Farm Bill is Critical to Farmers, Ranchers, & Birds in Colorado

September 11, 2013

Appeared Sept. 10, 2013
By Tammy VerCauteren and John W. Fitzpatrick
Guest Commentary

There are few aerial acrobatic performers like the McCown’s longspur. A bird of the eastern Colorado prairie, longspurs rise up out of the grass with deep strokes of their wings, elevating higher and higher until they throw their wings back and glide, unleashing a crystal clear warbling song as they float back down to earth.

It’s a spectacular sight, and it’s one that’s disappearing. The McCown’s longspur population has plummeted by an estimated 92 percent in the past 45 years. Those longspurs that are left are heavily dependent on farmers and ranchers, according to the recently published State of the Birds 2013 report, co-authored by 15 bird conservation organizations and agencies including Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Almost three-quarters of the remaining McCown’s longspur population resides on private lands.

A recurring theme in the report is the important role of America’s private landowners in safeguarding bird habitat. Altogether, more than 100 bird species have more than half of their population distribution on America’s 1.43 billion acres of private land. And there’s no program more critical to preserving bird habitat on private lands than the farm bill.

The Bill, in addition to setting America’s food policy, is by far the largest source of conservation funds for private landowners. And the benefits extend well beyond birds to all Coloradans, by ensuring clean air, clean water and healthy soil. For example, conservation programs from a prior farm bill that provided incentives to farmers and ranchers to reduce tilling on highly erodible croplands and maintain native grasslands not only resulted in better McCown’s longspur breeding habitat, but also reduced topsoil erosion by 1.3 billion tons per year.

But all of those benefits are at grave risk. The U.S. House and Senate have until the end of September before the current farm bill expires. Failure to pass a new bill or extend the existing one threatens funding for programs that are preserving a sustainable Western landscape for birds and Coloradans alike.

Since 2010, more than $2.7 million in farm bill conservation money has enabled Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory biologists to partner with ranchers and state and federal agencies on 36 projects that have conserved more than 88,000 acres of habitat for Gunnison and Greater Sage-Grouse in western Colorado and Wyoming. These projects are part of a much larger 11-state Sage-Grouse Initiative, which has relied on farm bill funds to enroll more than 700 ranchers in sustainable grazing systems that improve bird habitat, while at the same time maintaining economically viable cattle production.

This is one example of a new type of farm bill conservation philosophy, one that supports conservation on working lands that remain in food production. And that’s a big reason why many ranchers are enthusiastic farm bill conservation partners, as the incentive payments provide an additional income flow that helps them sustain their ranching livelihood.

“The Sage Grouse Initiative [funded through the farm bill] helps our family stay in ranching,” rancher Bryson Masini was quoted as saying in the State of the Birds report. “It helps us and it helps the birds.”

The bottom line: farm bill conservation programs are critical to farmers, ranchers and birds like the McCown’s longspur and grouse, as well as all Coloradans who want clean air, clean water and healthy soil. Birds need those farm bill conservation programs to continue. And so do people.

Tammy VerCauteren is the executive director of Colorado-based Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory. John W. Fitzpatrick is director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology

The Sage Grouse Initiative is a partnership-based, science-driven effort that uses voluntary incentives to proactively conserve America’s western rangelands, wildlife, and rural way of life. This initiative is part of Working Lands For Wildlife, which is led by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.