By JOHN O'CONNELL
Sheldon Hatley saw the answer to a dilemma in the abundance of Columbian sharp-tailed grouse that regularly came to roost on his small farm in Robin, located in the Marsh Valley area of Bannock County.
Hatley works full time with Union Pacific Railroad. Given the constraints on his time, Hatley would rather leave the bulk of his 1,000-acre farm fallow under the Conservation Reserve Program. But he lost three of his five CRP contracts in 2010, when officials determined Bannock and Power counties were well over the 25 percent cap on program allotments.
Hatley is among a host of Southeast Idaho growers who will be applying for contracts through a sub-program of CRP designed to improve wildlife habitat for designated species, called State Acres For Wildlife Enhancement. Local interest in the program is so strong that the Gem State is poised to surpass Texas this fall as the No. 1 state for SAFE acres allocated.
Idaho's program, developed by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, is designed to benefit native sharp-tailed grouse, which were denied a for listing under the federal Endangered Species Act in 2001 but are classified by the state as a species of special concern. Fish and Game officials say Southeast Idaho and British Columbia are the game bird's last two strongholds.
Bracing for the loss of his CRP contracts, Hatley applied for the SAFE program last year. Though he routinely saw ample evidence on his land of the presence of sharp-tailed grouse, his application was denied because the map used by the program confirmed no leks -- the areas where males perform mating dances to woo females -- within a 1.2-mile perimeter, as required.
SAFE is a continuous enrollment program, meaning growers can enroll at any time, but officials anticipate an influx of applications beginning Oct. 1 when the new lek maps come out.
During April and May, the season when grouse congregate in leks, Hatley scoured his land on a four-wheeler. He succeeded in finding a lek that qualified his farm in Robin and 600 acres of a neighbor's farm in Marsh Valley.
The SAFE program pays the same rental rate as the general CRP program, following a formula that varies by county and soil type but averages about $40 per acre, said Brett Gullett, Farm Bill coordinator for the Southeast Region of Fish and Game. SAFE participants are also reimbursed for between 80 and 90 percent of their expenditures.
SAFE is labor intensive, requiring farmers to spray for weeds, till much of the acreage they enroll and plant a sharp-tailed grouse friendly seed mixture with native bunch grasses and legumes.
"It is shocking for people when they come in and want to sign up to do very little and find out their plans are going to have to involve a lot of work," Gullett said.
In Idaho, 40,000 SAFE acres are available. Once those are under contract, Idaho, which started its SAFE program in 2008, will have 94,300 SAFE acres, nearly a third of the total. The entire SAFE program encompasses just under 300,000 acres.
Seeking to qualify more growers, Gullett said Fish and Game sent officers into the field to search for leks in April and May, with an emphasis on Bannock, Power and Oneida counties. One technician was hired to work full-time searching for leks.
The effort resulted in the addition of 70 leks to the map that were either discovered or reclassified as active.
Fish and Game officers routinely comme to Rockland farmer James Robinson's property to trap sharp-tailed grouse for relocation. Robinson signed up for SAFE, which awards contracts based on a first-come, first-served basis rather than on a points system like CRP, largely because the acres didn't count against Power county's cap and he didn't have to wait for a registration period.
"To me, there's quite a bit of work there, but at least in this county, if you're re-enrolling in CRP, you're having to do a lot of replanting and work also," Robinson said