DULUTH — The future of golden-winged warblers in northern Minnesota forests, ringneck pheasants in farm country and sage grouse in the mountainous west are tied to the massive farm bill that's starting to wind through the Washington labyrinth, a coalition of wildlife and government agencies said Wednesday.
The farm bill sets U.S. domestic agricultural policy, funding everything from food stamps to crop insurance. But it's also the nation's largest conservation legislation, providing billions of dollars to pay farmers and other landowners to set aside land — essentially to raise birds instead of crops.
Most people don't realize that "the farm bill is one of our most critically important tools for bird conservation," said Kenneth Rosenberg of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
Cornell is part of the U.S. Committee of the North American Bird Conservation Initiative which released its "State of the Birds" report Wednesday, Aug. 2, focusing on the farm bill's importance to bird populations, bird watchers, bird hunters and rural economies. The initiative is a coalition of 28 federal and state agencies, and nonprofit organizations.
The report notes that, after declining from the 1970s into the 1990s, populations of wetland-dependent birds, grassland birds and forest birds have risen since major farm bills increased spending on conservation programs, especially since the 2000s: Wetland birds like ducks are up more than 50 percent while forest and grassland birds have responded more slowly, up 3 percent in recent years.
Rosenberg noted nearly all of the farm bill's conservation money goes to privately owned lands, where most of the nation's bird habitat is located.
In the Northland, farm bill money has been earmarked for the Natural Resources Conservation Service to create habitat for golden-winged warblers which have been declining for decades. In the last farm bill $10 million was allocated to create habitat — namely young forest in Wisconsin and Minnesota — for the birds to spend their summers and raise their young. State money also was earmarked for the habitat effort, most of it on private land. The warbler is listed by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources as a "species of greatest concern."
Wednesday's report said scientists have "documented an increase in golden-winged warblers and breeding success on more than 5,700 acres of newly created nesting habitat across 150 private forests."
In farm country, landowners are paid to not plant corn but instead plant grasses that serve as habitat for pheasants, meadowlarks and sparrows. When funding for the Conservation Reserve Program goes down, there are fewer acres of habitat, and populations of those birds usually fall accordingly.
Conservation Reserve Program acres peaked at 36.7 million acres in 2007, when pheasant numbers also peaked. Last year there were just 24 million acres enrolled in CRP.
The last farm bill passed in 2014 and set policy to spend $956 billion over 10 years. Of that, about $6 billion annually goes to land conservation efforts that help wildlife and bird habitat, said Kellis Moss, director of public policy for Ducks Unlimited, the wetland conservation group.
But the actual funding in the bill runs out as of Sept. 30 2018, so Congress must act on a new bill before then.
The new bill is already in the works, and House Agriculture Committee Chairman K. Michael Conaway said he wants the bill to advance in coming weeks, although it's expected to be well into 2018 before any final action is taken.
Conservation groups say their battle isn't necessarily against any opponent to farm policy or conservation efforts but an overall effort in Congress and the Trump administration to cut government spending across the board.
Conservation groups appear to be battling just to keep funding at 2014 levels and avoid major cuts.
"The political landscape is shaping up to be a tough one to get any increase in funding," said Andrew Schmidt of the Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies.
Schmidt said the farm bill is critical to bolster wildlife populations that are managed by state agencies, like the Minnesota DNR, but which states can't afford to pay for habitat conservation without federal dollars.
E.J. Williams of the group American Bird Conservancy aid the farm bill is a rare opportunity to support both rural economies and wildlife habitat. Far from being a jobs or environment issue, the farm bill can support "healthy farm economies and healthy bird populations," Williams said in a telephone news conference Wednesday.