Farm Bill Conservation Programs: Perspectives on Delivery and Wildlife Benefits

ROOM: Room 230 – Pecos
Private forests, farms, and ranches occupy nearly 70% of land in the contiguous United States. These lands provide for a strong agriculture and forest sector in the U.S., but also supply habitats for fish and wildlife, filter groundwater, sequester carbon, and contribute to the nation’s cultural heritage. Sustainable use of these lands is essential to maintaining the health of our nation’s working lands and natural resources, including fish, wildlife, and ecosystems. The Farm Bill provides for the nation’s largest investment in voluntary, private lands conservation—an estimated $58 billion over the next ten years. Farm Bill incentive-based conservation programs build public-private partnerships by providing technical assistance and cost-sharing options for landowners wishing to improve habitats for fish and wildlife, reduce erosion, and/or address other natural resource concerns on their land. The Farm Bill typically follows a 5-year legislative cycle, with the 2014 Farm Bill set to expire next year. Given the scope of the Farm Bill and complexities associated with monitoring natural resource responses, effective planning for private lands conservation in the future necessitates adequate understanding of emerging natural resource issues with regards to conservation practices and how they impact the nation’s farmers, ranchers, economy, and agriculture. Exploring various perspectives on Farm Bill conservation program delivery and examining responses of select wildlife resources can inform more effective working lands conservation in the future. This symposium will highlight recent trends in documenting wildlife benefits including a look at how outcome based monitoring can inform effective conservation delivery and how emerging technologies can help fill data gaps.

1:10PM Farm Bill Alphabet Soup: an Overview of Title II Conservation Programs
  Andrew Schmidt
With seventy percent of the land in the contiguous United States under private ownership, private and working lands are crucial to the conservation of soil, water, and fish and wildlife resources, and as the largest source of federal funding for private lands conservation, the Farm Bill has a broad-reaching effect of fish and wildlife populations across the country. The conservation programs within the Farm Bill have a combined annual budget of over $5 billion, and collaborative efforts between state fish and wildlife agencies, private landowners, non-governmental conservation organization partners, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture are essential to achieving local, state, regional, and national priority fish and wildlife conservation goals. Within the Farm Bill, and conservation title specifically, there is a wide range of programs, all with their own purposes, acronyms, and vocabularies, leading many to believe that the law was simply written in a different language. Knowing these acronyms, and the differences between the programs, is crucial to understanding the massive impact the Farm Bill has on our natural resources and the economy. To help build that understanding, this presentation will provide an overview of the Farm Bill conservation programs and provisions, with an emphasis on the importance of state-led and partnership-driven voluntary, incentive-based conservation.
1:30PM A Landowner’sPerspective on Participation and Results from Farm Bill Conservation Title andother Conservation Partnerships, Jim Stone, Rancher, Ovando, Montana
  Jim Stone; Steve Jester
Landowners’ decisions regarding participation in voluntary conservation programs are complex. Decisions are driven by landowner economic, ecologic and sociologic considerations set in the context of productive relationships with public and nonprofit partners. Trust, mutual respect and effective communication can be just as important as cost-share. Participation in voluntary conservation efforts through effective relationships can result in natural resource conservation results beyond the life of the contract as well as opportunities to address additional resource and landscape concerns. A case study from western Montana will be presented.
1:50PM Estimating the Economic Benefit of the Hunting Access Program in Nebraska
  Jennifer R. Foggia; Lindsey N. Messinger; Joseph J. Fontaine; Lyndsie Wszola
The Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program (VPA-HIP) was developed as part of the Farm Bill program to encourage private landowners to allow public access for hunting. Hunting is a multi-billion dollar industry with significant contributions to local, state, and federal economies and job markets. Quantifying the economic contribution of hunting access programs supported by VPA-HIP is increasingly important to justify continued support. While economic benefits of recreation on large areas like National Parks and ski resorts have increasingly been quantified, little is known about the economic contribution of smaller-scale recreation lands. Throughout the Great Plains, private lands open to public use attract thousands of hunters annually; however, quantifying the economic contribution of hunters is challenging. Through in-person interviews of hunters in Nebraska, we gathered information about use of public access lands, including trip length, travel distance, and lodging. By assigning economic value to these variables, we can begin quantifying the economic contribution and potential of small, publically accessible hunting lands. With this information, local communities and wildlife managers may be better equipped to provide hunters with continued and additional resources, maximizing the economic benefits of public access hunting lands, and providing justification for programs such as VPA-HIP.
2:10PM Efficacy of USDA Rangeland Conservation Practices: Is It Time for an Evidence-Based Platform?
