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Wildlife Habitat Management on the
Northern Prairie Landscape

Management of private lands


With over 95% of the land in the Midwest privately owned and administered, management practices that are compatible and supportive of wildlife populations take on enormous importance. Today's political, economic, and social environment limits the opportunity for purchasing large blocks of habitat that will provide complete life-cycle requirements of migratory or even resident species. Consequently, the US Fish and Wildlife Service recognizes the importance of private lands in wildlife management and is developing techniques and programs designed to assist and support private landowners who desire to improve habitats. As an example, it is sometimes possible to provide for some of a species' life-cycle requirements on lands that are used for agricultural production at other times of the year. A notable illustration is flooding of harvested rice fields in the lower Mississippi River valley, which provides excellent habitat for wintering water birds.

Available tools

The primary tools for management on private lands are easements, restorations, technical assistance, and management agreements. Depending upon location, several public agencies and a few private conservation organizations are willing to acquire conservation easements from private landowners for restoration and protection of fish and wildlife habitats. Most of these easements are perpetual and payments are commensurate with rights acquired from the landowner. Examples include easements under the Reinvest in Minnesota program, administered by the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources, and Waterfowl Production Area easements, administered by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. More recently, the US Department of Agriculture, in cooperation with several other agencies and organizations, has initiated the Wetland Reserve Program. This program is designed to use conservation easements to restore and protect up to 400,000 ha of wetlands and associated uplands by 1995.

Restoration of complex ecological communities, such as native prairie, is challenging and rarely achieved. Natural resource agencies have neither the funds nor the techniques to restore the hundreds of species of grasses and forbs that originally occurred in these areas. Typically, native prairie restoration by resource agencies consists of establishing native grasses but few, if any, of the predominant forbs. With this in mind, one of our highest priorities as natural resource managers should be maintaining and enhancing remnant natural communities that exist on private and public land.

Short-term benefits on private lands are sometimes achieved through management agreements with public agencies, which provide technical assistance to landowners. Management agreements allow access to private lands. Most agreements specify the activities to be undertaken by the conservation agency and the responsibilities of the cooperating landowners. Management agreements are particularly useful with landowners who are reluctant to enter into perpetual agreements with conservation agencies or for agencies not able to offer long-term or perpetual easements. As a general rule, the most cost-effective management agreements are those that are of long duration that do not incur excessive restoration or management costs.

Short-term management agreements also can serve a useful role in ensuring protection of many important but ephemeral habitats. For example, bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) nesting sites may be more appropriately protected on private lands through the use of a 10-year management agreement than through an expensive perpetual conservation easement. The nest tree may blow over or the nesting pair of eagles may abandon the site, rendering a perpetual easement a waste of funds. Experiences show that some landowners, initially reluctant to enter into long-term or perpetual agreements with public conservation agencies, may agree to them after a short-term agreement expires and they have become comfortable in working with the agency.

Management agreements can also be used to increase or maintain wildlife populations on locally important production, migration, or wintering areas. Through these agreements, public conservation agencies can manage predators to improve waterfowl nesting success on privately owned islands and peninsulas in the Midwest. If necessary for disease control along migration corridors or on wintering grounds, management agreements can be used on private lands to disperse highly concentrated wildlife populations.

The public's views

An effective private lands program can be more acceptable than fee acquisition to landowners and elected officials. Private lands programs do not remove lands from property tax rolls. Nor do they tend to relocate rural families to cities or other areas. Participation in a private lands program is completely voluntary. When long-term or perpetual easements are acquired, landowners are frequently compensated for restoring or protecting habitats. In most cases, lands suitable for a private lands program are not highly productive agricultural lands. Significant support for private lands programs exists among private conservation organizations, many of which are willing to contribute time and funding towards these efforts.

Examples

Two examples illustrate the diversity of private lands efforts. One involves the restoration of 120 ha of wetland in a prairie complex in Kandiyohi County, Minnesota. The US Fish and Wildlife Service is providing $1250 of the $4000 total cost; the remainder is contributed by the Delta Waterfowl Association and three other wildlife groups. A smaller-scale project is the restoration of 0.8 ha of wetland and native prairie on property owned by the Iowa School for the Deaf, in Council Bluffs. This effort will have considerable outreach values and is cosponsored by several conservation groups.

Management by regulation and subsidy

Governmental agencies can use either 'stick' or 'carrot' approaches to manipulate the behavior of citizens; however, the latter approach is more effective. With respect to wildlife habitat, more incentives than penalties have been used. An example of a program with negative reinforcement is the 'Swampbuster' provision of the 1985 Food Security Act. Under that provision, any person who converts a wetland for agricultural production becomes ineligible for most federal farm programs. Swampbuster has been criticized by agricultural interests for interfering with normal farming practices, as well as by conservationists who cite instances of lax enforcement by neighboring farmers who serve on committees for the USDA's Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service. The US Fish and Wildlife Service, which also assists with enforcement of Swampbuster, sometimes wears a 'black hat' for this role. Conversely, the Service provides assistance to landowners who wish to restore previously converted wetlands, so they may qualify for federal agricultural programs.

