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Doug Leier: Habitat holds the key to keeping wildlife on the landscape in North Dakota

The Game and Fish Department continues to prioritize short- and long-term habitat for the maintenance and growth of wildlife populations.

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If you’d like more deer tags available, more pheasants in the field or ducks in flight, habitat is where the conversation begins.
Contributed / North Dakota Game and Fish Department
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Doug Leier is an outreach biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. Reach him at dleier@nd.gov.

WEST FARGO – The single, most important factor in maintaining or growing wildlife populations – ducks, deer, pheasants, you name it – is habitat.

If you’d like more deer tags available, more pheasants in the field or ducks in flight, habitat is where the conversation begins. Often, we connect habitat to the federal Conservation Reserve Program and for good reason. CRP acres have been a key component of habitat for 35 years.

It’s easy to say, “we just need more CRP.” While that’s not incorrect, the means of creating more habitat and CRP isn’t as simple.

Studies have shown that CRP contributed to a 22% increase in counts of ring-necked pheasants for every 4% increase in CRP-enrolled acres.
Between 1992 and 1997, CRP in the Prairie Pothole Region of North Dakota, South Dakota and northeastern Montana contributed to a 30% improvement in duck production – or 10.5 million additional ducks.

A central North Dakota deer study concluded that fawns select bed sites consisting of native grasslands and CRP more than 70% of the time. The study also concluded that continued loss of native grasslands and CRP will reduce available vegetation for fawn bed site selection during the first 60 days of life. Proving the point on how stronger habitat via CRP improves wildlife populations. But getting there is expensive, to say the least.

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At its peak of 3.4 million acres in 2007, annual CRP payments to landowners in North Dakota totaled over $120 million. For comparison, the Game and Fish Department’s Private Land Open to Sportmen program’s annual budget is about $6 million. Currently, about 1.2 million acres remain in CRP across North Dakota.

If all remaining CRP contracts in North Dakota are left to expire and no new acres are enrolled over the next five years, the state will only have 500,000 acres of CRP on the opening day of pheasant season in 2026.

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High commodity prices, increasingly complex program requirements, changing demographics and other factors are leading more producers to opt out of CRP rather than enroll in CRP. This is occurring nationally.

Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack recently commented that only 1.8 million of the 4 million expiring CRP acres will be re-enrolled.

The balance for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department is remaining a competitive financial option for landowners while balancing with production agriculture needs. In simple terms, our philosophy is not expecting landowners to absorb a loss with a goal of not increasing rental rate competition. We can’t expect a conservation landowner program to only be an option for those who can afford a loss without incurring increased costs to local rental rates.

The continued downward trend in CRP acres and loss of native grasslands will significantly impact soil health, water quality and wildlife habitat. Wildlife habitat is no more important than any of the other facets, but the Game and Fish Department continues to prioritize short- and long-term habitat for the maintenance and growth of wildlife populations.

The challenge continues in a never-ending balance of grassland and production agriculture. I’d encourage any landowner interested to ask a Game and Fish private land biologist or inquire with a local Natural Resources Conservation Service office as programs, eligibility and rental rates continue to evolve. New programs are added and priorities shift.

Why not inquire?

Doug Leier is an outreach biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. Reach him at dleier@nd.gov.
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