Delta News

Farm Bill Good for Ducks

WASHINGTON, DC—The long-awaited 2002 farm bill signed into law by President George Bush today is good news for ducks and duck hunters, says Delta Waterfowl Senior Vice-President Peter Trexler.

The controversial farm bill, which will cost an estimated $173.5 billion over 6 years, re-authorizes the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) at 39.2 million acres, nearly 3 million acres more than the ceiling set by the 1996 farm bill. It also re-authorizes the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) at an annual enrollment of 250,000 acres and a cap of 2.275 million acres, and establishes a Grassland Reserve Program (GRP) aimed at restoring or improving 2 million acres of grasslands.

While the farm bill has drawn heavy fire from critics, Trexler says, “duck hunters should be happy about the conservation provisions contained in the bill. Delta—along with many other sportsmen’s groups—lobbied long and hard in Washington for a duck-friendly farm bill and we’re pleased with the final package.”

The farm bill, Trexler says, is the single most-important waterfowl program in the US. “Duck hunters need to understand that despite all the elaborate habitat projects of the last 60 years, more than 90 percent of all ducks are still produced on private land. Three-fourths of the continent’s ducks originate in the prairie pothole region, and more than half of those now come from the US side of the region. That’s why it’s so important we work with and support farmers as conservation partners.”

“This bill along with its two predecessors, have affirmed the agricultural communities interests in incorporating conservation measures into farm policy,” adds Trexler. “We in the conservation community are extremely pleased to be at the table in these discussions, and recognize that the only way to sustain strong flights of waterfowl is to work through mutually beneficial partnerships with agricultural producers. This is truly a win-win for farmers and ducks.”

Historically prairie Canada—where three-fourths of the continents “duck factory” lies—has attracted the lion’s share of ducks returning to the breeding grounds each spring. In recent years, however, more ducks are produced on the US portion of the pothole region than north of the border. The reason, Trexler says, is CRP. “CRP has been the salvation for ducks. Had we lost CRP, the duck population almost certainly would have crashed.”

Under the new farm bill 39.2 million acres can be enrolled at any one time between fiscal year 2002 through FY 2007. Contract periods are set at a minimum of 10 years and a maximum of 15 years. More than 5 million acres of CRP currently exist in the pothole region states of North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana and Minnesota. Those large, undisturbed blocks of cover not only attract nesting ducks, they result in higher nest success rates as well.

“Research conducted by Ron Reynolds of the US Fish and Wildlife Service demonstrates how critical CRP is to duck production,” says Trexler. “Mallards, blue wing teal, gadwall, pintails and shovelers need large blocks of dense nesting cover, and they’re getting it thanks to CRP. Nest success across most of prairie Canada, where no CRP-like program currently exists, isn’t high enough to sustain the population at existing levels, let alone expand it.”

Trexler says he’s pleased Congress retained Swampbuster, which ties farm subsidies to wetland protection. “In light of the recent ruling by the US Supreme Court eliminating the wetland-protection provisions of the Clean Water Act, Swampbuster was critical to the future of ducks,” he says. “Without it, wetland losses could have been substantial.”

The conservation provisions of the new farm bill lay the foundation for restoring duck populations, which Trexler says have been slipping the last two years. “The spring breeding population of mallards dropped 27 percent the last two years,” he says, “and Delta is predicting another decline when the 2002 breeding numbers are announced next month. With much of the pothole region already in a drought, losing CRP and Swampbuster would have dealt a critical blow to duck populations.”

Still, Trexler says passage of the farm bill is only the first step. “The time has come to undertake targeted management practices that take advantage of the habitat provided by CRP, Swampbuster, WRP, EQIP and GRP.

CRP was first authorized in the 1985 farm bill, but duck numbers didn’t immediately respond to the increased nesting cover because the pothole region was in a drought. It wasn’t until the prairies got wet in 1994 that the duck population spiked, peaking in 1999. Trexler says hunters can expect that scenario to repeat itself during the just-begun drought cycle.

“Duck populations always rise when the prairies are wet and always fall during drought,” Trexler says. “Keeping CRP on the landscape won’t change that, but it gives us a foundation. How we build on that foundation will determine how many ducks we’ll have in the future.”