deer

BRIAN GEHRING/TRIBUNE

North Dakota will lose about 650,000 acres of CRP land this fall, land that is critical for wildlife habitat for deer and other animals.

North Dakota will lose more than a half-million acres in the Conservation Reserve Program this fall, a loss that will affect wildlife and hunters alike.

The state Game and Fish Department is looking to replace some of that lost habitat — but what it may not be able to replace is about $1 million in lost revenue from deer license sales.

This year, about 44,000 fewer deer-gun licenses at $20 each will be sold than a year ago.

"Between now and October, there are going to be a lot of places that aren't going to be around for people to hunt anymore," said Randy Kreil, wildlife chief for the Game and Fish Department.

The changes are tied to the loss of CRP acres. Other programs won't replace all the CRP acres lost, but they could help in certain areas of the state.

Wildlife populations in North Dakota exploded in the 2½ decades after the CRP was launched in the mid-1980s. The number of those acres has been dropping as higher commodity prices prompted farmers to put a lot of the land back into crops.

This fall alone, 850,000 additional acres are expected to come out of CRP in North Dakota.

The latest sign-up for the conservation program re-enrolled only 190,000 acres, meaning a net loss of 650,000 total acres of CRP for the state.

Kevin Kading is the private lands section leader for the Game and Fish Department. Kading's division is in charge of working with private landowners on such programs as PLOTS, or Private Land Open to Sportsmen.

With the 2012 federal farm bill still in the discussion stages, Kading said, there is a great deal of uncertainty as to what kinds of programs may offset the loss of prime wildlife habitat that CRP acres provided for the past 25 years.

“Shock and awe” is how Kreil characterized the changes.

Kading hopes to get landowners interested in a federal Agriculture Department program that’s been around since 2007. The SAFE program, short for State Acres For wildlife Enhancement, is under the umbrella of CRP.

Kading said the program is intended to target land that would benefit species of threatened and endangered animals or species that are economically important, like pheasants.

Through the USDA's Farm Service Agency, Kading said, the Game and Fish Department applied for an additional 100,000 acres in the state to be added to SAFE.

There are now roughly 120,000 acres enrolled across the state — 40,000 acres in southwestern North Dakota for pheasants, 55,000 acres in the Coteau-Drift Prairie region that follows the Missouri River for waterfowl and shorebirds and smaller plots targeted for sage grouse and prairie chickens.

Kading said SAFE land is not automatically open to public hunting, but landowners can roll it into other programs like PLOTS and — by allowing public access and other incentives — recoup up to 90 percent of the cost of putting the land into the program.

Conservation groups like Pheasants Forever and Ducks Unlimited help fund some of the incentive payments, he said.

Eligibility requirements are similar to the CRP with more flexibility in planting, like sagebrush in sage grouse ranges. The SAFE program differs from the CRP that there is continuous sign-up.

Kading said the request for additional SAFE acres was approved by the state Farm Service Agency office June 1, but official word won’t come for a few weeks.

It's not likely that the Game and Fish Department will get the entire 100,000 acres, but any amount will help reduce the impact of more than a half-million acres of lost CRP land.

"It will help slow the bleeding," Kading said.

In the meantime, coming into the next state budget cycle, the Game and Fish Department will be looking at close to $2 million in reduced revenue over the next two years.

By law, the department’s cash on hand can’t fall below $15 million. Director Terry Steinwand said revenues and expenditures were at the break-even point for this past biennium, with $10 million over the required minimum amount.

Steinwand said the department is putting together budget projections for the upcoming legislative session, and there could be some changes.

"It's a limited time (before the session)," he said.

Reach reporter Brian Gehring 250-8254 or brian.gehring@bismarcktribune.com.

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