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Farm bill frustration

Possibly going to vote as early as today, the farm bill has its supporters, but there are others with concerns regarding the legislation. Among the concerned are officials from the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. "A significant concern is ...

Possibly going to vote as early as today, the farm bill has its supporters, but there are others with concerns regarding the legislation.

Among the concerned are officials from the North Dakota Game and Fish Department.

"A significant concern is the changes in this farm bill and the pending loss of CRP (Conservation Reserve Program) are going to have a major impact on the ability for people to find places to hunt all across North Dakota," Game and Fish wildlife division chief, Randy Kreil said. "Especially southwest North Dakota, that area has been real heavily dependant on nonresident and resident hunters traveling to the area for hunting, especially for upland-game hunting and that's going to change dramatically in the next few years."

Provisions in the farm bill will have what the Game and Fish sees as negative impacts on wildlife and conservation efforts in the long term.

Three items specifically mentioned by wildlife division assistant chief Greg Link were the CRP program, the federal sodsaver program and the wetlands reserve program.

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Link said other states may see greater results from the other programs, but the CRP program has been instrumental in creating the wildlife populations that North Dakota's hunters currently enjoy, more than any other program.

"They (other programs) aren't the big wildlife producers like CRP," Link said. "CRP is our big workhorse...There is no program that can compete with it for what it has provided."

Link added that the Game and Fish utilizes the CRP program to justify the existence of several of its own programs. It will piggyback a lot of its programs onto the back of the CRP program to increase the incentive for producers to participate.

Increasing those incentives is imperative to the program Link said. In 2007, the Game and Fish projected a loss of 250,000 acres of CRP, the final number ended up being closer to 400,000. For 2008 a projection of 300,000 will most likely end up being closer to 600,000 acres.

"That's a million acres," Link said. "That will have an impact on the wildlife and the people that show up to hunt that wildlife...the critters will see it, the hunters will see it and the communities will see it."

A silver lining does exist according to Link; CRP acreage can always be placed back into CRP.

Native prairie on the other hand, which is plentiful in North Dakota, cannot not be replaced and is something Link is increasingly concerned about.

The sodsaver program would seek to alleviate some of Link's concerns. The proposed program would give a disincentive to those producers who broke native prairie, by not allowing them to receive federal crop insurance for any crop raised on that ground.

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North Dakota has been exempted from the sodsaver provision in the current draft of the farm bill and would only participate in the east river region if the governor chose to opt into the program.

"It got watered down pretty bad, that was our biggest disappointment," Link said. "We have the most remaining prairie. We have ranchers and a livestock industry that depends on it and species that could potentially be listed at one point, like the sage grouse that also depend on it."

Along with the watering down of the sodsaver provision of the farm bill, the wetlands reserve program didn't get the attention the Game and Fish thought it deserved.

"It wasn't working very well because of some appraisal changes that went into effect a few years ago and we wanted to see it fixed and it didn't get fixed the way we wanted it to," Link said. "Even though the program is funded we may not get the producers to sign up like we may have wanted."

Link stressed he didn't want to come across as overly negative and mentioned there were conservation programs that will be helped out by the farm bill.

Programs like the Conservation Security Program saw increases to its budget.

"I'm not saying those are bad programs," Link said. "But they are production programs."

Both Link and Kreil said the original version of the bill, which was passed in December of 2007 by both houses of Congress, would have been ideal.

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"At Christmas time I was really happy, I thought we had been given a Christmas present," Link said. "When you looked at the house version and the senate version of the bill we were pretty happy."

Once versions of the bill passed both houses, it went into conference committee and that was where the majority of the issues arose according to Link.

"They started doing more cutting and more cutting," Link said. "In the end, a lot of areas ended up getting hit."

"We're disappointed in many of the conservation provisions of the farm bill, we were hoping they would have been stronger," Kreil said. "Early on in the process it appeared that many of the conservation provisions that would have given land owners viable conservation options were going to be in place and that they would have provided the balance between commodity opportunities and conservation opportunities."

The concerns Link and Kreil have voiced may not matter. After all, before the legislation takes effect, there could be a veto battle and all the time spent lobbying for provisions and hammering out the final version of the bill may have been a waste of breath.

"It could go a lot of ways yet," Link said. "We could have a veto. The Senate probably has the votes to overturn it, but I'm not so sure about the House. If they can't, what happens? Does the president force congress to sign a one-year farm bill? I don't know who wins if that happens."

Link and Kreil both said Game and Fish will have to play with the cards dealt and that the passage of the bill is only the first part of the battle.

"What's in the language and how it's to be administered is always tough to tell," Link said. "...The devil is in the details."

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