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Impact of the Conservation Reserve Program on Duck
Recruitment in the U.S. Prairie Pothole Region

Management Implications

Our results support the premise that large-scale conversion of cropland to undisturbed perennial grass cover will result in increased nest success and productivity for upland nesting ducks in the Prairie Pothole Region of the United States. The positive relationship we detected between DSR in CRP cover and the percent of landscape in perennial grass (PGRASS) suggests that the influence of planting additional grass extends beyond the bounds of those planted fields. Our results also support the idea that landscape-level programs such as the CRP are more meaningful than actions that focus only on increasing nesting habitat patch size. For example, Sovada et al. (2000) found little evidence that nest success in CRP fields was related to cover patch size.

The USDA Conservation Reserve Program converted 1.9 million ha of cropland to undisturbed grass cover between 1986 and 1992 in the Prairie Pothole Region of North Dakota, South Dakota, and Montana. Many of these contracts have expired, and nearly all will expire by 2002. In 1996, the 104th U.S. Congress passed the Federal Agriculture Improvement and Reform Act that reauthorized the CRP with a national upper limit equal to the 1995 Act (14.7 million ha). The 1996 Farm Bill did not provide for extending contracts that were accepted under the 1985 and 1990 Farm Bills, and all bids submitted for contract under the new CRP were evaluated based on an environmental benefit and cost index. The USDA designated the U.S. Prairie Pothole Region as 1 of 4 National Conservation Priority Areas for purposes of scoring CRP bids under the 1996 Farm Bill. As of October 1999, about 2.2 million ha had been enrolled under the latest CRP in the Prairie Pothole Region of North Dakota, South Dakota, and Montana. An additional 0.18 million ha was enrolled in the Prairie Pothole Region of Minnesota and Iowa. Future enrollment opportunities may be available. Our study indicates that these actions should result in benefits to upland nesting ducks. The CRP is the latest national agricultural land-retirement program. From 1956-1972, the USDA administered a program under the Soil Bank Act of 1956 which converted up to 11.6 million ha of cropland to perennial cover nationally (Berg 1994). The Food and Agriculture Act of 1965 established the Cropland Adjustment Program that set a national goal to shift 16.2 million ha of cropland to idle cover (Duebbert 1969). Land-retirement programs likely will be part of USDA's conservation efforts in the future. We believe nationally funded programs should yield widespread benefits; our study results can provide guidance in developing these programs. Ducks from populations in the U.S. Prairie Pothole Region migrate to ≥44 of the continental states (Munro and Kimball 1982). Consequently, hunters, birdwatchers, and outdoor recreationists nationwide have benefited from the CRP in the northern plains.

Other programs that convert cropland to undisturbed grass cover in the Prairie Pothole Region. The Small Wetlands Acquisition Program (USFWS) has set aside 112,000 ha of grass cover on WPA in the Region since 1960 (Cowardin et al. 1995). This program is funded primarily by the sale of Duck Stamps. Models incorporating our results could assist managers in determining the size and locations of future land purchases to achieve a desired level of nest success.

Finally, our results demonstrate the need to protect remaining grasslands in the Prairie Pothole Region, particularly in those areas where numerous wetlands attract high densities of breeding ducks. By combining programs that protect existing grasslands and wetlands with those that restore grass cover, significant benefits to waterfowl populations can be achieved.

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