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The Farm Bill works for birds — and needs your help

Farm Bill
Henslow’s Sparrow is one species that benefits from the Farm Bill. Photo by Jim Buescher

Farms, especially large single-crop fields, do not always make great bird habitat, but that doesn’t mean that farmland is devoid of birds. Certain parts of a farmer’s land may not be ideal for growing crops, so it may be left alone, making it attractive to birds and other wildlife.

The conservationists behind the annual State of the Birds reports believe that agricultural lands are so important for birds that they’re using the 2017 report to highlight the role the federal Farm Bill plays in bird conservation.

“The Farm Bill secures important habitat for more than 100 bird species and is America’s largest source of funding for habitat conservation on private lands,” the report says. The bill allocates approximately $6 billion per year in conservation funding, said Andrew Schmidt of the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.

As the 2018 Farm Bill is debated for reauthorization in Congress, the report calls attention to the benefits of investing in conservation on private lands, which make up nearly 70 percent of the land area in the contiguous United States.

“For more than 20 years, the Farm Bill has provided widespread conservation benefits for our nation’s farmers, ranchers, sportsmen and all who enjoy clean drinking water, flood protection, and healthy wildlife populations,” said Ducks Unlimited chief scientist Tom Moorman. “Millions of acres of working lands are conserved through Farm Bill conservation programs that ensure long-term sustainability and productivity of the land that supports waterfowl and many other species of fish and wildlife.”

It’s a striking record of success. Before 1990, for instance, wetland birds and waterfowl were on the decline, trending downward by 10 percent a year. Since wetland easements were added to the Farm Bill, those populations have soared 51 percent.


Grasslands and forest birds have benefited as well. “There’s no doubt that the Farm Bill’s conservation provisions have helped to stabilize populations of grassland birds, which had suffered a nearly 50 percent drop before grassland easements were introduced in 2003,” said Kenneth V. Rosenberg of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and the report’s team leader. “Since that time, we’ve seen an encouraging 3 percent increase in numbers.” The report documents a similar turnaround in forest bird populations, which had dropped 19 percent before the Farm Bill’s Forestry Title was introduced in 1990.

Henslow’s Sparrow is a good example. The small Midwestern bird with chestnut-colored wings favors weedy meadows and other fields and has declined throughout its range. The Farm Bill’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) pays farmers to set aside lands for conservation purposes. “In Illinois farm counties with the highest CRP sign-up rates, spring bird counts for Henslow’s Sparrows are 25 times greater now than they were before CRP,” the report says.

Rosenberg noted that after CRP funds were reduced in the most recent Farm Bill, the sparrow’s population declined because lands that had been set aside for conservation went back into production of corn or other crops.


The challenge, which conservationists explained in a conference call with reporters Wednesday, is to help Congress see the value in the bill’s effects on birds. The most recent Farm Bill, authorized in 2014, cut funds for the bill’s programs by $4 billion over 10 years, Schmidt said.

State of the Birds 2017 identifies four top conservation priorities for the 2018 Farm Bill:

  • increase funding for the voluntary, incentive-based conservation programs that support farmers and ranchers financially while also supporting our natural infrastructure of grasslands and wetlands;
  • improve the impact of Farm Bill conservation programs on priority wildlife species, drawing on input from individual states;
  • enhance Farm Bill public-private partnerships. Partner biologist positions hold the key to matching landowners with conservation programs that best fit the landowners’ wildlife and land-use goals; and
  • support the use of science, including monitoring and evaluation of Farm Bill conservation programs over time, to maximize the bill’s effectiveness and return on investment.

Rosenberg and his team are planning to advocate for the bill on Capitol Hill and at meetings of biologists and other wildlife professionals. And they are encouraging birders and others who value wildlife to contact their representatives in Congress to explain why Farm Bill conservation programs are important.

“Birds, birdwatching, and bird hunting are core American values,” Rosenberg said, adding that the desire for increased funding should by a bipartisan view.


Although the current Farm Bill doesn’t expire until September 2018, the next version of the bill is being debated and written now, so the authors of the State of the Birds report say birders shouldn’t wait to contact their representatives. — Matt Mendenhall, Senior Editor


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