Among the programs providing incentives for improving wildlife habitat and populations is the Wetlands Reserve Program, begun in 1992 on a trial basis by the US Department of Agriculture. That program offers payment to landowners who restore wetlands and permanently remove them from crop production. Interest in the program far exceeded expectations in 1992. In Minnesota and Iowa, landowners bid 16,600 ha to enter the program, but only 14% of that area could be funded. The future of the program is uncertain at this time, but at the time of writing, the 1994 federal budget includes provisions to continue the program.

An example—the Conservation Reserve Program

Another incentive program with enormous impact on the landscape is the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). The CRP was established by the 1985 Food Security Act primarily to bring crop production more in line with demand and to conserve and improve soil and water resources of highly erodible cropland. The strategy was to remove certain highly erodible or eroding lands from agricultural production by establishing permanent cover on them, thereby reducing soil erosion, reducing sedimentation of streams, and improving water quality. Another objective was to enhance habitat for fish and wildlife populations. Nationwide, the CRP has a target of restoring permanent cover on up to 18 million ha (Laycock, 1991), with 14.5 million ha enrolled to date. The northern Great Plains are markedly affected; the 4 million ha of land enrolled in Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Minnesota account for more than one-quarter of all land included in the CRP.

Under the CRP, the US Department of Agriculture leases fields containing highly erodible cropland for 10 years; the landowner establishes, if necessary, perennial vegetation and agrees to leave the land idle for the length of the lease. The CRP is expensive; the latest sign-up, involving 446 000 ha, had an average annual rental cost of $155 ha-1. Although costs are lower in the northern Great Plains ($81 ha-1 in North Dakota, for example), the total federal outlay is enormous.

The CRP has made major changes to the northern Great Plains on a landscape scale. Kidder County in central North Dakota, as one example, has seen more than one-quarter of its cropland returned to perennial vegetation. Such dramatic reversals from the trend toward intensified agriculture have affected a variety of wildlife populations. Resident game bird populations have been booming (Umber, 1992), along with recreation and associated economic benefits. Waterfowl nesting has been enhanced, although the coincidental drought in the area has so far prevented ducks from fully exploiting the newly available habitat. Kantrud (1993) and others recorded higher nest success in CRP fields than in habitats specifically purchased and managed for waterfowl production. Non-game birds, including a number of neotropical migrants, also are breeding in CRP fields in large numbers. Johnson and Schwartz (1993) searched 240 fields totaling 4654 ha in 1990 and 335 fields totaling 6181 ha in 1991. They reported 73 species of birds using those fields, at an overall density of 124 pairs per 100 ha. The two most common species were the lark bunting (Calamospiza melanocorys) and grasshopper sparrow (Ammodramus savannarum), both of which had declined by more than half during the previous 25 years, as indicated by results of the US Fish and Wildlife Service's Breeding Bird Survey. Other prairie birds that had been declining but were fairly common in CRP include the bobolink (Dolichonyx oryzivorus), clay-colored sparrow (Spizella pallida), Baird's sparrow (Ammodramus bairdii), and dickcissel (Spiza americana).

What does the Conservation Reserve Program mean to the wildlife professional? It should be treated as more than a no-cost, temporary habitat-creation plan. Although it may not cost natural resource agencies anything, the American taxpayer is paying a lot. Natural resource professionals bear a responsibility to determine the values, positive and negative, of federal programs such as the CRP. Our findings should be brought to the attention of involved agencies, Congress, concerned interest groups, and the public, so that informed decisions can be made about the current farm program and future ones. Conservation Reserve Program contracts begin to expire in 1996, so the need for action is immediate.

It seems evident that the CRP will not continue in its present form, if at all. If the program is modified, what are key features to keep in place to provide maximal natural resource values at the lowest cost? Are large blocks of CRP, or fields contiguous with wildlife areas, better than smaller, widely dispersed fields? What are the benefits of CRP fields in proximity to wetlands? Since many types of grassland habitat degrade after long periods of idleness, how should CRP fields be managed? What roles do CRP fields play in the landscape? We need to supply that information.

In addition to passively enjoying the benefits of CRP, wildlife professionals can actively manage to leverage the gains. For example, restoration of wetlands near or in CRP fields provides all the requisites for nesting waterfowl and many other species. Since the CRP is taking out of production much land that never should have been cropped, we can work to maintain perennial cover on some of that land even after the program terminates. In North Dakota, wildlife interests are working with stockmen's groups to establish rotational grazing systems that are profitable to the landowner, but still maintain cover on the land and suitable habitat for wildlife.


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