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Conservation program enrollments stopped

A South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks Department Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program sign borders public hunting land north of Mitchell. (Luke Hagen/Republic)

In less than five years, about 82,000 acres of high quality wildlife habitat was enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program in South Dakota.

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Administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farm Service Agency, CREP is a state-sponsored Conservation Reserve Program designed to target and address specific high priority conservation and environmental objectives.

The program includes land in 23 South Dakota counties along the James River Watershed, which is approximately 8.1 million acres.

Tom Kirschenmann, South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks chief of wildlife, said this week that a lack of funding has caused the suspension of enrollment of new acres into CREP. He added there is no timetable to begin new enrollments again.

"The issue of suspending new enrollments is from a budgetary perspective from the state level within our department," Kirschenmann said. "The funds we had available to provide the cost-share assistance that must match the federal funding, we've just used all of our available funding at this time."

In 2009, the GF&P partnered with USDA to develop a 100,000-acre program in the James River Watershed to boost wildlife habitat, prevent soil erosion, enhance water quality and help with flood reduction. In addition to the benefits to natural resources, CREP areas are also open to public hunting and have access points for public fishing.

Under CREP, farmers voluntarily enter into contracts with the federal government for 10 to 15 years, agreeing to remove enrolled lands from agricultural production and plant them to conservation. Farmers who choose to enroll in CREP are paid through the federally sponsored Conservation Reserve Program and from the state of South Dakota. The participants who enroll their land receive about 40 percent higher rental rates than if they were only enrolled in CRP, some of which goes to planting habitat such as grasses.

When the program started in 2009, the estimated cost of implementing it over 15 years was $156.6 million, with a federal commitment of $120.9 million (77.2 percent) and state contributions of $35.6 million (22.8 percent). Kirschenmann said the state has been responsible for about $3 million annually.

Since CREP started, there have been 818 contracts covering a total of 82,173 acres. Although the acceptance of new acres for CREP has ceased, acres that are already enrolled will not be impacted.

"This program is extremely popular with both hunters and landowners, " Tony Leif, GF&P wildlife division director, said in a written statement. "The enrollments we have are a testament to the successful partnership between the state and federal governments and between landowners and hunters."

The James River Watershed was selected for the initiative partially because of its pheasant numbers and pheasant hunting density, according to a 2008 GF&P proposal for the program.

When CREP was started in the James River Watershed, the pheasant population in the state was at a 44-year high. At the time, the GF&P sensed a large number of CRP acres that were due to expire in upcoming years would not be re-enrolled, forcing the loss of nesting cover for birds and habitat for other wildlife.

The CREP initiative helped ease the loss of many of those acres, but now the cease in new enrollment comes at another difficult time for outdoor enthusiasts.

Last August, a preseason pheasant count by the GF&P dropped by 64 percent compared to the previous year. The drop was the second largest in the history of the survey, which dates to 1949.

Still, Kirschenmann was optimistic about habitat acres in South Dakota. He noted a new five-year farm bill was passed and signed into law by President Obama earlier this month.

The new farm bill caps CRP enrollment nationwide at 24 million acres during the next five years. That's down from 32 million in the previous farm bill. National CRP enrollment peaked at 36.7 million acres in 2007.

"The real important part and next step is getting all the rules established for all those conservation programs and see how we can best utilize and maximize them here in South Dakota," Kirschenmann said.