Southeast Idaho grain farmers paid to let birds be

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By JOHN O'CONNELL

Capital Press

In certain Caribou County fields, farmers don't flinch when sandhill cranes decimate grain crops.

Since the mid-1990s, 13 area growers have accepted federal payments to leave the birds alone on roughly 50,000 acres. They're participants in a unique lure crop program that provides cranes habitat while helping to keep them out of fields where they're not wanted.

With assistance from Idaho's congressional delegation, the growers were awarded $900,000 in federal earmarks. They use the interest to pay $2,050 per year to each participant with a lure crop contract and $1,025 to neighbors whose fields could be affected by higher crane densities. Though recent low interest rates have cut into their principal, the goal is to keep the program running in perpetuity.

The farmers are free to harvest their lure crop fields as usual.

"We have areas that are close to a marsh where they nest. We'll have areas that are totaled -- not worth taking the time to run a machine through it -- areas with limited damage and areas with no damage," said Evan Hayes, a retired farmer who coordinates the program. Hayes said the program has been popular with growers and the environmental community.

The farmers police one another to make certain everyone is abiding by the terms, with technical support from the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.

"I don't know if there's anything else like it in the whole country," said Jason Beck, landowner and sportsman coordinator for Fish and Game's Southeast region.

The department also hosts a crane hunt during September, with a new hunt offering 25 tags in the Oxford Peak area near Malad scheduled for the upcoming season.

Sandhill cranes tend to consume meat in June and July and switch to eating grain right before harvest, Beck said. They can also damage crops by tromping them with their large wings and feet.

Hayes also credits a lure crop program at Grays Lake National Wildlife Refuge, located 27 miles north of Soda Springs, with relieving pressure on Caribou County grain fields.

Refuge Manager Bill Smith and his maintenance man maintain a small tractor and implements to plant 100 acres per year of short-season barley by the wetland. Their barley, planted on a $3,500 annual budget, is used solely as a food source for cranes. Smith said Grays Lake crane populations can reach 1,600 in the fall.

The refuge started planting its lure crop in the 1970s to keep cranes out of nearby barley fields. Though farmers have given up on planting barley in the immediate vicinity of the refuge, due to the challenging weather conditions, Smith believes the program poses a region-wide benefit.

"It gives them a lot of security," Smith said. "The idea was to keep cranes off of other crops in the valley ... to give them as much forage as possible."

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