Even as the total number of habitat acres continues to decline in South Dakota, there are success stories of programs helping to stem the tide of conversion of grassland back to crops.
The South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks accepted the first enrollments in 2010 in a plan that makes it more attractive for producers in a designated area to keep land in the federal Conservation Reserve Program. The program, called CREP, or Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, adds a portion of state dollars to enhance the payments landowners receive.
And hunters who prefer the flat fields of the James River Valley are among those who benefit, since the program requires that landowners allow hunter/angler access as part of the deal.
South Dakota’s Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program – a state-sponsored program that is administered, like the regular CRP program, by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency – now has 75,000 acres enrolled, or three-fourths of the maximum 100,000 acres that are allowed for the state program.
Mark Norton, who helps oversee the program for Game, Fish and Parks, said the program adds 40 percent to what the landowner receives from the federal government – money that doesn’t come from the taxpayers’ pockets, but from fees paid by sportsmen.
“It doesn’t cost the taxpayer anything. It’s completely funded by hunters and fishermen,” he said.
As with CRP, landowners enroll land in CREP for 10- or 15-year contracts. Essentially CREP piggy-backs on top of the CRP contacts to sweeten the deal for landowners, Norton said.
Norton said there are CREPs all over the country, some supported by states, some by other entities such as conservation districts. Many – including South Dakota’s – are set up for a specific watershed, partly with the idea that enhancing conservation practices in those areas can improve water quality.
In South Dakota’s case, the 75,000 acres enrolled in CREP are only in the James River Valley.
“We picked the James River watershed because it was an impaired waterway, but also because it was a part of the state that traditionally has had a lot of pheasant habitat and pheasant hunters,” Norton said.
In fact South Dakota’s is one of the few CREP programs in the country that requires the landowner to provide access to hunters or anglers as part of the program, Norton said.
However, it’s costly. Those 75,000 acres in the program are costing South Dakota about $2.5 million a year, Norton said.
To put that in perspective, Norton said, the federal government has paid about $65 million annually in recent years to South Dakota landowners to keep about 1 million acres of South Dakota in CRP, down from a high of just under 1.8 million acres in the 1990s. To replace any part of CRP, or even to apply state incentives to additional acres as part of CREP would be very costly.
“We don’t have it in our budget to expand it or create another CREP at this time,” Norton said.
The conservation aspect of the program is paying off with cleaner water in the James River watershed because there is less soil erosion that adds sediment and farm chemicals such as nitrogen and phosphorus to water reaching the James River. But the program also pays off for hunters in the form of access, Norton said.
By coincidence, two of the concentrations of land in the program are at the north and south ends of the James River watershed in South Dakota. One concentration is in Brown, Marshall and Day counties, Norton said, or close to the cities of Aberdeen and Watertown. The other concentration is in Hutchinson, Yankton and Bon Homme counties, or close to the cities of Yankton, Mitchell and Sioux Falls.
Though not by design, that works out well for urban hunters, Norton noted.