Colorado Upland Bird SAFE Sold Out in Six Days

Earlier this year, conservation partners in Colorado received word that a new Continuous Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) SAFE practice for upland birds was approved, with 20,000 acres allocated for a nine-county area in the northeastern part of the state. Within six days of the program opening, all 20,000 acres were enrolled, with most people choosing the longer 15-year contract, plus more acres on the waiting list.

“Last time I checked, there are about 2,700 acres waiting in a queue for another signup,” says Krysten Strong, a Pheasants Forever farm bill biologist. “There are plenty more people who would like to be in the program, it’s just we’ve hit a cap on acres for this particular program.”

Although it sounds like the Upland Bird SAFE was an easy sell, Strong said it wasn’t a fit for everyone. What makes this program a bit different from general CRP and other continuous practices is the high plant diversity cover requirements to create suitable habitat for upland birds—such as Ring-necked Pheasant, Northern Bobwhite, Greater Prairie-Chicken, and Grasshopper Sparrow—that need more open ground and forbs than is usually found in older CRP fields.

“We plan for warm season tall bunch grasses rather than shortgrasses that can form sod. Since many of the acres going into this program were expired CRP, they all had either western wheatgrass, smooth bromegrass, or sideoats grama that will form monocultures and can’t be present in Upland Bird SAFE fields,” explains Strong. “So a lot of the landowners are going to go through some pretty aggressive cover conversions in the next year in order to get them up to spec.”

According to Strong, many landowners are champing at the bit to get into these types of conservation programs because commodity prices are low right now and it doesn’t make financial sense to return these fields to crop production if an alternative is available. But it’s really a combination of things that get them interested enough to enroll.

“We definitely have some landowners out here who enjoy doing stuff for wildlife, which is why some of them are willing to enroll. But often, landowners have areas that are difficult to farm, and they are looking for better financial options than farming. Programs like this provide landowners a way to remove acres that are difficult to farm from production, improve their overall efficiency and bottom line, and improve habitat for birds and pollinators.”

The Upland Bird SAFE is a multi-partner effort that began six years ago with a proposal to USDA Farm Services Agency. Biologists and staff from Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Pheasants Forever, and USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service were not only involved in developing the proposal, they were heavily involved in getting the contracts signed, doing field checks, and making sure the program met the goal of providing upland bird habitat. Farm Bill Biologists, like Strong, will continue to keep in touch with landowners and help with the field cover conversions. Habitat benefits for upland birds will begin in the first growing season after the cover plantings, many of which are planned for spring 2019.

Posted: November 13, 2017