July 13, 2008

Almanac: Future of Federal Conservation Program Uncertain

By Doug Smith, Star Tribune, Minneapolis

Jul. 13--The U.S. Department of Agriculture could decide this week to open millions of acres of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) lands for crop production -- a move that some say would be devastating for wildlife.

CRP has been called one of the most successful wildlife programs in history; some 34 million acres have been taken out of production and planted to grasses, reducing soil erosion and farm chemical runoff while providing a boon to wildlife. But its future appears uncertain.

The ethanol boom, high commodity prices and spring flooding are causing federal officials to consider letting landowners out of CRP contracts. If that happens, grasslands could begin disappearing almost immediately as farmers begin to prepare them for crops.

Millions of acres in Minnesota and North and South Dakota could be affected -- along with waterfowl, pheasants and other ground-nesting birds.

"Wildlife is going to suffer, water quality is going to suffer," said Ryan Heiniger, Minnesota conservation director for Ducks Unlimited.

Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer is being pressured by numerous farm and livestock producers to allow landowners to pull out of the program without penalty. A decision could come this week. Environmental and conservation groups have opposed the move.

"It's a grim time for CRP, and a grim time for native prairie [in the Dakotas]," said Scott McLeod, Ducks Unlimited regional biologist for farm bill programs in Bismarck, N.D.

North Dakota alone has 3 million acres of CRP he said, "and we could lose two-thirds of that."

High commodity prices already have cause landowners to let CRP contracts expire so they can plant more crops.

Venison program OK'd

Minnesota's venison-donation program will continue this fall, though with changes intended to prevent lead bullet fragments from contaminating meat.

"It will be different from last year, certainly, [but] we can say that the venison program will continue," said Heidi Kassenborg, director of the Dairy and Food Inspection Division of the state Department of Agriculture. "There's still a lot of specifics that need to be ironed out."

The discovery this spring of lead fragments in ground venison donated to foodshelves around the state threatened to derail the program, which began just last fall.

Hunters, venison processors and foodshelves all will be affected by changes to the program. Meanwhile, the DNR in its 2008 hunting regulation booklet will include suggestions on how hunters can minimize lead contamination in venison.

Did you know?

--Five state parks, two military reservations, two refuges and a nature preserve will provide deer hunting for 490 young hunters this fall. The deadline to apply for the special youth deer hunts is Aug. 15. For more information, see www.mndnr.gov/harr.

--Hunters who want to apply for one of 186 permits for the 2008 Minnesota prairie chicken season or for one of 7,660 permits for the fall turkey hunt must do so by July 25.

--A boater on Lake Vermilion ran his uninsured boat onto a rocky reef, ripping a large hole in the boat's bottom. "Unfortunately for him, the hole in the bottom of the boat was not a couple feet forward, which would have allowed the [illegal] 24-inch slot fish to escape," conservation officer Dan Starr of Tower wrote in his weekly report.


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