A push to conserve grasslands will be front and center at Game Fair, the annual celebration of the outdoors open to families, dogs on leashes and everyone eagerly awaiting fall hunting seasons.
“Game Fair is about having fun. But before the fun of chasing roosters or deer through the grass, the work of making sure that grasslands are conserved and restored must be a priority,” said Greg Hoch, prairie habitat team leader with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. “Minnesota has lost large amounts of grassland habitat in the last decade. The loss is mainly due to fewer acres enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program, or CRP.”
The federal program pays farmers to remove environmentally sensitive land from agricultural production and plant grass and forb species that improve environmental health and quality.
“One of the issues with CRP is there’s been a national limit imposed on the total CRP acreage that can be added,” Hoch said. “This cap has been imposed in the last two Farm Bills, which set national farm policy. We want that changed in the upcoming Farm Bill.”
The next Farm Bill is due in 2018, lending urgency to everything grassland-related. Hunters, likewise, have a vested interest in CRP since pheasants, ducks, deer and many other species of wildlife are supported by grasslands.
Game Fair runs Aug. 11-13 and Aug. 18-20 in the city of Ramsey. There will be a discussion on CRP and the Farm Bill at the Outdoor News Seminar Tent at 1 p.m. each Saturday. The event will be attended by U.S. Reps. Tim Walz (Aug. 12) and Tom Emmer (Aug. 19); DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr; and leaders of Pheasants Forever, the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, Ducks Unlimited and the Minnesota Waterfowl Association.
“Grassland wildlife have declined dramatically since Minnesota’s peak CRP year in 2007,” Hoch said. “In that year the state had 1.83 million acres. Today, we have a little over a million acres with more acres set to expire this fall. Pheasant harvest fell 70 percent in the last decade as a direct result of the loss of grassland habitat.”
The Minnesota conservation community is advocating for the following foundational goals in the next Farm Bill:
- A 40-million acre national CRP cap, which could translate into about 2 million acres for Minnesota.
- A Working Lands program associated with CRP, allowing grazing and haying of some acres under a conservation plan.
- Increased state input in determining where those acres should go to achieve the greatest benefits for landowners, wildlife, pollinators and clean water.