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Group says bird numbers at risk
By Steve Miller, Journal Staff Writer

South Dakota pheasant and duck populations will suffer under a new federal policy allowing more frequent haying and grazing of farm land set aside for wildlife habitat, the South Dakota Wildlife Federation says.

The South Dakota Wildlife Federation, the National Wildlife Federation and five other state affiliates have filed suit alleging that the U.S. Department of Agriculture is mismanaging the Conservation Reserve Program to the detriment of pheasant, ducks and other ground-nesting birds.

The new policy allows farmers and ranchers to cut hay on their CRP ground every three years instead of every five years. "It will definitely affect the pheasants and ducks primarily," S.D. Wildlife Federation executive director Chris Hesla said.

The Conservation Reserve Program pays farmers and ranchers to stop production on cropland, allowing grasses and forbs to grow, resulting in wildlife habitat.

Hesla said he didn't object to emergency haying and grazing allowed during severe drought. "I don't have a problem with that because landowners need that," he said in a phone interview Monday.

Hesla also said the wildlife federation doesn't object to haying or grazing the CRP acres once or twice during a 10-year contract, to rejuvenate the grass. Under the previous rules, farmers and ranchers could hay or graze their CRP acres every five years.

But Hesla said haying or grazing every three years is too often. "It degrades the grass as far as cover for habitat wildlife, for nesting ducks, for nesting pheasants and grouse," he said.

Hesla said the CRP is no longer filling its original role as a habitat program. "The intent of CRP was to provide not real good farm land and take it out of production and put it into grass, which, in turn, serves as habitat for upland game birds and songbirds," he said. "In the past few years, it seems like they've been diluting the program down to where it's just a hay program."

USDA officials in Washington said the new rule reflects language in the 2002 Farm Bill that allows "managed haying and grazing."

"Congress passed the provision," USDA spokeswoman Julie Quick said in a phone interview. "We implement them."

The National Wildlife Federation, however, said Congress also mandated that any haying or grazing of CRP lands must be "consistent with the conservation of soil, water quality and wildlife habitat (including habitat during the nesting season for birds in the area)."

The federation said the USDA's Farm Service Agency subsequently adopted a blanket policy allowing CRP lands nationwide to be hayed or grazed every third year, even on the Great Plains and parts of the arid West where grasslands are more fragile.

USDA spokesman Wayne Baggett said landowners who wish to hay or graze their CRP land every three years must get permission from a state technical advisory committee and must have an approved plan for haying or grazing. Farmers also forfeit 25 percent of their rent when they hay or graze the CRP land, Baggett said.

The South Dakota Farm Bureau supported the change in the CRP rules, information specialist Mike Held said.

"It's an individual management decision, but we think haying or grazing on some kind of regular basis is good management of the CRP ground also to rejuvenate what's there," Held said.

Meanwhile, the S.D. Wildlife Federation's Hesla said that, although he had no problem with emergency haying or grazing during drought, he was upset about reports that some farmers broke the rules. "What I have heartburn over is when they open it (CRP) up and producers cut the hay and turn around and sell it," he said. "I have a problem with that. The government has already paid for that hay once."

In 2002, FSA officials in South Dakota said they were investigating allegations that farmers cut their CRP ground for hay and then illegally sold it rather than using it or donating it. There were also reports that some farmers or ranchers were charging exorbitant (and illegal) prices to livestock producers to graze their cattle on CRP land.

However, the FSA officials said later that the investigation didn't yield enough evidence to bring charges.

Hesla insisted that the abuses occurred.

The National Wildlife Federation lawsuit also alleges that FSA officials in some states, including Montana and Wyoming, are allowing haying and grazing on CRP lands during primary nesting seasons.

USDA's Quick said the haying and grazing periods allowed in each state are determined with the help of a technical committee including representatives of soil, water, wetland and wildlife interests, as well as the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and state game and fish departments.

In South Dakota, haying on CRP land is allowed from Aug. 2-Sept. 1. Grazing is allowed from March 1-April 30 and Aug. 2-Nov. 30, according to a USDA web site.

Contact Steve Miller at 394-8417 or

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