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CRP enrollments are proof of major change on state landscape

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Hunters and fishermen who rely on the Conservation Reserve Program to provide them with opportunities in the North Dakota outdoors will find themselves looking down the barrel of a less-than-enviable situation in the near future.

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The USDA has instituted new regulations regarding the CRP program that look to have a great impact on wildlife population statewide, representatives from the North Dakota Game and Fish said.

"It will certainly affect Game and Fish, but it's going to especially affect those who hunt and fish," Game and Fish Director Terry Steinwand said. "People are not going to see the opportunities they have in the past.

New regulations are not the only reason for the decrease of the CRP land available for wildlife to find cover in over the next few years. A lot of farmers have chosen to not resign for the program due to abnormally high commodity prices.

"You can't blame landowners for taking the land out of CRP to put it into production," Steinwand said. "It wouldn't be a good business decision with where prices are now."

Steinwand and his staff are keeping an eye on the changing landscape of the CRP program and will "adapt" where they see as necessary.

The Game and Fish also is pursuing other conservation opportunities in an attempt to stave off the affects of the lost CRP land.

Whatever they do, the number of wildlife in North Dakota will most likely take a hit.

"It'll affect ducks, grouse, pheasants and deer to some extent," Steinwand said. "Water quality is also a component that a lot of people forget about when considering CRP."

The duck population is one area that the Game and Fish is concerned about, especially because ducks numbers have been up in recent years.

"It can't be good," Game and Fish waterfowl expert Mike Johnson said of the forecast reduction in CRP acres. "We've seen tremendous duck production in the state since CRP and the water returned. Any loss of CRP is going to hurt that."

The CRP acres provide nesting cover for the ducks that cannot be found near waterways. Female ducks travel miles to find the appropriate nesting area and most of the time their search ends when they find a field of CRP.

"Basically what we have found was that by providing that additional grass habitat, you are providing additional habitat for birds," said Ron Reynolds of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. "If you increase the amount of grasslands available, you will see an increase in the number of birds."

Reynolds said while the U.S. Fish and Wildlife has not done any studies regarding the direct impact of the CRP shift, it is not out of the question to assume a loss of CRP will result in a lower number of wildlife in the area.

In the mid-60's with the end of the Soil Bank program, the state of North Dakota saw a drop in the population of several species. If things continue as is, we are set to repeat history and see dramatic drops in not only the duck population, but also grouse, turkey, pheasant and deer.

There is a lot of literature that has been created regarding the impact that CRP has had on the population of migratory and nesting birds, but not much has been done concerning big game animals.

"It'll probably mean fewer deer," said Bill Jensen, Game and Fish big game biologist. "How exactly it will play out is yet to be seen though."

Jensen notes over the past few years, there has been a shift to greater numbers in the mule deer population, a trend that he sees will reverse when the CRP acres decline.

"Mule deer will probably be hit the hardest," Jensen said. "You'll probably see a shift back to whitetail and we will probably see lower numbers of both.

"You can't stockpile deer...if CRP isn't going to be around, they probably aren't going to make it."

One game bird that may actually benefit from the CRP change to cultivated land is the sharptail grouse.

"Grouse like large expanses of grassland," Game and Fish upland game specialist Stan Kohn said. "They like to be in areas with native prairie or planted cover."

Kohn said the game birds that will be most affected are turkey, pheasant and ducks.

While the CRP was never originally intended to be a way to increase the wildlife population, it has been a welcome consequence of the program. This is especially true for those farmers and ranchers who have taken advantage of the recreational agriculture dollars that have come to North Dakota.

"When CRP went in, it wasn't for wildlife, it was for soil erosion and water quality," Kohn said. "Now you look at it and because it has provided such good recreational income and created jobs. It's been a great boost to the economy."

Kohn said it's hard to say which part of the state is going to be hit hardest by the loss of CRP acres, although he did say the regions where the most CRP is lost is probably a good place to start.

"It's going to be a balancing act over the next few years and we need to keep an eye on it," Jensen said. "You can't overreact; you have to deal with it as it comes.

"The wetlands in the southeastern part of the state will moderate the loss, but there is still going to be a loss of habitat that affects the numbers."

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