Grassland Birds


In 1985 the Food Security Act established the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) primarily to conserve and improve soil and water resources of highly erodible cropland. Emphasis was placed on taking out of agricultural production certain highly erodible or eroding lands by establishing perennial cover on them, thereby reducing soil erosion and sedimentation of streams, and improving water quality. Another objective was to enhance habitat for fish and wildlife populations. Related to that objective, we evaluated the use by breeding birds of selected CRP fields in eastern Montana, North and South Dakota, and western Minnesota. With about 4 million hectares, these four states contain nearly 30% of all land enrolled in the Program; thus, the CRP is of enormous importance in that region.

Because CRP habitat is new, evaluations of its value to wildlife are limited. Studies have been completed on nesting in CRP fields by ducks (Luttschwager 1991; Kantrud 1993) and by Ring-necked Pheasants (Berthelsen et al. 1990; see American Ornithologists' Union 1983 for scientific names). King (1991) surveyed birds on 4-6 CRP fields and some alternative habitats in eastern Nebraska during 1989-1990. Attempts have been made to measure habitat changes resulting from CRP and to predict subsequent effects on certain birds through various models (Hays et al. 1989; Stauffer et al. 1989). As yet, however, little published information exists on actual use of CRP fields by birds, especially nongame species. Elsewhere we (Johnson and Schwartz, in press) documented the significance of CRP fields to breeding grassland birds in the northern Great Plains. The present paper describes in greater detail some of the characteristics of the CRP fields we studied in 1990-1992. We also develop models assessing the influence of certain variables on the density of the most common species. Explanatory variables include geographical and temporal indicators, conservation practice employed, and vegetation structure.

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