Ask just about any hunter who remembers the winter of 1996-'97, and they'll say the barrage of blizzards and cold was a disaster for deer and upland game.
Wildlife populations took a big hit that winter, but they bounced back within a couple of years, and the next decade was an era of plenty for hunters.
A series of mild winters played a role in the turnaround, wildlife managers say, but an abundance of high-quality habitat was an even bigger factor.
Those were the days when North Dakota had 3 million acres of land enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program. Established in the 1986 U.S. farm bill, CRP pays farmers and other landowners to take marginal land out of production.
The resulting increase in grass and wetland habitat was a bonanza for wildlife species.
"There's a generation of hunters that knows nothing but liberal duck seasons and high bag limits, white-tailed deer behind every bush and remarkably high pheasant populations," said John Devney, senior vice president of Delta Waterfowl and an expert on farm bill-related issues.
Now, those days of abundance appear to be fading into history. After three severe winters that hammered both deer and pheasants, North Dakota is down to about 2.5 million acres of CRP, with contracts on another 800,000 acres set to expire next September.
Throw in high commodity prices, which are encouraging farmers to remove shelterbelts and tile-drain sensitive areas to move water off the landscape faster, and the result is a perfect storm for wildlife and the habitat it needs to survive.
"We've got a lot of stressors all happening at the same time," said Greg Link, conservation and communications division chief for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Bismarck. "The attitude right now is to increase the cropland acres and farm as much as we can. There's a demand for food, fuel and feed, so let's have it.
"We don't really see any new CRP acres coming in at any significant level. Not compared to what's coming out."
Dave Dewald, a biologist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Bismarck, said the federal agency has been meeting with the Game and Fish Department and conservation group Pheasants Forever to brainstorm options for life after CRP.
The program's not dead, but it's certainly on life support.
"When contracts expire, you're going to be looking at about 1.5 million acres on the ground in North Dakota," Dewald said. "We're cut in half, and that's going to be a big impact for wildlife.
"There's going to be a big loss of habitat and wildlife populations."
It's already happening. The North Dakota Game and Fish Department recently completed its fall advisory board circuit, a series of eight meetings the agency is mandated to hold twice a year across the state. Department personnel heard loud and clear from hunters that deer populations are down -- substantially, in many places -- and pheasants aren't as abundant as they were a few years ago.
Next year, for the first time in more than a decade, North Dakota likely will offer less than 100,000 deer licenses because there aren't enough deer to produce the kind of success hunters have come to expect.
Link said hunters may have to lower their expectations even further as habitat declines. Especially if this winter is as tough as the previous three.
So far, at least, that isn't the case.
"We're kind of on the bubble this winter," Link said. "We needed good winters to get the populations we had, but with tough winters, you really need that good cover. As you reduce that habitat base, you just have less ability to rebound. It takes a long time."
Link said the loss of CRP also will affect the Game and Fish Department's Private Lands Open to Sportsmen program. Better known as PLOTS, the program compensates private landowners who open their property to walk-in hunting access.
Link said more than one-third of the state's 1 million acres of PLOTS land also is enrolled in CRP.
"It's been a real bargain for high, high quality habitat -- as good as we can get, basically," he said. "So, as that CRP disappears, we're going to have a tougher time getting really good-quality hunting habitat and our buck isn't going to go as far."
All about the market
For the time being, at least, the fate of CRP is in limbo as Congress grapples with reducing the federal budget deficit.
Nationally, CRP declined from 39 million acres in the 2002 farm bill to 32 million in the 2008 legislation. A House and Senate "super committee" debated a proposed $23 billion farm bill cut that would have reduced CRP acreage nationwide to 25 million acres in the next farm bill but failed to reach an agreement.
"We don't know what the future is going to be as far as when a new farm bill gets signed, but there's an obvious message that the country doesn't need the level of set-aside acres we had," Link said.
Devney of Delta Waterfowl said he believes CRP is being targeted by fiscal hawks who see the U.S. Department of Agriculture's largest conservation program as an easy cut.
"Until we can convince policymakers that investing in programs like CRP is a worthwhile value for the American taxpayer, this is what we're going to see," Devney said. "Even the most devout conservationist and hunter acknowledges the need to go through belt-tightening in terms of government spending. All I hope is that we get a fair and balanced valuation of these programs."
Without that commitment, Devney says farmers can't be blamed for returning CRP land to production.
"This is all about market signals, and right now, the market signals clearly are teetering toward increased production at the expense of other values," Devney said. "The landowner only has one choice, and that's to maximize revenue on a per-acre basis."
In that context, he said the conservation community has to do a better job convincing lawmakers that CRP is a good investment -- not only for wildlife, but for clean water, carbon storage and flood mitigation.
That means making the program more attractive to farmers.
"We have to have a counterbalance that makes sense for farmers and landowners where they can enroll those types of poorer-quality ag lands in some sort of conservation program," Devney said.
As more land leaves CRP, Dewald, the NRCS biologist, said landowners looking to provide short-term wildlife benefits can plant cover crops and winter cereal crops such as winter wheat as part of their rotation. That approach, he said, figures prominently in a "life after CRP" brochure NRCS is producing with Pheasants Forever and the Game and Fish Department.
"Putting cover crops in the rotation is an excellent way to provide cover for wildlife," he said. "If you add winter cereals into the rotation, you're adding some excellent cover."
Still, it won't be enough to maintain the hunting opportunities North Dakota hunters came to expect during the past decade.
"It's hard to find the silver lining in all of this from a wildlife standpoint," Link said. "I'm sure there are folks saying these are great times for producers who've been looking for an opportunity to make some money. You can't fault them at all. But hunters who've been hunting the last 10 years are going to say, 'Where has it all gone?'"
Dokken reports on outdoors. Reach him at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 148; or send e-mail to email@example.com.