Historically, tallgrass prairie dotted with uncountable wetlands covered one-third of Minnesota, providing habitat for wildlife, storing and filtering floodwaters, and binding soil in its roots. The prairie virtually disappeared across the Midwest in just a few decades when European settlers broke the soil and the thick prairie root system to plant row crops. Today, tallgrass prairie is the most endangered ecosystem in North America.
With little remaining grass to graze, we've lost the ranching economy that grew up with the state's row-crop economy. With little grass to nest in, grassland birds are declining faster than any other group of birds. With little grass to filter water, water quality in rivers and lakes continues to deteriorate.
Since the 1930s, much of the story of Minnesota's grassland wildlife has been written in the federal farm bill. The current five-year farm bill is up for renewal—or, in the event of political deadlock, a one-year extension—on Sept. 30. Most important to wildlife are the conservation programs that make up 6 percent of farm bill spending—an alphabet soup of programs that help landowners protect water, soil, and wildlife. Other farm bill programs such as Sodsaver, Sodbuster, and Swampbuster help them protect grasslands and wetlands.
In the Midwest, the Conservation Reserve Program is the flagship farm bill conservation program. CRP pays farmers to remove erodible and other sensitive lands from row-crop production and plant them to grasses and wildflowers.
Public lands such as state wildlife management areas and scientific and natural areas, as well as federal waterfowl production areas and national wildlife refuges, are permanent fixtures for grassland conservation in Minnesota. However, because CRP is such a large program, it plays a vital role in providing critical grassland habitat for wildlife.
Farm Bills and Wildlife.
The first farm bill in 1936 paid farmers to convert row-crop acres to grasslands. The bill sought to conserve soil, protect farm income, and protect consumers by ensuring supplies of food and fiber.
In 1956, a new farm bill provision, the Soil Bank, aimed to avoid crop surpluses and "hold rain and snow where they fall," again by planting perennial grasses instead of row crops.
The modern CRP was born in the 1985 Food Security Act to "assist owners and operators of highly erodible cropland in conserving and improving soil and water resources."
Wildlife wasn't mentioned in the original act or in early farm bills, but it has been mentioned in more recent bills—and wildlife populations have responded to each program to place grass on the landscape.
"Except for Minnesota's weather, CRP has a greater impact on farmland wildlife than any other factor," says Kevin Lines, coordinator for the Minnesota Pheasant Action Plan.
Minnesota pheasant harvest has risen and fallen with CRP acreage. The state's CRP acreage peaked in 2007, when pheasant harvest peaked at 655,400 roosters. However, by 2017, CRP numbers had declined 40 percent to 1.13 million acres while pheasant harvest declined 62 percent. In October, another 203,000 acres will expire from the program.
In the range of the prairie chicken, a once-common native prairie bird, CRP acres have declined 51 percent and chicken numbers have declined 43 percent since 2007. Over the same time period, eastern meadowlarks, bobolinks, and grasshopper sparrows have declined 50, 59, and 67 percent, respectively (see page 48 for more on grassland songbirds).
Pollinators from bees to butterflies face population declines across North America, and several of Minnesota's pollinating insects are threatened, endangered, or of special concern, largely due to declining grassland habitat. As lawmakers write and debate the 2018 farm bill, the fates of many of these species are at stake.
If you don't farm or hunt pheasants, you might wonder how the farm bill affects you. The answer is water.
Water quality in southwestern Minnesota is poorer than anywhere else in the state. In 2014, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency found that of 93 stream sections evaluated in the far southwest, only three fully supported aquatic life, and only one fully supported aquatic recreation such as swimming. None of the lakes were deemed swimmable. In 2015 the MPCA reported that 60 percent of shallow wetlands in the farmland region of the state were in poor condition.
Imagine a thunderstorm in western Minnesota. When rain hits the compacted, bare soil of agricultural fields, most of it runs across the surface and scours loose soil, causing erosion in the field and sedimentation in the stream where it eventually flows. The water that does percolate down into the soil is quickly flushed into the nearest waterway by drainage systems installed under the surface. Many of the chemicals applied to the soil by farmers, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, dissolve in the water and are carried downstream.
Faster-rising rivers fed by this accelerated runoff often cause expensive flood damage. The chemicals in the water can lead to algal blooms that kill fish and other aquatic animals.
That same thunderstorm also rains on a CRP field. Up to 12,700 gallons of water per acre are held on the leaves of the grasses and wildflowers. The roots, as well as burrowing insects, create very porous soil that absorbs water quickly and holds it like a sponge. Little water runs off grasslands.
The wetlands often embedded in those CRP fields do even more work. Research from Glacial Ridge National Wildlife Refuge in Polk County found that restoring grasslands and wetlands may reduce peak flood volume by more than 50 percent. Studies show that wetland plants help remove nitrates, a common farmland pollutant and a threat to human health, from water.
Strategically planting even a few acres of grasses and wildflowers can dramatically improve water quality. Studies in Iowa showed that conservation planting in the right 10 percent of a field can decrease topsoil, nitrogen, and phosphorus losses by 95, 82, and 89 percent, respectively.
Bringing It Back to the Farm.
CRP is popular with many farmers, but the last two farm bills have reduced the numbers of acres enrolled in CRP. In the most recent sign-up, only 9 percent of the acres offered by landowners were accepted into the program.
Minnesota has lost much of its grazing culture and economy in western Minnesota. A Working Lands CRP, which has been included in early farm bill drafts, would allow landowners with cattle to graze CRP fields under a conservation grazing plan. This could make land that's unproductive for row crops a viable option for livestock production and help diversify the rural economy. Grazing, when done with conservation in mind, can also improve wildlife habitat.
Honeybees are often shipped around the country to pollinate crops. Many of those honeybees are returned to the upper Midwest to spend the late summer, fall, and early winter. Having CRP fields full of wildflowers producing pollen and nectar is a significant boost to the beekeepers' economy.
Many of those wildflowers will be milkweeds, which are critical to monarch butterflies. The new national Monarch Plan has set a goal of adding 232.8 million milkweed stems in Minnesota. It will take a lot of CRP to make that target.
Strategically planting CRP acres can yield multiple benefits for farm economies, water, wildlife, and pollinators.
"CRP and the farm bill affect every Minnesotan," says DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr. "Whether you farm, hunt, fish, live on a lake or in a flood plain, or are concerned about your drinking water, restoring grass to the landscape just makes sense."
It's amazing what a little grass can do.