Last week, after three years of debate and political gridlock, the U.S. House of Representatives finally passed a new Farm Bill. The bill was then approved by the Senate on Feb. 4 and is awaiting signature from President Obama.
This piece of legislation, which will impact wildlife and habitat interests more than almost any other single piece of law, is being hailed as "one of the best agriculture conservation bills for sportsmen." Still, $6 billion dollars in cuts to funding for conservation programs could threaten whitetail habitat across the country.
After the Farm Bill passed through Congress, the overall reaction coming from wildlife organizations and leaders seems to be a sense of relief, as the final bill includes many conservation minded programs and doesn't cut funding as much as previously thought.
Both the CEO of Ducks Unlimited and the president of the Boone & Crockett Club have commended the House of Representatives for their conservation focused reforms built into the new law.
"We are pleased the bill reduces federal expenditures and it targets conservation of key forest, grassland, wetland and other wildlife habitats," a statement released by B&C read. "The club greatly appreciates the common-sense, balanced approach that Congress was able to achieve."
A New Era in Conservation
Most notable in the conservation portion of the bill is a new requirement linking conservation provisions to federal crop insurance subsidies. This means that in order for farmers to receive crop insurance monies from the government, they must abide by certain conservation measures intended to preserve and protect wildlife habitat. This is definitely a win for whitetails and the lands they call home.
There was also a "sod saver" provision, which will limit farm subsidies on ground that has been recently put into production. This provision is in place to hopefully discourage farmers from haphazardly taking grounds out of fallow fields or native grasslands.
Another strong win for conservation and sportsmen, according to Texas wildlife biologist Macy Ledbetter, is the addition of $40 million dollars in new grants to open new private lands to public use in the form of hunting, hiking and wildlife viewing. Increased focus on opening lands to public access should be a strong boon for the DIY whitetail hunter.
That said, there is still plenty to be concerned about.
Changes to CRP
Most notably are the cuts in the Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program and the incredibly popular Conservation Reserve Program (CRP).
"One thing that concerns me, right off the bat, is that the new bill eliminates the Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program," Ledbetter said. "This is a great cost share program, very popular in Texas and other states, in which the government helped pay for habitat improvement projects on private lands that would benefit whitetails and other wildlife. "
It is believed that some of the funding previously made available through WHIP is now going to be available through another program called EQIP, and hopefully wildlife habitat improvement projects will still be incentivized. Time will tell.
Just as concerning to whitetails is the 25 percent decrease in funds for CRP. In addition to funds being reduced, the maximum acreage allowed in the program is being reduced from 32 million to 24 million acres.
The CRP program pays landowners to keep private lands out of crop production or grazing and to maintain them in natural grasses and other habitat. Properties in CRP have provided critical bedding and fawning habitat for whitetails across the country, and such a drastic reduction in funding could result in significant habitat loss.
The impact could be even greater, Ledbetter said, since a loss of CRP ground could even result in increased whitetail predation. If grounds previously kept in CRP are turned back into grazing lands or crops, the reduction in habitat could result in declining small mammal populations, forcing predators such as coyotes to depend more on fawns and other medium sized mammals for sustenance.
Given the tough economic times over the past few years, the 2014 Farm Bill seems to meet a reasonable compromise of cost cutting and conservation. But while it could be worse, it appears whitetails and their habitat will still likely pay the price.