Better water quality, more public hunting, and, best yet, superior landowner incentives.
Those are some of the benefits officials list when discussing the Community Based Habitat Access Program in the Mitchell area.
As the USDA’s continuous Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) sign-up period opens Monday, June 3, landowners within 40 miles of Mitchell have a heightened reason to consider enrolling into the federal program. There’s a local incentive, too.
In late 2017, the local Pheasants Forever Chapter, Pheasant Country, earmarked $150,000 and started the Community Based Habitat Access Program. The money is to be used to provide a sign-up incentive for landowners enrolling in CRP and also in the state Walk-In Area program, which accounts for more than 1 million acres of statewide public hunting.
“Unfortunately, when we launched the Community Based Habitat Access Program, the CRP program was capped federally,” said Matt Morlock, South Dakota State Coordinator of Pheasants Forever. “We hit a cap on the national level, so there hasn’t been interest in the Community Based Habitat Access Program, and those two go hand in hand.”
Morlock and Pheasants Forever Farm Bill Biologist Nate Cirillo hope that changes next week. USDA’s Farm Service Agency is accepting applications beginning Monday and running through Aug. 23 for certain practices under the continuous CRP signup and will offer extensions for expiring CRP contracts. The 2018 farm bill expanded the CRP cap to 27 million acres by 2023, with a focus on grasslands that have a positive impact on water quality and wetlands.
“Restoring grasslands and wetlands through CRP will provide important habitat for pheasants, ducks, deer, and pollinators,” said South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks’ senior wildlife biologist Mark Norton, in a Tuesday press release.
The Community Based Habitat Access Program further incentivizes landowners near Mitchell by adding an additional one-time payment of up to $50 per acre. The Walk-In Area program also pays a one-time incentive of up to $50 per acre and a base annual payment of $6 per acre per year.
So, for a quarter of land (160 acres) enrolled in CRP, a first-year sign-up would get up to $16,960 on top of the federal payment, which varies based on soil quality.
When Pheasant Country allocated the money and kicked off the Community Based Habitat Access Program, its hope was to encourage local businesses to do the same. Then, as more public hunting became available as landowners enrolled in the Walk-In Program, nonresident hunters would support local businesses when they visited Mitchell.
“It sounds like Pheasants Forever has quite a few people interested,” said Dave Allen, president of Pheasant Country. “With all the water that farmers are getting, maybe CRP is another option. Hopefully this will generate us some more acres around Mitchell. We all love to hunt and we want to keep what we’ve got.”
The continuous CRP sign-up that opens next week allows for 10- or 15-year increments. According to the most-recent data available from the FSA, South Dakota has about 1.145 million acres of CRP.
The FSA on Tuesday said it’s not yet known exactly how many acres will be opened in South Dakota. An official said to contact the local county FSA office with questions, and acceptance of acres will be determined based on the number of offers submitted.
Cirillo began his job as a Pheasants Forever Farm Bill Biologist in March. He’s based in Parkston and lives in Lake Andes. He serves Hutchinson, Hanson and Davison counties.
“With this CRP sign-up, we’re hoping to get a lot more people interested,” Cirillo said Tuesday. “We’re hoping that with the GFP Walk-In Program and the incentive they get and the Community Based Habitat Access Program, we’re hoping to get more people to open up their property around the Mitchell area.”