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How the Farm Bill will Effect Upland Hunters

Understanding the Farm Bill's massive impacts on hunting access, habitat, and upland hunting nationwide.

How the Farm Bill will Effect Upland Hunters

Legislation can be daunting to try to understand, but the Farm Bill's impact on upland hunters is worth learning about. (Photo courtesy of John Hafner)

You could think of the federal Farm Bill as a $20 truck stop steak, the one you get for free if you eat it all in one indigestive sitting. This omnibus bill, which directs national agriculture and food-security policies and appropriations in five-year increments, is intimidatingly big, with more gristle and rind than choice chop, and it’s served with so many garnishes and gratuitous starches that it resists easy consumption.

But that image of a big, regrettable meal isn’t quite accurate. The Farm Bill is more like a tasting flight of smaller plates, each with its own flavor and purpose, that combine to deliver a multiple course of federal agricultural policy not only in farm country but in school lunchrooms, grocery stores, and export grain terminals in our largest shipping ports. It’s filling, sure, but for upland hunters, it’s also nutritious and tasty.

Most courses of the mega-meal don’t particularly interest us. These are the price-support structures for commodity farmers, the low-income food assistance programs, and the federally directed institutional food programs that feed millions of America’s children and seniors. But the Farm Bill is also responsible for delivering the majority of conservation funding and on-the-ground habitat work in America’s heartland.

Readers of this magazine should savor the fact that the Farm Bill influences the number of birds you bag, the acres of cover you walk, and even the seasons and species you can hunt. That’s because, more than any other single piece of public policy passed by federal or state legislatures, the Farm Bill has the most wide-reaching impact on upland-bird habitat and access from New York to Oregon.

The 2023 Farm Bill has been drafted, debated, and amended almost since the previous 5-year agreement was enacted in 2018. The trillion-dollar legislation will direct the priorities and budgets of federal agencies through 2029, but it’s okay if you don’t digest the entirety of the thousand-page bill. In keeping with the small-plate menu, here are key samplings of the Farm Bill that directly influence America’s upland hunters, and what you should know about them in order to be a more educated and effective upland hunter.

Conservation Reserve Program - CRP

Pheasant hunter checks his his GPS
The CRP program provides millions of acres of native grasses for wildlife habitat. (Photo courtesy of Steve Oehlenschlager)

This program, better known by its shorthand acronym CRP, pays landowners to retire marginal cropland, returning it to an approximation of its native, unplowed state. The dense grass and soil-holding cover can be a boon to ground-nesting birds like sharptailed grouse and pheasants. This is the program responsible for making South Dakota, North Dakota, and western Iowa destinations for the previous generation of upland hunters.

But CRP, which is a direct descendant of the “Soil Bank” created by Congress and the Eisenhower administration to address soil erosion and surplus commodity grain production back in 1956, has come on hard times in the nearly 40 years since it was formalized in the 1985 Farm Bill. Payments to landowners for retiring their land haven’t kept pace with commodity prices or crop rental rates, so 10- and 15-year CRP contracts increasingly aren’t renewed. Landowners who can lease their fields for up to $200 per acre annually to their grain-farming neighbors aren’t excited by the $80 per-acre lease rate for CRP enrollment, especially when considering that CRP contracts require a 10- to 15-year commitment.

Consequently, CRP acreage has slipped from around 37 million in the first decade of the 21st century to around 20 million in 2021, and it’s on a steady downward trajectory.

“You see this pendulum swing, with times of high commodity prices making CRP unattractive followed by depressed markets and greater interest in CRP by farmers,” says Jim Ingles, director of governmental affairs for Pheasants Forever. “Grain prices are currently spiking because of the war in Ukraine and global weather events, which means it will be a fight to get CRP acres back to those historic highs.”

“We’d like to see CRP restored to high levels, but we can’t go to Congress right now and ask for 40 million acres,” says Ingles. “That would be expensive and a non-starter in a Congress that’s losing its appetite for big public expenditures.

So, we’re going to ask for as many acres as possible, but with management flexibility that makes it appealing to landowners looking for alternatives to row crops that can make their operations more resilient during these wide swings in weather events that they’ve been experiencing. We think it makes sense to talk about CRP as both an ecological and economic safety net for producers.”

The solution is materializing as the CRP Improvement Act, a hearty appetizer that would modernize the cornerstone to grassland and soil conservation. If provisions make it into the final version, the Improvement Act would provide funds to cost share with producers for fencing and water projects, in order to make grazing CRP lands a more appealing and realistic option for landowners in the heart of corn, soybean, and wheat country. The act, co-sponsored by prairie-state senators John Thune (R-SD) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), would also increase maximum CRP payments from $50,000 to $125,000 in order to keep pace with land valuations. And it would allow producers to restore wetlands, trees, and other critical habitat components as part of their CRP enrollment.

Private-Land Recreational Access

Walk-In Access programs, such as Block Managment, are made possible by the Farm Bill. (Photo courtesy of Andrew McKean)

If you hunt a Walk-In Area in any of the Great Plains and Corn Belt states, you’re a direct beneficiary of the Farm Bill. A provision in the 2014 Farm Bill enabled the creation of a program called “Open Fields,” which provided incentive payments to landowners who opened their land to public hunting, fishing, and other recreation. Modeled off Kansas’ Walk-In Hunter Access program, the 2018 Farm Bill formalized the program as the Voluntary Public Access-Habitat Improvement Program (or VPA-HIP) and provided $50 million in funding.

