MADISON – Cropland enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve Program is providing excellent nesting cover for some of Wisconsin’s most popular game birds, according to a three-year study in St. Croix County that was recently released in a report by the Department of Natural Resources.
"This study is significant because it shows the CRP program is building not only more, but better habitat for ducks and pheasants, as well as many other wildlife," says Jim Evrard, DNR wildlife biologist.
Evrard headed a study that looked at about 1,000 acres of CRP land in St. Croix County to determine if CRP land had an impact on duck and ring-necked pheasant production.
According to Evrard, a series of chains and steel cables were pulled through grassy CRP land, flushing female ducks and pheasants from their nests. The nests, mostly mallards and blue-winged teals, were then measured and marked so the researchers could later return to find out how successful the nests were.
"To maintain a stable population in Wisconsin, 20 percent of the nests for these species must be successful, and we exceeded that," Evrard said. "Our success rate for the three years averaged out to about 33 percent."
As part of the study, rooster pheasants were also "counted" along roads adjacent to CRP fields to determine their numbers. The surveys were done by listening for pheasants to crow during breeding season -- usually late April and early May -- when rooster crowing is at its maximum. According to Evrard, the number of crowing rooster pheasants-an index to the size of the pheasant population-in CRP fields was ten times higher than in the surrounding cropland.
Evrard also said that many other wildlife species found the CRP fields attractive, including gray partridge, jackrabbits, deer, and mice, and predators including hawks, fox, coyote, and the rare short-eared owl. "Most of the time when nests aren’t successful, it’s due to predators, but that’s all part of the equation."
The federal Conservation Reserve Program, a provision of the 1985 farm bill, is designed to slow soil erosion and improve water quality and wildlife habitat. It is managed by the United States Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency, in partnership with other state and federal agencies. The program pays farmers to convert highly erodible cropland to permanent grass or trees. CRP will come up again for reauthorization in 2002.
Evrard added habitat benefits like these usually take time to realize when enrolling land in CRP, "When lands are first taken out of agricultural production, they become weedy. But then they generally develop more grasses and become excellent habitat for many species."
Wisconsin has over 635,000 acres of land currently enrolled in CRP, about 32,000 of it in St. Croix County. By comparison, Illinois has over 877,000 acres, Minnesota 1.5 million, and Iowa 1.7 million.
Todd Peterson, DNR public service section chief, says he would like to see more land in Wisconsin enrolled, "CRP has enhanced more wildlife habitat in this country than probably any other initiative. We really would like to see CRP reauthorized in the 2002 Farm Bill."
Interested landowners should contact their county’s Farm Service Agency for more information on enrolling.
FOR MORE INFORMATION CONTACT: Jim Evrard, DNR wildlife biologist, 715-463-2446 Todd Peterson, DNR public service chief, 608-267-2948 Jon Berquist, DNR migratory bird specialist, 608-266-8841