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CRP and Pheasants: Anecdote vs. Research

Farmer and pheasant-hunt host David Gillen opines in the Pierre Capital Journal that the Conservation Reserve Program is bad for pheasants and South Dakota wealth:

Full 160-acre tracts of CRP are not that desirable for young chicks. After a couple years of CRP that is not cut for hay, the amount of plant growth present is too thick for the young chicks to move through. If we get a cold, wet rain or heavy dew when the chicks are small, they get too cold from all the wet plant material around them. The hen will try to move them to an open area for sunshine, but in the large CRP fields, sometimes it is too far to an open area to get warmed up from the sun.

...Pheasant hunting and profitable agriculture creates new wealth in this state for all of us to prosper. CRP destroys wealth by taking tax dollars from people that generate income and pays landowners to idle land that could create new wealth through agriculture [David Gillen, "What You Should Know About CRP: A Farmer's Perspective," Pierre Capital Journal, 2013.12.23].

Gillen serves as a manager at Prairie Ethanol, and he's been president of the South Dakota Corn Growers Association and a board member of the American Coalition for Ethanol. Gillen defends an industry that has done enormous harm to the prairie with its voracious push for ditch-to-ditch, stream-to-stream cultivation of every acre a tractor can reach.

But let's counter Gillen's industry-boosting anecdote with scientists and research. CRP means more pheasants:

More than 800,000 ha of Iowa farmland were enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) from 1986–1991. I evaluated the relationship between CRP enrollment and ring-necked pheasants (Phasianus colchicus) in Iowa and how cropland and weather affected that relationship. Six percent of the land area in Iowa was enrolled in the CRP between 1986 and 1991. Pheasant numbers increased 30% during the first 5 years of the CRP compared to a similar period before the program began (P = 0.026). Numbers increased 34% (P = 0.018) in counties with >70% cropland and 26% (P = 0.12) in counties with 50–70% cropland. I did not detect increases in counties with <50% cropland (P = 0.71). Pheasant numbers were positively related to the CRP, but this function was also influenced by percent cropland and cumulative snowfall [Terry Z. Riley, "Association of the Conservation Reserve Program with Ring-Necked Pheasant Survey Counts in Iowa," Wildlife Society Bulletin, Vol. 23, No. 3 (Autumn, 1995), pp. 386-390].

CRP means more than just pheasants for Gillen's customers to pay to shoot at:

"Goodness, there's thousands of species that live in grasslands, including several hundred species of higher plants," says Carter Johnson, an ecologist at South Dakota State University in Brookings, S.D. Plus, permanent grass cover keeps soil from washing away.

"With those deeps roots that grasses have, and thick thatch, the water has a hard time getting a hold of the soil," says Johnson.

So more land in CRP means cleaner streams, less fertilizer runoff and more carbon stored in the soil [Dan Charles, "Grasslands Get Squeezed as Another 1.6 Million Acres Go into Crops," NPR, 2013.12.22].


In the central USA, more than 90 bird species were documented using CRP plantings during summer breeding periods, with direct evidence of nesting by more than 40 species. Direct comparisons of crop and CRP fields revealed no differences in total number of species occurring in the two habitat types. But CRP fields supported from 1.4 to 10.5 times the number of individual birds as did crop fields. Nest abundance was from 8.8 to 27 times higher in CRP fields than in crop fields. Nest success of songbirds was slightly higher in CRP fields (40%) than in crop fields (36%). Overall, CRP fields produced about 14 times as many songbirds as did rowcrop fields. Several assessments suggest nongame bird populations increased because of the CRP. Duck nesting in cropfields is uncommon. Duck nest densities in CRP fields were similar to those occurring in habitats managed for waterfowl. Duck nest success in CRP fields was equal to or higher than that on lands managed by public agencies for waterfowl. Ring-necked pheasant numbers were three to five times higher after CRP plantings were established. The success of pheasants nesting in CRP fields was greater than that necessary for population growth [Mark R. Ryan, Loren W. Burger and Eric W. Kurzejeski, "The Impact of CRP on Avian Wildlife: A Review," Journal of Production Agriculture, 1998. 11:61–66.].

Gillen's anecdote sounds plausible—wide tracts with dense ground cover may not be ideal for pheasants in wet conditions—but the research seems pretty clear that CRP acres increase bird numbers.