Most states use this to amplify their walk-in hunting programs, and in many states east of the Mississippi River, Open Fields funding provides the only formalized private-land access. Without it, grouse, quail, and deer hunters would be reliant mainly on limited parcels of public land. Even in access-rich states like Montana, the federal funding creates a meaningful amount of additional opportunity, says Heather Harris, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks’ grasslands and wetlands biologist.

“In 2020, Montana was awarded just under $2 million in VPA-HIP grants, and we used it to create access to mostly inaccessible acres of CRP through our Upland Game Bird Enhancement Program,” says Harris. “The point was to provide public access to high-quality game-bird habitat and create additional incentives for producers to keep their land enrolled in CRP.”

In Montana, the access provision allowed the state to add $5 per acre per year to participating CRP enrollees; FWP initiated 96 projects and expanded bird-hunting access on 48,000 acres, mostly in the bird-rich eastern prairies, under the Open Fields for Game Bird Hunters program.

In Colorado, VPA provided $1.2 million for the state’s Walk-In Access Program, and $900,000 went to Idaho’s Access Yes program. Iowa got $1.5 million for the Iowa Habitat and Access Program, and $2.5 million went to Minnesota’s Walk-In Access program. Kentucky used $850,000 for its Cooperative Dove Field Program, and $3 million went to Nebraska’s Open Fields and Waters program. Nearly every state got some portion for access, though states in the Northeast are conspicuously absent from the funding.

“If you hunt Walk-In Areas in your state, you are benefitting from VPA-HIP,” says PF’s Ingles. “If funding goes away or gets reduced, it’s going to remove a lot of hunting access” along with fishing, wildlife-watching, and hiking opportunities on private land.

The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, which is leading a coalition of conservation groups on a unified approach to Farm Bill priorities, notes that economic analysis of private-land access “shows a huge return on investment while expanding hunting opportunities.” An analysis by the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies indicated that the access provision of the bill returns $8 to the economy for every $1 invested, says Tim McCoy, director of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

That’s a pretty appealing pitch to not only Congress, but also prospective landowning cooperators, rural communities, state agencies, and even the sporting goods industry, all groups that have skin in the Farm Bill game.

Other Farm Bill Provisions Hunters Should Know

Rooster pheasant walks through stubble field near straw bales.
The Farm Bill offers assistance to agricultural producers who implement specific practices that have demonstrated benefit to soil, water, air, or wildlife. (Photo courtesy of Dean Pearson)

Given that America’s Farm Belt is evolving and changing just like every other thread of our national tapestry, the Farm Bill reflects shifting national priorities. There’s funding for mitigating greenhouse gas generation in the livestock industry, and for incentivizing pollinator-friendly plantings, for encouraging new homesteaders, for community farmers’ markets, and for disincentivizing things like plowing native sod.

One of the Farm Bill’s most influential titles, at least for upland hunters, is an obscure provision called EQIP, or Environmental Quality Incentives Program. It provides financial and technical assistance to agricultural producers to implement specific practices that have demonstrated benefit to soil, water, air, or wildlife. And Ingles says it disproportionately benefits upland hunters.

“You won’t hear much about the Working Lands for Wildlife program under EQIP during this go-round,” he says, “because we essentially got what we wanted in the 2018 Farm Bill, with at least 10 percent of EQIP funds devoted to wildlife, up to $200 million per year.”

This provision provides funding to conserve sagebrush habitat that benefits sage grouse. It provides technical assistance to Midwestern landowners who want to create a mosaic understory for bobwhite quail, and it helps ranchers who institute rest-rotation grazing programs that leave nesting cover for sharptailed grouse and Hungarian partridge.

“I know any discussion of the Farm Bill, or really any complicated federal legislation, can put people to sleep,” says Montana’s Harris. “But I really encourage people—and especially hunters—to check out the benefits provided by the EQIP programs, because there’s likely to be specific, recognizable projects in every county in America.”

The program funds hyper-local conservation initiatives through the main conduit for Farm Bill programs, the Natural Resources Conservation Service. That’s the Department of Agriculture agency that delivers most of the Farm Bill programs to producers in each rural county across America. These NRCS offices convene local landowners to consider specific conservation needs, whether it’s more residual cover for pheasant, a rest/rotation grazing program for livestock, or cover cropping.

The Farm Bill's Price Tag and Politics

Even when you consider the 5-year lifetime of the Farm Bill, it’s an expensive national expenditure. No previous Farm Bill has exceeded $1 trillion, and this iteration could hit $1.5 trillion, according to Congressional Budget Office forecasts. That’s nearly twice the cost of the 2018 legislation.

Keep in mind, says Pheasants Forever’s Ingles, that conservation titles account for just seven percent of Farm Bill expenditures, and he says in a Congress that’s averse to big public expenditures, two elements will keep a fully funded Farm Bill on track.

The first is politics. Most influential Republican Senators are from rural farm states and are eager to pass a Farm Bill that benefits their constituents ahead of the 2024 election year. But Bethany Erb, director of government affairs for Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever, says the most compelling case for the Farm Bill is that it’s a smart national investment that benefits hunters, consumers, and every American interested in clean water, air, and healthy rural economies.

“Take CRP as one example,” she says. “Many of us think that CRP is the best tool to compensate landowners to do things that benefit water quality, flood mitigation, carbon sequestration, and both migratory and non-migratory wildlife. We’re making the case that CRP and other conservation titles in the Farm Bill are investments to make America more resilient. They allow landowners to retire unproductive acres (for commodity crops) that are prone to flooding or drought, and instead of costing taxpayers for crop insurance or disaster payments, they actually save money while providing an ecological and economic safety net.”

The fact that the Farm Bill also provides a smorgasbord of hunting access and upland habitat is the most delicious portion of this sprawling national banquet.

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