The Farm Bill Conference Committee is working to reconcile the House- and Senate-passed bills into the final 2013 Farm Bill. The fate of conservation compliance is to be decided in these discussions—and with it, the future of small wetlands and waterfowl populations.
For nearly 30 years, basic wetland and soil conservation practices have been linked to most U.S. agricultural programs. In exchange for taxpayer-funded farm program benefits, farmers have agreed to farm the most productive lands while minimizing impacts to highly erodible soils and wetlands. This “conservation compliance” contract between farmers and taxpayers has worked well to reduce erosion and deter wetland drainage.
According to the USDA, more than 90% of today’s farmers participate in conservation compliance programs. A recent study by Iowa State University found that 81% of farmers agreed that they should be required to control soil erosion on highly erodible lands to remain eligible for federal farm program benefits. This long-standing agreement between farmers and taxpayers has also helped protect small prairie wetlands vital to waterfowl production.
However, some members of Congress have proposed sweeping changes to federal farm policy that would eliminate these requirements and bolster crop insurance supports. Since 1996, conservation compliance has not been linked to federal crop insurance programs—one of the most important risk management tools for farmers. On average, taxpayers cover 62% of crop insurance premiums, totaling more than $7.4 billion in 2011, and Congress has proposed to increase these subsidies to more than $94 billion over the next 10 years.
Without relinking conservation requirements to crop insurance, existing wetland and soil conservation measures that have been in place for the past 30 years will be severely weakened. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that nearly 1.4 million small wetlands in the eastern Dakotas alone would be at high-risk of drainage without these protections. If these wetlands were drained, critical habitat capacity for nearly 3 million breeding birds would be lost (a 37% decline), which is enough to drastically reduce fall flights and trigger more restrictive hunting seasons.
Today, wetland drainage poses the greatest threat to the future of continental waterfowl populations and our cherished hunting heritage. Sportsmen and women need to know what’s at risk if Congress fails to relink conservation compliance to crop insurance in the next farm bill. Our nation’s wetlands, waterfowl populations and hunting heritage depend on it.