  1. interested party 2013.12.26

    Why worry now, Cory? Pave paradise and put up a parking lot.

  2. Rorschach 2013.12.26

    I'm surprised that Mr. Gillen hasn't noticed when he's been tromping through CRP that however difficult it may be for him to part the plant material all the way to the top, birds and small mammals don't have to do that. They make lots of little trails at ground level. Pheasants don't have to bust a new trail into and out of their nest every time they want to move.

  3. Jenny 2013.12.26

    Ask any pheasant hunter that is loyal to SD pheasant hunting and they'll all praise CRP land. This program needs to be brought back. I'm wondering if David Gillen has ever even hunted or studied pheasant habitat.

  4. Jenny 2013.12.26

    Oops, my bad - Gillen owns a pheasant hunting business, but obviously is on the side of the ethanol industry.

  5. Lanny V Stricherz 2013.12.26

    Can't afford to pay for CRP, have to spend the money on ways to do economic development, even though about ten of them have failed. Can't remember who it was on here alluded to stepping over $5 bills to pick up nickels. But seems to me that attracting the out of state pheasant hunters has been one of the surest forms of economic development for years.

  6. DB 2013.12.26

    Unfortunately, Ag trumps wildlife in this state. This is what high dollar corn is going to bring more of. However, the loss of crp might be rather miniscule to the pathogens we are creating through resistant strains of corn. Today's farmer's are no longer "stewards of the land", but more like "stewards of their pocketbook". I don't blame them for trying to capitalize on their assets, but there needs to be a happy medium before we make SE SD look like SW MN, void of any animal. God didn't make a farmer to do this to the land. The number of tree belts being removed is also rather astounding. It probably wouldn't bother me as much except who do you think is going to pay to plug all that tile when we hit a dry spell and the water table drops drastically? Those sloughs and natural holding ponds help keep large areas saturated even though it is dry on the surface around it.

  7. rollin potter 2013.12.26

    Hang on people, when the price of corn retreats and the plow jockeys are in a little squeeze they will all be lined up at the local fsa office crying to put there land back in the CRP and getting there subsidy check!!!! then all this broken sod will be going into the CRP!!!!!!

  8. Deb Geelsdottir 2013.12.26

    DB is absolutely right about the loss of habitat in MN. There have been drastic decreases in just about every type of game wildlife. The outdoors writer in the Strib, Dennis Anderson, has been raising hell about it, taking on the legislature, governor, and anyone else.

    SD would be very wise to learn a lesson in what not to do from MN on this issue.

    As others have said here, the real demon is inflated corn prices and greed.

  9. Garyd 2013.12.27

    There is more to the story than you non farmers know. Yes there is $7 corn but what about $15 soybeans and $20 wheat?

    There were a few other problems with the CRP program. This did not happen in all cases but it did not help either.

    It was very discouraging for some farmers to try and reenroll land in CRP only to find out they had to destroy a perfectly good stand of grass because the powers that be determined that after 10 or 15 years a different mix would be better.

    It was also very frustrating to have pasture alfalfa in the blend which was great for pheasant habitat but a real pain for weed control because there was nothing you could spray to control the weeds and clipping off the tops of the weeds just made the weed patch thicker in the case of Canada thistle!

    I also had a couple of pieces that I wanted to reenroll and was told that they were not big enough because the rules had changed!

    So, everything is not as it seems!

  10. caheidelberger Post author | 2013.12.27

    Gary, I'm open to the notion that CRP rules could go the wrong way. But can we run CRP in a way that it continues to protect wildlife and wetlands? Or are we better off going Gillen's direction with more cultivation and strips of switchgrass?

  11. Garyd 2013.12.27

    Cory: I think that is the point of Dave's letter. By putting areas that are not conducive to farming and planting grass they are protecting wetlands, they are called buffer strips.

    Government policy has lowered the amount of CRP because total targets for CRP acres have been lowered. If pheasant hunters want more habitat they are free to buy acres and create that habitat, no one if preventing them from doing that!

  12. guido 2014.01.03

    David Gillen wouldn't know grassland from his &@#. He has broken more sod and converted more land to intense farming practices than anyone since the Dust Bowl. And for your information, his son also owns a tiling business, so if you have some sloughs to drain, he knows someone to get the job done.....

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