A Perfect Storm of Wildlife Habitat Loss—and How to Stop It

Bob Marshall recently described on this blog how the biofuels mandate from the Bush administration has had an unpleasant result: the explosive conversion of native grasslands (our gamebird and waterfowl habitat) to corn crops, with their high uses of water and the fertilizers that run off and pollute watersheds for hundreds of miles downstream. As Marshall pointed out, what we are doing to our native grasslands is almost exactly what the Malaysians, Brazilians and Indonesians are doing to their native forests.

The biofuels mandate is a perfect example of unintended consequences. But there's another engine driving this destruction of our wetlands and wildlife, too. This engine dates back to the 1996 Farm Bill, when Congress de-coupled what is known as "conservation compliance" - basic protections for wetlands and highly erodible lands- via our government supported crop insurance programs. At that time, it did not seem too important. Farmers in the U.S. relied more on direct subsidy payments - which came with an extensive set of mandates for conservation compliance - than they did the federally supported crop insurance plans.

Fast forward to 2013. The direct farm subsidy payments have become so unpopular- opposed by everybody from the Environmental Working Group to Taxpayers for Common Sense- that they have been almost entirely phased out. In their place is a much expanded Federal Crop Insurance Program that, unfortunately, not only lacks any conservation compliance requirements, it actively encourages the plowing and planting of marginal lands, ensuring that no matter the weather, the soil, the crop, money can be made. Government-supported crop insurance has become the largest subsidy to U.S farmers - 264 million acres insured in 2011, at a cost to taxpayers of over $7 billion.

If we had tried to devise a federally supported plan to wreck our wildlife habitat, ruin our wetlands, and empty the Treasury, we couldn't have done it better.

What we are witnessing is a trifecta of disastrous effects. The crop insurance, the ethanol mandate, and the record global commodity prices driven by the hunger of 7 billion human beings have resulted in a frenzy of plowing, draining, and planting of corn and other crops, leaving little room for wildlife or birds, and few buffers to protect water quality from pesticide and fertilizer-saturated runoff. We've lost 25 million acres of grass and wetlands in the past 25 years--the greatest conversion since the decades leading up to the Dust Bowl. The pace is astounding- we've lost more wetlands and grasslands in the past four years than we did in the previous 40. South Dakota, the pheasant kingdom, reports 500,000 acres converted from grass to crops since 2007. North Dakota reports a million since then. Although the conversion is most extreme in what is known as the Western Corn Belt- the Dakotas, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Iowa - demand for wheat from Asian markets is causing Montana farmers to convert conservation lands and grasslands to crops, too.

Even the market for organic grains has a bitter downside - the easiest and fastest way to grow organic crops is to break new ground on former native prairie.

Here are the problems and what we can to solve them:

• The Renewable Fuel Standard needs to be reformed or ditched, as quickly as possible. The Renewable Fuel Standard requires refiners to blend 15 billion gallons of conventional biofuels (i.e. corn ethanol) into the U.S. fuel supply by 2015. As Scott Faber, Vice President of Government Affairs for the Environmental Working Group said in February 2012, "Corn ethanol has not only been a disaster for consumers…it's also been a disaster for the environment. In fact, it's worse for the environment than Canadian tar sands."

• We must reconnect conservation compliance with any federal farm payments, including the expanded federal crop insurance. Here's what Jim Moseley, Former Deputy Secretary of the USDA, wrote about the success of connecting conservation compliance with direct federal subsidy payments to farmers. The same can be said of connecting conservation with crop insurance: "Conservation compliance is a reasonable expectation in exchange for the significant benefits the public provides for producers….Compliance has been highly successful. Because conservation treatments have been applied to over 140 million acres, farmers have saved 295 million tons of soil per year--soil that has been held in place and kept from entering our rivers, lakes, and streams. Further, an estimated 1.5 million to 3.3 million acres of vulnerable wetlands have not been drained as a result of compliance."

The success that Mosely describes here is evaporating before our eyes. Here's a fast rundown from the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership on what's at stake.

• We need to develop new wildlife habitat programs and wetlands protections that do not depend entirely on federal support. We are already seeing big reductions in the acreage enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program. CRP was designed to make sure farmers did not have to plant highly erodible, marginal lands, and could leave such lands fallow and in reserve in case of an emergency such as war or economic disaster. CRP also proved to be one of the world's most successful wildlife and water quality programs- reducing runoff and erosion, and providing habitat for, especially, gamebirds like sharptail grouse and pheasant. In 2012, landowners brought over 3.2 million acres of CRP lands into production. Congress, seeking to reduce the federal deficit, will almost certainly cap the CRP program at 25 million acres in the new farm bill that is now awaiting passage, down from a high of 39 million acres. But that cap is hardly necessary. With an average rental rate of $40 to $50 an acre, CRP cannot compete with taxpayer-subsidized crop insurance that pays whether the land produces or not.

Yes, CRP is going to be reduced. But that does not mean that we have to lose all the benefits we have enjoyed from it. Crop-producing acreage can still provide some excellent wildlife habitat, if farmers and their partners will put forth the effort and bring the money to make it happen. Some of Montana's best land managers and biologists have been working on this issue, and have recently published a comprehensive document called "Life After CRP."

Pheasants Forever, Ducks Unlimited, Delta Waterfowl, National Wildlife Federation, all of the usual conservation powerhouses and partnerships, need our support now more than ever before. You do not have to agree with the group about every policy or every issue to be a member.

We all need food. We all - farmers most definitely included- want clean water and wildlife and fisheries. We are, at this moment, devouring our environmental capital like a bunch of feral hogs rooting up a turnip field. Many representatives who are making these laws and codifying these federal policies know as much about our waterfowl and our fishing and hunting as Joe Biden knows about our AR-15s. They are ignorant, and busy with other work.

The damage is not their fault. It is our fault for not telling them what we know.