  David D. Briske
A comprehensive assessment of the efficacy of rangeland conservation practices cost-shared by U.S. Department of Agriculture – Natural Resource Conservation Service (USDA – NRCS) with private landowners was unable to identify conservation benefits because conservation outcomes were seldom documented. This precludes development of information feedbacks necessary to enhance conservation efficacy and inform accountability of federal expenditures on these programs. Reasons for limited documentation of conservation outcomes are likely deeply engrained in the 100-year history of the rangeland profession. Several of the major contemporary conservation practices originated from regulatory procedures of the U.S. Forest Service to minimize and reverse rangeland degradation while still maintaining economically viable livestock production (e.g., rotation grazing, brush control). Recommendations to overcome perceived barriers to documentation of conservation outcomes are discussed, but these recommendations alone may be insufficient to achieve the goals explicitly stated by the Conservation Effects Assessment Project (CEAP). USDA-NRCS conservation programs would be well served by development of a comprehensive and integrative platform that is capable of implementing evidence-based conservation. Collaborative monitoring involving landowner-agency-scientist partnerships would represent the focal point of a Conservation Program Assessment Network. The primary network objective would be to establish missing feedback loops between conservation practices and their agricultural and environmental outcomes to promote learning, adaptive management and innovation. The primary network could be established on Long-term Agroecosystem Research (LTAR) sites maintained by the USDA to assess the most important conservation practices in major ecoregions. Network information would be archived and made available to guide other, related conservation programs in relevant ecoregions. Evidence-based conservation programs would: 1) provide site specific information, learning and accountability that has been requested by CEAP and, 2) further advance balanced delivery of agricultural production and environmental quality goals.
2:30PM Changing the Paradigm of Conservation Delivery: Using Technology to Identify the Economic Opportunities of Strategic Conservation
  Mark McConnell
Effective delivery of Farm Bill conservation programs has been hindered by multiple factors including high commodity prices, reduced acreage allocations, and asymmetric information regarding economic outcomes. Unfortunately, the first two of these issues are beyond the control of natural resource professionals. The latter, however, is representative of a failure of the conservation community to address concerns of agricultural producers (i.e., profitability of conservation). Agricultural producers will enroll in conservation programs provided the economic incentives are equal to or greater than traditional farming. Therefore, it is essential for natural resource professionals to help producers identify and understand the economic opportunities of strategic Farm Bill conservation delivery. Precision agriculture technology provides a unique framework for identifying economic and conservation opportunities in production agriculture. By using precision agriculture in a conservation framework natural resource professionals can demonstrate the overlap between conservation eligibility and economic opportunity. This approach requires spatially explicit information on conservation eligibility and economics in addition to detailed data on farm inputs. Decision support tools can integrate these components and provide a user-friendly approach that allows agricultural producers to simultaneously optimize their conservation and economic objectives. We present results of this approach on multiple fields in Mississippi and Georgia to illustrate the opportunity this technology provides to agricultural producers, conservationists, and natural resource professionals.
2:50PM Refreshment Break
3:20PM Conservation Effects Assessment Project Wildlife Component
  Charles Rewa
Voluntary incentive-based conservation programs funded through federal farm legislation have produced substantial ecological benefits in the United States, including fish and wildlife habitat enhancement. The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS)-led Conservation Effects Assessment Project (CEAP) is a multi-agency effort examining the environmental benefits of conservation practices applied through these programs. The CEAP Wildlife Component is documenting fish and wildlife response to USDA conservation programs and practices. Over the past decade, the CEAP Wildlife effort has involved over 40 assessment projects, most of which are applied at regional landscape scales through partnerships between the NRCS and elements of the fish and wildlife science and management communities. In recent years, CEAP Wildlife emphasis has been placed on providing science support for and outcome-based monitoring of NRCS’ Working Lands for Wildlife efforts targeting at-risk species likely to benefit from agricultural conservation initiatives. This presentation provides an overview of CEAP and the Wildlife Component approach, highlights some of the results being generated, and illustrates how the information is being used to inform effective management of working agricultural lands for the benefit of fish and wildlife resources.
3:40PM Outcomes Not Acres: Quantifying Conservation Benefits of the NRCS-Led Sage Grouse Initiative
  David Naugle; Jeremy Maestas; Tim Griffiths; Thad Heater; Galon Hall
On the heels of an Endangered Species Act (ESA) review in 2010, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) launched the Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI) to reduce threats facing this western icon. Eight years later, employing a shared vision of wildlife conservation through sustainable ranching, SGI has matured into a primary catalyst for conservation of the sagebrush ecosystem. With >1,400 participating ranches across 11 western states, SGI and partners have conserved >5 million acres, and area twice the size of Yellowstone National Park. Foundational to Initiative success is SGI Science that builds spatial targeting tools to maximize return on conservation investment, and assesses resulting outcomes of implementation. Documenting conservation outcomes provides accountability at all levels including taxpayers, political leaders, policy makers, local practitioners and most importantly producers. Peer-reviewed outcomes have played a central role in telling the SGI story, garnering additional resources, and modifying practices to improve program delivery. A not-warranted ESA decision in 2015 speaks to the effectiveness of the SGI partnership; today we present the targeting tools and outcome-based assessments that underpin the Initiative. The future of wildlife, agriculture and rural ways of life depend in part on our collective ability to transfer to other landscapes and focal species the science-based model discussed here today.
