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Diamonds in the Rough

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Published on: Dec. 2, 2003

Last revision: Nov. 16, 2010

Without question, the Conservation Reserve Program has been instrumental in helping landowners improve wildlife habitat. However, enrolling your land in CRP is only the beginning. Improving wildlife populations ultimately depends on how well you manage your CRP land.

The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) was established in 1985 with the passage of the Food Security Act, or Farm Bill. Its primary goals were to reduce soil erosion, improve water quality and reduce crop production. Landowners enrolling in CRP receive an annual rental payment for establishing semi-permanent cover, such as grasses, legumes, trees and shrubs, on erosion prone cropland and leaving it for 10 to 15 years.

In 1996, wildlife habitat was added to the list of primary purposes of the program. CRP lands have benefited many species of wildlife. Notable beneficiaries have been waterfowl and pheasants in the Great Plains and Iowa, as well as grasshopper sparrows, field sparrows, eastern meadowlarks and other grassland songbirds, in many Midwestern states.

Simply having land enrolled in CRP on or around your property, however, does not automatically mean improved wildlife habitat. The value of CRP lands to wildlife depends on the composition and structure of the vegetation and the management practices implemented in each field.

CRP in Missouri

Nearly 95 percent of Missouri's 1.5 million acres of CRP lands are planted to cool-season grass/legume or native warm-season grass mixtures. The remaining acres are enrolled in CRP buffer practices, such as riparian forest buffers, filter strips, grassed waterways, contour grass strips and shallow water wetlands.

Many wildlife species, such as rabbits and quail, have benefited little from CRP. A four-year study of CRP grasslands in northeast Missouri conducted in the early 1990s concluded that CRP fields provided suitable roosting and brood-rearing cover for bobwhite quail between one and three years after planting. CRP plantings older than three years, however, provided some nesting cover, but offered little in the way of roosting and brood-rearing cover.

A follow-up study currently being conducted indicates that habitat conditions for bobwhite quail on CRP grasslands have not changed significantly. CRP fields that receive little management, or are only mowed periodically, quickly become dominated by perennial grasses that choke out beneficial forbs and legumes. This leads to cover so thick and devoid of food that it is unsuitable for wildlife.

Diverse plant communities, on the other hand, provide a variety of forbs and legumes that attract insects and produce abundant seed. This

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