When Rick Francisco returned to his favorite pheasant country in North Dakota this fall, he found the landscape changed.
“It’s so dry out there, the farmers have cut right to the edge of the road,” Francisco said. “They’ve cut to the sloughs. They’ve cut through the sloughs. The cover is drastically reduced.”
That assessment has become a common refrain of pheasant hunters in Minnesota, South Dakota and North Dakota this fall. Because of the drought across the Midwest, farmers were allowed to cut and bale up to half their lands enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve Program. Haying was permitted to provide feed for cattle in the drought-ravaged Midwest.
The drought compounded an issue pheasant hunters saw coming. As CRP contracts expire, many farmers are plowing up grasslands and converting them to cropland. Commodity prices for corn and soybeans are near record-high levels, and farmers want to take advantage of that market. With many wetlands dried up, some farmers are burning the sloughs in preparation for converting them to croplands.
“It was obvious to me that there was much less huntable ground than one might have thought by the reports,” said Duluth’s Eric Larson. “When you get on the ground and see it, with all the land policies that have been in place and the change in prices for corn, they have put habitat at the bottom of the food chain. We all saw it coming, but we’re seeing it now on the ground.”
The CRP, part of the federal Farm Bill, pays landowners for taking environmentally sensitive land out of crop production and seeding it with grass or planting trees. CRP contracts typically run for 10 to 15 years.
CRP contracts representing some 6.5 million acres across the nation expired effective Sept. 30. North Dakota had 3 million acres in CRP in 2007. Now, the state has 1.2 million acres, and that is projected to fall to just 300,000 acres by 2015, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service.