Popular program nearing upper limit of participation

By JOHN O'CONNELL

Capital Press

New Conservation Reserve Program options could help Idaho expand a popular program that's nearing its participation cap, said Ron Abbott, Idaho farm programs chief.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on March 2 announced the addition of 400,000 acres to State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement, which pays growers to set aside acres and manage them for designated species of concern. In Idaho, SAFE benefits sharp-tailed grouse.

To be eligible, Idaho land must be located within 1.2 or 4 miles of a sharp-tailed grouse lek, depending on the SAFE subprogram used. A lek is an area where males gather to display mating rituals for visiting females.

SAFE, a continuous enrollment program, is labor intensive, requiring farmers to spray for weeds, till much of the acreage they enroll and plant a special seed mixture for grouse. Last spring, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game helped identify 70 new leks to add to a SAFE program map, making many more growers eligible.

Abbott said Idaho, in the third year of its program, now has between 60,000 and 70,000 acres enrolled in SAFE.

"Our allocation is somewhere in the neighborhood of 90,000, and we are approaching that," Abbott said. "I'm pretty excited about that additional 400,000 acres. I just don't know how much will go to Idaho."

Prices have been high for most agricultural commodities. Abbott said some growers have refunded their CRP payments and returned their land to production, though he did not characterize it as "a major shift."

Vilsack's SAFE changes are part of a larger CRP initiative through which growers will have the opportunity to enroll 1 million acres for wetland and grassland preservation. Abbott explained the changes shift the direction of CRP rather than expanding its total acreage. He was uncertain which CRP programs may sustain cuts.

"By focusing 1 million acres of CRP on grasslands and wetlands, this initiative will have enormous benefits for farmers, sportsmen and all Americans," Vilsack said in a press release.

Vilsack's changes also increase the signup incentive for certain continuous CRP programs from $100 to $150 per acre to target "the most environmentally valuable" land.

He also added 100,000 new acres to protect pollinator habitat and made the pollinator program continuous enrollment, added 200,000 acres for wetland restoration, added 150,000 acres for nesting duck habitat protection and added 150,000 acres for upland bird habitat buffers. Abbott said it's unclear when the changes will take effect.

Vilsack's announcement reallocates a portion of the total existing CRP authorized acreage without increasing the program.

A four-week general CRP signup begins March 12. There are 30 million acres now enrolled in CRP, with about 6.5 million acres set to expire on Sept. 30.

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