4:00PM National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative – CRP: from the Farm House to the White House
  Thomas Dailey
Northern Bobwhite (Colinus virginianus) have declined 3.28% annually since 1966 because of habitat loss, fragmentation, and degradation, principally due to agricultural intensification and natural plant succession. As a remedy, bobwhite enthusiasts aggressively manage and restore habitat, necessitating continual development of programs and partnerships. The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) has a long history of explicitly including bobwhite (e.g., CP33 Habitat Buffers for Upland Birds National Monitoring Program), the result of prioritization of use of this conservation tool by quail enthusiasts, and codified in National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative (NBCI) restoration plans in 2002 and 2011. The 2011 plan, known as NBCI 2.0, expanded the reach and technology of bobwhite conservation, reflecting the geographic expansion of NBCI to 25 state agencies, and using spatially-explicit technology–data, management prescriptions and conservation objectives. NBCI 2.0 priority landscapes are used at state and national levels to develop or target CRP programs, including Working Lands for Wildlife Northern Bobwhite Projects for Grasslands and Pine Savannas, CRP Tree Thinning Incentive, and Environmental Quality Incentives Program in Georgia. CRP programs are not a panacea for bobwhite conservation, however. According to the NBCI Habitat Management Inventory, bobwhite-friendly CRP management has declined 50% since a high of 485,624 hectares in 2011. This does not diminish the fact that CRP continues to provide unprecedented opportunity to benefit bobwhites simply because of its large area. As in the past, however, there is considerable uncertainty about effectiveness. Thus, building on the success of the CP33 Monitoring Program, in 2014 NBCI implemented the Coordinated Implementation Program (CIP) to determine effectiveness of habitat management, including landscapes dominated by CRP habitat. Several universities are partnering with NBCI and state and federal CIPs to provide technical support. NBCI CIP will provide information essential to guiding future CRP programs to better benefit bobwhites.
4:20PM Conservation Consternation- Wait for Results Or Act Now? Putting Actionable Science to Work
  Christian A. Hagen
The lesser prairie-chicken (Tympanuchus pallidicinctus) is a species of conservation priority because of long-term population declines and changes in available habitat; primarily type conversion of native prairie to other uses. With large acreages of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) expiring and new limitations on total acres to be enrolled, in 2010, The Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) initiated its Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative (LPCI) to retain these CRP fields as grassland and transform them into working lands. Although our knowledge base was imperfect- waiting was not an option. Given the tenuous status of the populations, looming threats and immanency of protecting (or not) lesser prairie-chicken under the Endangered Species Act of 1973, action was needed. Thus, LPCI was expanded to capitalize on 27 NRCS practices that were hypothesized to reduce various threats to the species. Under these working hypotheses actions were implemented and a 3-tiered monitoring program was designed and implemented to evaluate their outcomes. I will discuss the successes and hurdles of such a program, as well as what the future may hold for actionable science.
4:40PM An Interactive Tool for Evaluating the Effectiveness of Management Actions to Improve Habitat for Golden-Winged Warblers
  Casey Lott
An important element of any habitat management program is clear documentation of exactly what on-the-ground habitat manipulation has been done (what type, what extent, where and when) and the overall effect (positive, negative, or neutral) that this work has had on key performance targets for habitat (e.g., more acres of early-successional woodland) or wildlife (e.g., more singing pairs of Golden Winged Warblers). American Bird Conservancy (ABC) and Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP) have developed an integrative data management and reporting tool for the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) that allows for comprehensive summary and evaluation of management treatments and conservation outcomes designed to improve habitat conditions for Golden-winged Warbler on their breeding grounds as part of NRCS’ Working Lands for Wildlife Initiative. This system synthesizes management program and monitoring data into a simple and intuitive interactive tool that makes data exploration (and clear understanding of program performance) accessible to all users via standard internet navigation actions that will be familiar to anyone with online shopping experience (e.g., selection of drop down menus or check boxes, pointing and clicking on part of a map or graph to get more detailed information). The system was designed for four different user groups: 1) NRCS/IUP/ABC conservation officers who track conservation agreements with land-owners; 2) Foresters and natural resource managers who apply on-the-ground habitat management treatments; 3) Bird/habitat monitoring crews who collect data on bird and habitat performance metrics to assess the effectiveness of on-the-ground habitat management; and 4) NRCS program officers and leadership (or any other group of constituents) who need high level summaries of on-the-ground actions, their effectiveness, and progress towards program targets. While best practices in data management and visualization underpin this system, users can easily explore the full richness of this programmatic dataset with zero experience in data analysis.

Organizers: Cameron Kovach, The Wildlife Society, Bethesda, MD; Tom Franklin, National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative, Washington, DC; Andrew Schmidt, Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, Washington, DC; Keith Norris, The Wildlife Society, Bethesda, MD; Jim I
Supported by: The Wildlife Society, National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative, Pheasants Forever/Quail Forever, Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership

Location: Albuquerque Convention Center Date: September 27, 2017 Time: 1:10 pm - 5:00 pm