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Strong effort of conservation groups helps limit budget cuts

At some point in our lives most of us have been offered this advice: If you keep expectations low, you won't be disappointed.

prairie_potholes.jpgSmall, isolated wetlands like these produce 70 percent of the ducks in the critical prairie pothole region of North Dakota and South Dakota.

Following that maxim, waterfowlers and others who care about wildlife can feel free to smile about this news: Congress likely is to trim $6 billion off Farm Bill Conservation Titles in the next decade.

The prairie potholes will be dryer than last year, but still wet.

We can smile at what would normally be dismal headlines because just a few months ago things looked much, much worse. Many in Congress were talking about taking eviscerating conservation funding, while duck hunters were dusting off panic flags as portions of prairies struggled through one of their warmest, driest winters on record.

But the worst-case scenarios appear to have been averted, thanks to Mother Nature, and the hard work of some sportsmen's conservation groups.

"Right now I'd say we're looking at average production on the prairies," said John Devney, Senior Director of U.S. Policy for Delta Waterfowl, from his Bismarck, N.D., office. The difference in prairie conditions from last year to this year is simply remarkable. Last year we were talking about wall to wall water from Edmonton to Iowa, and now (Bismarck) we just had our sixth driest winter ever.

"But the good news is we probably have enough carryover in ducks and water (from last year) to have a pretty average production year."

The biggest concern will be the certain decrease in the seasonal and temporary wetlands, those puddles that cover only inches of water around the larger, deeper, more permanent potholes. These shallow wetlands heat up quickly in the spring and burst to life with an array of invertebrates that help returning ducks replace energy spent on the flight north and stock up for the demands of nesting.

That loss won't affect most species, which will simply put down in marginal areas and try to nest. But it could have a definite impact on pintail and blue-winged teal.

"Those two species are just so hard-wired to look for seasonal and temporary water, they they'll just keep moving," said Devney.

Regardless, it's unlikely hunters will see a change in the liberal regulation framework they've enjoyed for more than a decade -- 60 days and six ducks a day. That's because the formula used to set the seasons is based primarily on the total number of ponds in the breeding areas, and the number of nesting birds, especially mallards. And last year's bumper crop of both means there should be plenty left for the status quo.

"If we hadn't had the kind of water last year, then we might be in some trouble now,' said Devney.

But there are other concerns. Specifically Congress, concerned about the nation's deficit, is whittling away at the conservation programs that have enabled us to protect a large enough base of wetlands and uplands to allow waterfowl populations last year to reach record highs.

Wildlife advocates were especially worried about programs in the Conservation Title of the new Farm Bill under consideration. The Conservation Reserve Program, which provides uplands for wildlife by paying landowners not to plant marginal lands, was looking at wholesale cuts, and the Wetlands Reserve and Grasslands Reserve programs seemed headed for extinction.

But Thursday the wildlife community got good news from the Senate. Almost non-stop work by the sporting community helped limit the damage to a $6 billion cut over the next 10 years in the bill that moved to the Senate floor.

Some key points:

The 23 existing conservation programs will be consolidated into 13 programs, mainly through merging many functions.

The cap on CRP acres will be reduced from 32 million acres to 25 million acres over the next three years.

The Wetlands Reserve and Grasslands Reserve programs, at one time marked out, have been renamed "easement" programs and survive. The old programs were based on acreage caps, but the new editions will be based on dollars, allowing administrators greater flexibility in addressing critical habitat.

A "Sod Buster" feature was included. This effort to protect the dwindling amount of native prairie grasslands would give farmers an incentive to help by costing them 50 percent of their crop insurance subsidy premium for plowing acres that haven't been planted in 20 years or more. Wildlife advocates wanted a 100-percent loss of subsidies for busting this important sod.

Now, none of this can be considered good news for wildlife and sportsmen, especially the cuts to CRP. The Dakota prairies, easily the most productive duck habitat on the continent, have looted 1.7 million acres of CRP since 2007 and stands to lose more as long as worldwide commodity prices remain high. And as any duck hunter knows, that uplands cover is absolutely essential if the nests of most of the species hunted are to survive prairie predators.

However, things could have been much, much worse without the almost non-stop efforts in the past year by staffers with groups like Ducks Unlimited, Pheasants Forever, Trout Unlimited, National Wildlife and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.

But even those groups were not shouting "victory!"

"Let me say that $6 billion in cuts to conservation isn't something we relish, and it certainly would have been easier if we didn't have to do this," said Steve Kline of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. "This hurts, and we will do less conservation -- less CRP and less of everything.

"So (sportsmen) should keep that in mind."

In fact, even this effort to limit the damage still is not assured. It seems likely to move out of the Senate intact as early as the end of May, but there are forces in the House still sharpening their budget axes, and conservation spending has never been one of their sacred cows. And time is the ultimate enemy.

The Farm Bill expires Oct. 1, which means many programs could grind to a halt if a new bill isn't put on the president's desk before then.

"This isn't a done deal yet," Klein pointed out. "We definitely need sportsmen to continue to advocate."

It's a strange but necessary rallying call: Help snatch survival from the jaws of catastrophe.




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