FARGO, N.D. (AP) - Wildlife officials said Friday that a $35 million federal program to conserve wetlands and grasslands in the five-state Prairie Pothole Region is an effort to find new ways to protect native prairie with less money from the government.
The Department of Agriculture's Environmental Quality Incentives Program includes conservation grants, carbon credits and technical assistance for farmers, ranchers and others who volunteer to participate. The federal program targets native prairie considered to be at high risk of conversion to cropland.
"We are at a critical time," Agriculture Undersecretary Robert Bonnie said Friday in announcing the program. "There is significant pressure on grasslands in the Great Plains and we have to be more targeted with the conservation we do."
Prairie potholes are shallow depressions that are wetlands and are commonly found in North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa and Montana. The region provides important breeding and nesting habitat for more than 60 percent of the nation's migratory waterfowl. The Dakotas are especially hotbeds for pheasant and duck hunting.
Bonnie said the native grasses in the region provide vital water storage to reduce regional flooding and improve water quality. He said there's also potential to store carbon in soils, which reduces the level of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere.
Eric Lindstrom, government affairs representative for Ducks Unlimited in Bismarck, said a pilot program with similar incentives was held in North Dakota last year. It protected about 24,000 acres of land at a cost of about $3 million.
"Basically we're working to keep the grass sod-side up by offering a new series of incentives," Lindstrom said.
High commodity prices in recent years, along with new varieties of crops such as corn and soybeans that allow planting in less receptive soils, have cut into interest in the Conservation Reserve Program, Bonnie said. The program allows landowners to take marginal cropland out of production for 10 to 15 years.
Many of those contracts are about to expire. In addition, the number of acres in rural CRP land will be ratcheted down from a cap of about 32 million acres in the previous farm bill to 24 million in 2017, as a cost savings measure.
"There are some new programs in the farm bill we think will enhance our efforts here. It gives us a few more tools in the toolbox," Bonnie said. "We want to roll this out now as folks are thinking about operations for the next year."
Lindstrom said he would grade the conservation portion of the farm bill at a B-plus. He said one priority was to reauthorize conservation protections to crop insurance, which was achieved. There's also a new sod-saver provision for North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Minnesota, Iowa and Nebraska that reduces crop insurance incentives to reduce native prairie.
However, a lot of programs had funding cuts that are estimated by the Congressional Budget Office to add up to $6 billion over 10 years, even though the farm legislation runs for only five years.
"How do you do more with less money?" Lindstrom asked. "We need to find ways to make these programs economically competitive and attractive to landowners. And the programs that may have worked 10 years ago might not be the programs that work well today."