It's no secret that Conservation Reserve Program acreage continues to decline in North Dakota.
This is not a surprising development, as for many years agencies and conservation organizations have been pointing toward economic factors that could potentially influence landowner interest in CRP.
The reality of the situation in 2008 is that accelerated CRP loss will impact North Dakota wildlife and conservation, reversing some of the benefits created during the past two decades. First implemented in 1986, the CRP has been protecting highly erodible land, and at the same time, these permanent grass stands have providing nesting habitat for pheasants and ducks and a home for everything from deer to songbirds.
The first wave of CRP contracts to expire came early last fall. By the time pheasant season opened, hunters were encountering a few quarters or sections that were in various stages of conversion back to cropland -- land that, in years past, had provided a great pheasant hunt or an afternoon of deer hunting.
By the end of December, more than 400,000 acres were readied for crop planting this spring.
More of this is expected in 2008, though the number of contracted acres scheduled to expire on Sept. 30 is less than 2007. In coming years, unless there is a change in national farm legislation, this occurrence will increase.
The latest projections indicate North Dakota will possibly lose 60 percent of its CRP acres between 2007 and 2012, moving us from about 3.4 million acres to about 1.4 million acres. Some counties, such as Stutsman, Burleigh, Emmons and Williams, may find 70 percent or more of existing CRP acres no longer in the program.
While there is a lot of national and even international discussion over the economic and political factors that may or may not be influencing CRP, my role is to focus on what might happen if all the predictions hold true.
In the short term, we likely won't lose all our pheasants overnight, unless we get a winter on par with the 1996-97 winter blast. Habitat conversion will, however, increase the competition for space for existing wildlife, and for hunters as well. Less space for roughly the same number of birds could even mean a short-lived bump in hunter success -- kind of like recent high walleye catches on Lake Sakakawea as the water level has gone down.
Such a scenario won't last long, though. In the long term, we'll see pheasant numbers decline. The greatest value of CRP for pheasants is as nesting and brood-rearing cover. Without it, the carrying capacity of any given landscape is reduced. Potential for population recovery after a severe winter would be greatly reduced.
And in similar fashion, less CRP land will impact many other species, from ground-nesting ducks to songbirds and deer.
At the same time, we could see more soil erosion.
The bottom line: North Dakota is going to have less CRP, and during the next few years hunters will see more and more visible examples of what this means in terms of hunting acres available and long-term wildlife populations.
What happens on the economic and political scene during the next couple of years will have a great influence on where that bottom line actually ends up.