Decisions on farms affect Washington hunters

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Decisions farmers are making this month will have a big impact on hunters for the next decade.

Sign-ups for the Conservation Reserve Program began in mid-March. Producers have until April 6 to apply for federal compensation in exchange for idling fields to prevent soil erosion, improve air and water quality and maintain higher crop prices.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates CRP keeps more than 100 million pounds of phosphorous and 600 million pounds of nitrogen out of our nation's lakes and streams.

The bonus for hunters: CRP is one of the most effective wildlife habitat programs in the nation.

Authorized in the 1980s, CRP peaked a few years ago in Washington at 1.5 million acres. As the sign-ups began this week, the state had 1.4 million acres enrolled.

No one knows what the CRP landscape will be after the dust settles in what could be the biggest shakeup in cooperators in many years. Of the 31 million acres enrolled in CRP across the nation, contracts for 6.5 million acres are expiring, including 275,000 acres in Washington.

The greatest concern is in the Midwest, where high corn and soybean prices will lure producers to resume farming on land that's been producing habitat for critters including ducks, pheasants and deer.

"In Washington, there's a little less pressure to pull out because of the economics of wheat production in a low rainfall area," said Rod Hamilton of the Federal Farm Service Agency in Spokane.

That's good news for wildlife.

CRP can be a boon to wildlife in a world of modern farmed fields that are groomed to the edge of roads by huge machinery that leaves no fence rows or eyebrows and little riparian vegetation or woody cover.

Critters clearly ride the coattails of agriculture, but vast monocultures of grain eliminate crucial year-round habitat.

CRP hasn't been perfect. In the beginning, idled fields were planted in a monoculture of grass that worked to hold soil. Crested wheat grass, for example, provided some cover for wildlife while offering little nourishment.

States such as South Dakota pioneered wildlife-friendly plantings that farmers grew into thriving pheasant-hunting businesses to supplement their incomes.

Washington has been slower to enhance CRP for wildlife, but the cover has been improving.

"The majority of plantings now have at least four to five grass species, including natives and broadleaf," Hamilton said.

Research has indicated broadleaf plants are essential for producing the bugs that provide the primary nourishment for pheasant chicks.

In the past six years, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has been able to work with the federal program to help some farmers target enrollments — as opposed to the whole-farm enrollments that have been criticized as "farmer retirement programs" in the past.

Washington has 71,000 acres of targeted CRP with 60,000 of that in Grant, Lincoln and Okanogan counties designed primarily for sharptail and sage grouse habitat. The planting mix for prairie grouse areas includes sagebrush.

Another problem with CRP is that the rules are written with a national scope. For instance woodland encroachment on grasslands is an issue in much of the country. That encourages rules to restrict tree planting.

While taxpayers may not want farmers to be paid for planting trees that could later be harvested, one Lake Roosevelt-area farmer pointed out that trees are the perfect cover for slopes as steep as 45 degrees on some of the land he would like to enroll in CRP.

State wildlife officials have tried to work out compromises for some local areas, but the federal rules are fairly unbendable.

 Sportsmen and other wildlife enthusiasts might feel like outsiders in these agricultural considerations, but public support for the programs is critical - and political.

Congress has begun revising the massive 2012 Farm Bill. Last time around this enormous package invested $4 billion a year in a suite of conservation programs, ranging from CRP to the Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program as well as easements to preserve grasslands and wetlands.

The Farm Bill is the major source of federal conservation funding. It dawarfs local club fundraisers and memberships in conservation groups.

That's why 643 organizations, representing tens of millions Americans, expressed support for the Conservation Title of the U.S. Farm Bill in a letter sent a few weeks ago to the Senate Agriculture Committee.

The groups included big players that work for conservation year-round, including the National Association of Conservation Districts, The Nature Conservancy and Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, as well as forest products and water resources groups.

 Deliberations on reauthorizing the Farm Bill will be particularly difficult in a climate of unprecedented national fiscal constraints.

But sportsmen can't afford to sit back without writing senators and joining groups to support the Farm Bill's conservation measures.