Farm Bill Conservation Programs Take Root in the Palouse

This CRP land in Douglas County, Washington is composed of native grass and sagebrush with native rangeland in the background.

When Meriwether Lewis first came upon the Palouse Prairie in 1806 he wrote in his journal that the camas flower meadows resembled "a lake of fine clear water, so complete is this deception that on first sight I could have sworn it was water." This prairie, which stretches across southeastern Washington and into Idaho, is home to many grassland species, yet only one percent of the native prairie remains. Today, efforts are underway to conserve this region, which is essential to the wildlife, as well as the family farmers and ranchers that have worked the land for generations.

A primary example of this conservation is the efforts of Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), which works with landowners to implement a program called State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE). The SAFE program funds projects to enhance habitat for high-priority wildlife species in designated areas. Landowners plant trees, grasses, or forbs that help restore or improve wildlife habitat on or around select croplands. These plantings utilize mostly native species, which are uniquely suited to persist under local conditions. This is done in exchange for annual payments, providing a reliable income source.

Landowners Steve and Stacy Pettitt enrolled a portion of their Palouse Prairie farm in this wildlife and land enhancement program. After three years, the Pettitts noticed an increase in pheasant use of their young SAFE stand.

Since 2008, the USDA has funded SAFE under the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). In addition to seeing an increase in species like pheasants, an important result from this program has been the recovery of Greater sage-grouse, a candidate species for listing under the Endangered Species Act in 2015. Sage grouse have benefited from the nearly 80,000 acres of SAFE in north central Washington, according to WDFW Upland Bird Research Scientist Mike Schroeder.

“CRP is the primary reason why the sage grouse population in north-central Washington has been one of the few bright spots across the sage grouse range,” Schroeder said. “Over the last 25 years the population trend has been stable to increasing – opposite of most other sage grouse populations in North America.  We have sage grouse in areas now that had no birds prior to CRP. In fact, the largest sage grouse lek in the state is in an area that has little remnant shrub-steppe but lots of CRP.”

Pheasants are a focal species for CRP SAFE in the Palouse Prairie.

USDA has allotted to Washington State the third largest total of CRP SAFE acres in the nation.  This encompasses 100,100 acres for sage grouse, ferruginous hawk, and a suite of other shrub-steppe/prairie wildlife species.

In the Palouse Prairie area, native plant species are sometimes unfairly regarded as “impossible” to establish after several early enrollees of CRP failed to get satisfactory stands of natives using certain agronomic techniques for wheat. To combat this perception, a suite of conservation partners began advising farmers in 2009 about careful seedbed preparation and the management required to establish a native stand.  This effort was supported by a capacity grant from the Intermountain West Joint Venture to provide outreach to landowners. This outreach helped demonstrate the relative advantage of the SAFE program and use native plant species on CRP land. As seen in cases like the Pettitt family, the results can be positive for both landowners and wildlife.

The future of important programs like CRP and CRP SAFE hangs in the balance as Congress works to pass a new Farm Bill. Stay tuned through the IWJV for updates. For more information about these programs contact your local Farm Service Agency or Natural Resources Conservation Service office.


Read more articles in the Fall 2013 issue of the Conservation Roundup: 

The Shorebird Character of the Intermountain West

By Brad A. Andres, National Coordinator, U.S. Shorebird Conservation Plan, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Blanca Wetlands: The Importance of Science-based Management When Resources Run Dry

By Hannah J. Ryan, IWJV Communications Specialist 

Partners Persevere for Rio Grande Despite Colossal Drought

By Alan Hamilton

Pond It and Plug It: Restoring Wet Meadows in Northern California

By Jim Stutzman, IWJV Habitat Delivery Specialist