CRP Provides Big Benefits for Grassland Birds

Upland Sandpiper. Photo: Gary Smyle

The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), a key provision of the Farm Bill, is doing more for some birds than any other conservation practice in the mixed-grass prairie, and loss of CRP would have a drastic impact on regional bird populations according to a new wildlife Conservation Effects Assessment Project (CEAP) study conducted by the Playa Lakes Joint Venture (PLJV) and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

 

“It’s pretty impressive when you look at certain species like Dickcissels. In the mixed- grass prairie region of some states, the CRP is supporting a third or a half of the carrying capacity for the species. That is pretty surprising and powerful,” said Charles Rewa, wildlife CEAP coordinator for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.

 

CRP provides technical and financial assistance to farmers/producers to address the agricultural impacts on water quality, and to maintain and improve wildlife habitat. CRP practices include the establishment of filter strips, riparian buffers, and permanent wildlife habitats.

 

Dickcissel. Photo: Bill Hubick

The CEAP assessment involved analyzing national and regional bird population goals and landscape carrying capacities for 12 priority birds and determining how much CRP is contributing to those goals. The evaluation found that CRP contributes more than 15% of the population goal for Dickcissels, Grasshopper Sparrows and Eastern Meadowlarks in at least two of the four states assessed, and that the program contributes significantly to population goals for other priority species such as Cassin’s Sparrows, Lark Buntings, Northern Bobwhite, and Western Kingbirds.

 

Not only does CRP provide significant percentages of habitat for many priority birds, but it also helps create large blocks of grassland habitat important for the Lesser Prairie-Chicken, a candidate species for protection under the Endangered Species Act. CRP coverage provides less than 1% of the goal for Lesser Prairie-Chickens, but with contracts adjacent to grasslands that make up large blocks of habitat, CRP helps provide 6% of the goal.

 

Lesser Prairie-Chicken. Photo: USFWS

“Given what we have learned through this process, we can now target CRP enrollment to nearly recover Lesser Prairie-Chickens,” said PLJV Coordinator Mike Carter. “Given what we have learned through this process, we can now target CRP enrollment to nearly recover Lesser Prairie-Chickens,” said Mike Carter, Coordinator for the PLJV, a public private partnership dedicated to conserving bird habitats in Southern Great Plains.

 

This study of CRP was the first to quantify the impact of the program on regional bird populations and explicitly answer the question – how many birds does CRP support? PLJV and USDA were able to answer this question by calculating the carrying capacity of CRP for priority birds in the study area, and comparing those numbers to national and regional population goals.

 

“We were able to assess the effects of CRP for bird species and also put it in the context of population objectives. If the goal is to double the population for a species and you find out that 20% is supported by CRP, that is a pretty important piece of the landscape,” Rewa said.

 

Texas and Kansas, having the highest percentage of CRP acres and lowest percentage of other grassland acres of the states assessed, received the greatest benefit to birds from CRP. Further, Kansas CRP, being comprised of native grasses, showed greater benefit to four species that use native grass: Cassin’s Sparrows, Greater and Lesser Prairie-Chickens and Upland Sandpipers. The CEAP project report can be downloaded from the PLJV website (www.pljv.org).