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The farm bill, Ducks Unlimited and conservation

Photo by Kyle Massey
<p><em>Photo by Kyle Massey</em></p>
$10 million in additional conservation funds for rice producers. EQIP and CSP. How is the U.S. duck population doing?

Conservation efforts are always on the Ducks Unlimited front burner. First, though, how was the recently closed hunting season for the Delta?

“I haven’t talked to lots of folks to really get a consensus,” says Scott Manley, DU biologist. “Overall, though, I think most were pleased with how the season ended.

“The season started off with a bang with low temperatures in the 20’s in middle of November, followed by an extremely long stale period in December. When we finally got the first decent rain of the year just after the New Year and it turned off very cold – around 10 degrees at Stuttgart and single digits farther north – the hunting was as good as it got for 2014/2015.

“There were always plenty of birds around. But the warm, misty, calm days in December didn’t have the ducks flying. You could hit the blinds but the ducks we saw were almost impossible to work into the decoys. Sometimes the ducks are smarter than we are!”

Andrea Cooper, DU communications specialist, is on the same page. “The level of happiness with the season depended on whether you could go hunting the whole time. People that were only able to go hunting in December were disappointed. Those with the flexibility to hunt throughout the season had some pretty good days.”

Queried on conservation, Manley says Ducks Unlimited is “definitely entering a new era of working with rice agriculture. That follows the pipe program we did for 10 or 15 years where we provided steel water-control structure pipes. We worked with producers to impact over 500,000 acres across the Delta.”

Manley also points to the Arkansas R.I.C.E. (Rice Industry Caring for the Environment) Project. “That involved extension and promotion and telling folks about the great things the rice industry was doing, encouraging producers to hold more water on their fields in the winter. Besides providing waterfowl habitat, that reduces soil erosion and weed control costs in the spring.”

More recently, in February of 2013, the Rice Federation and DU came together to formally team up in the USA Rice/Ducks Unlimited Rice Stewardship Partnership. “This is a sincere, codified effort for water conservation, waterfowl and working ricelands. Indeed, these three things have important overlap.

“The three legs of the partnership stool are on-the-ground conservation work, policy efforts together in D.C. and the states, and communications. So, we’re doing public relations together, working in D.C. and at the state level where necessary and we want to do more water conservation and waterfowl management.”

New program

What’s really gained much attention lately is the Rice Federation and DU put together a proposal for a USDA program called the “Regional Conservation Partnership Program.”

“The new farm bill essentially allows you to build your own program using USDA/NRCS programs as your legos, your building blocks,” explains Manley. “We put together a comprehensive conservation proposal for all six rice-producing states – working with hundreds of producers and thousands of acres -- with many ways to monitor and evaluate. They had a cap of $20 million and that’s what we asked for.”

The proposal ended up getting $10 million, one of the largest awards in the country. That $10 million will be spent on Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) and Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) projects only in rice over the next couple of years.

“This is just my opinion, but I believe this has been a big win and solidifier for the partnership,” says Manley. “It proved you really can work together and produce results, make significant progress. It’s turned this partnership from something viewed as warm and fuzzy to something solid, something that proves conservation results on the ground.”

How can farmers get involved?

Most importantly, producers need to be connected to their local, county NRCS office. “This a NRCS program, and we have the good fortune of helping get it funded and helping deliver results on the ground. The $10 million will be added to the EQIP and CSP funds in the six rice-growing states for rice specific conservation practices.

“Exact operational details on merging this RCPP project with ongoing EQIP and CSP are being hashed out as we speak.”

What’s the current health of the duck population?

This past spring, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service breeding bird survey, there was a record breeding waterfowl population for the third year across the prairies of the United States and Canada.

This is also nineteenth year in a row for liberal hunting seasons. “For our part of the world, that means 60 days and six ducks,” says Manley. “The early teal season bag limit has been expanded from four to six birds.

“All vital statistics show everything is going well for breeding waterfowl. There is a ‘however’, though. Competing land uses continue to erode the amount of available habitat for waterfowl across the breeding grounds. We must continue conservation efforts to ensure we continue to have these viable populations in the future.”

While happy with the burgeoning waterfowl populations, Cooper says the current string of successful years won’t last. “When, not if, the prairies go through a dry cycle again, we will see the results of the dramatic and continuing habitat loss on the breeding grounds.

“We also should note that some species of waterfowl like pintails aren’t doing that great. In some areas of the country, their wintering and migration habitat is in pretty dire straits. The Gulf Coast is a prime example of that.

“The reason I mention pintails is they depend heavily on the Gulf Coast rice lands, especially in Texas and Louisiana. Unfortunately, both of those states are experiencing long-term declines in rice acreage. Texas, of course, is going through major drought and that’s meant very little rice acreage in the state for the last three years. That has had a dramatic impact on pintails.

Manley says one other thing worth mentioning is the duck stamp price has increased from $15 to $25. “The stamp hasn’t seen a price increase since 1991. That extra $10 will only go towards acquiring grassland easements from willing sellers in the prairies. This is a huge positive stride for hunters and conservation on the breeding grounds.”

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