Taking Sides on New Conservation Reserve Program Rules

By Beacon Staff

GREAT FALLS – The federal Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to take fragile soil out of production, is causing friction between hunters and wildlife supporters and the landowners who put their crop land into the program.

The primary issue is the length of time CRP should be undisturbed each summer so that pheasants and other upland birds can nest safely.

It will be debated Thursday in Great Falls at the state’s only public meeting on the matter.

The National Wildlife Federation successfully sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture to lengthen the “do not disturb” time zone.

“By Aug. 1 (the new date when birds are considered done nesting and farmers can use CRP land) the grasses are so matured and dried out that they’re no longer much good,” said Brady producer Rollie Schlepp, a Montana Farmers Union officer.

Montana farmers and ranchers say extending the time CRP land is prohibited from being grazed by livestock or hayed basically renders the forage useless.

“That later date will result in lower quality fodder and forage available to ranchers in northeast Montana,” said Outlook rancher Gordon Stoner, a Montana Grain Growers Association officer.

But Tom France of Missoula, regional director of the National Wildlife Federation, said he filed the lawsuit a few years ago “because we felt the FSA went too far in shaving the key conservation aspects from the program in order to create more production opportunities for farmers.”

Wildlife biologists in northern tier states, including Montana and the Dakotas, recognize Aug. 1 as the time when upland birds and some water fowl stop nesting, France said.

“Pheasant hens are persistent and sometimes re-nest in mid to late July, trying to lay another hatch if their first is hailed out or eaten by predators,” France told the Great Falls Tribune in Sunday’s editions. “By Aug. 1 most chicks and ducklings are off nests and able to move out of the way of hay mowers.”

Tony Verstraete, who farms north of Conrad and has plenty of pheasants on his CRP land, sympathizes with both sides.

“We wouldn’t have as much land designated for CRP without the support of sportsmen,” he said. “And I realize that nesting can take place a little later in some years.”

“But with the drought we’ve had in the last five years, 50 percent of alfalfa is already destroyed or greatly reduced in quality by even July 15, let alone Aug. 1,” Verstraete said. “We got less than an inch of rain during last year’s growing season here, so it was too late to hay by mid-July.”

A secondary issue is how frequently farmers should be allowed to hay or graze on their CRP land.

The amount of CRP hay and forage available for livestock isn’t great. The current rules allow CRP land to be hayed once every 10 years and to be grazed once every five years.

But landowners and farm groups say allowing somewhat more frequent use of CRP land could be a big help to producers in dry years and might even be better for the land and grasses.

They support the state FSA’s proposed rule changes that would allow haying of CRP land every five years and grazing every three years.

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