photo of mourning doves

In the mountain of legislation Congress will consider this fall, one measure overshadows all others in importance to hunters and anglers: the Farm Bill, the traditional vehicle lawmakers use to subsidize farming operations to the tune of billions of dollars.

Though many sportsmen might consider that none of their concern, fish and wildlife professionals know better. They understand that the nation’s farm policy affects fish and wildlife more than any other legislation, because it helps determine how private landowners manage their property. In terms of dollars on the ground and impact on acres, it’s the big ticket.

How big? Here’s a comparison: Last year, the combined budget for the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service, which together manage 16 percent of the nation’s land- mass, was about $5.4 billion for all programs, including fish and wildlife.

In that same period, conservation payments stemming from the Farm Bill totaled $7 billion.

“Nothing else comes close,” says Lynn Tjeerdsma, farm policy coordinator for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “Those payments affect upland birds, waterfowl, big game, small game, fish, and a whole list of nongame species. More dollars go to programs that benefit fish and wildlife from the Farm Bill than from any other single source. Sportsmen need to know that story.”

It’s a story of mostly good news, but with some troubling fine print.

Fish and wildlife got its first big break from farm policy in 1986 almost by accident. In an effort to influence commodity prices, Congress was looking for ways to take acreage out of production when it struck upon the idea of paying farmers not to plant on highly erodible soils. The subsidies would reduce grain production and might also prevent some topsoil erosion, and would thus be an easier sell to taxpayers. So the Conservation Reserve Program was born.

There was no mention in the bill of benefits for fish and wildlife, but returning land to natural grasses of course resulted in increased habitat. By 1990, wildlife advocates were fully supportive of expanding the CRP. Waterfowl managers, in particular, were vocal in their support, understanding that upland cover was just as important as wetlands to prairie nesters like mallards. In fact, studies by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service indicate the expansion of the CRP to 12 million acres on the prairie pothole region was the largest single factor in rebuilding duck populations.

As the years rolled by, the trick of using farm policy to enhance fish and wildlife habitat spawned a growing list of programs, including the Farm and Ranchland Protection Program, the Wetlands Reserve Program, the Grasslands Reserve Program, Conservation Technical Assistance, and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program.

In 1996 the de facto wildlife programs took a first step out of the closet when the Conservation Reserve portion of the Farm Bill actually listed “wildlife resources” as a priority for the payments.

Some view that as a watershed moment in the nation’s conservation history, because it meant the public would openly pay private landowners to produce fish and wildlife habitat, and not just as a side effect of commodity-control tactics.

“It’s only two words, and it certainly isn’t listed as the only priority of the bill,” says Eric Schwabb, resource director of the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies. “But it was a step that people in our community understand is important.”

It’s significant because when fish and wildlife programs are tied to other purposes, they can suffer sudden, and ugly, fates. For example, were soybean or other commodity prices to soar past the value of CRP payments, farmers might choose to leave the program when their contracts expire. Years of progress in rebuilding waterfowl populations could quickly dissipate as hard-pressed farmers look to make an extra dollar an acre.

“When you rely on commodities futures, you’re in a very insecure position,” says Tjeerdsma, whose opinion is informed by a lifetime of farming in South Dakota. “And the rise and fall of prices for farmers here is tied to what happens on the global market. So when there’s a sudden shift anywhere, you could be in trouble.”

But the addition of wildlife benefits increased the momentum to use the bill for such purposes. After all, it’s hard to find a politician who’s against farmers or sportsmen, so agencies and conservation groups began getting even more creative.

One of the best examples of this effort is a program announced this year that would restore riparian habitat in the Midwest’s Driftless Area, a 24,000-square-mile region that includes 600 streams in six major watersheds in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, and Illinois. Its funding originates in Farm Bill conservation programs applied by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and grows through partnerships with the states and private groups, such as Trout Unlimited.

“It’s a very unique and exciting program, because you have a federal agency that traditionally works with farmers and four states agreeing they will pay to improve the land for fish and wildlife values,” says Chris Wood of Trout Unlimited. “But it’s still tied to the Farm Bill.”

Which brings us to the troubling fine print.

As long as fish and wildlife programs are connected to farm legislation, their future will be uncertain. That lesson was driven home again last January when President Bush, pointing out the nation’s unhealthy addiction to oil, urged more development of bio-friendly fuels, such as plant-based ethanol. He even touted the role switchgrass could play in that move.

The president’s suggestions delighted many of his green critics as well as most sportsmen. Who could be against clean fuels? But mention of a plant-based fuel program immediately sent shivers of concern through the ranks of wildlife advocates. Would subsidies for biofuel plantings end up eroding the CRP base? Switchgrass may be okay for pheasants and some deer, but it doesn’t have nearly the total wildlife value of native grasses. Would we suddenly see millions of acres of grasslands converted to monocultural plantings that might help clear the air but also send wildlife populations tumbling?

“We are concerned about the energy initiatives being talked about for the Farm Bill,” Tjeerdsma admits. “We certainly don’t want to be insensitive to the nation’s need for energy independence, or to the needs of farmers. We share those concerns. So we want to work with the entire farming community and the administration to look for [solutions] that address those issues but don’t erode the hard-fought gains we’ve made for fish and wildlife.

“We can’t be asleep on this one. Changes in the Farm Bill could really deal us a blow.”

In fact, as long as the lion’s share of funding for fish and wildlife conservation is tied to commodity policies, sportsmen can’t afford to sleep when the Farm Bill is being debated. Until the time comes when the nation considers a “Fish and Wildlife Bill” that spells out payments to landowners specifically for producing those values, the Farm Bill is the best tool we have.

And that’s why smart wildlife advocates–including hunters and anglers–should be taking some preemptive action this fall. Send a letter to your representative and senators giving them these instructions: Do not vote for changes in the Farm Bill that would divert money from fish and wildlife.

It’s that important.