Conservation Column
By Juliet Grable

The 2023 Farm Bill: An Opportunity to Get It Right

Last month, The Guardian ran a story about a new study that highlights how agriculture is devastating bird populations in Europe. For the study, a group of 50 researchers analyzed data gathered from 28 countries over nearly four decades:
“The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, examined how 170 bird species had responded to four widespread manmade pressures, including agricultural intensification, forest cover change, urbanization and the climate crisis.”
Overall, the number of wild birds has fallen by more than a quarter since 1980. Though birds in all four categories showed declines, farmland species suffered the most, with numbers falling by over half. Here is the breakdown:
Farmland species: 56.8% decline Urban dwelling birds: 27.8% decline Woodland dwelling birds: 17.7% decline
According to the article, “Birds that rely on invertebrates for food, including swifts, yellow wagtails, and spotted flycatchers, were the hardest hit. In all contexts, intensive agriculture, which has been on the rise across Europe, was identified as a major factor in decline, with the mass slaughter of invertebrates as pests creating a ‘trophic cascade’ up the food chain.”
Agriculture is no friend of birds in this country, either. We can do better, and there’s an opportunity right in front of us. This summer Congress will take up the Farm Bill. Re-authorized every five years, this enormous bill funds everything from food assistance and crop insurance to conservation programs and agricultural research. As recommended by the American Bird Conservancy (ABC), we need a Farm Bill that:
• Encourages broader use of conservation easements to protect key habitats for birds.
• Incentivizes rangeland rest in grazing systems to capture carbon, conserve birds, and expand grassland-conserving policies.
• Encourages partnership-driven, incentive-based conservation.
• Increases partner technical assistance capacity.
• Reinforces that wildlife will continue to be a co-equal priority in the Farm Bill along with soil and water conser-
• Prioritizes diverse stands of native plants, limits the use of non-native plants, and reinforces the National Seed
Among ABC’s top priorities is a “Rest-Recover-Recapture” grazing strategy, which would benefit the grassland bird species that are most at risk:
Approximately 30 percent of the U.S. is rangeland (~770 million acres), mostly in the West. Rangelands are highly diverse, providing livestock forage and habitat for many wildlife species. Healthy rangelands provide conservation services, including carbon storage, water filtration, erosion control, and nutrient cycling. They are vital to recovering grassland bird populations. We support two options to provide expanded incentives for conservation that will store carbon while adding substantial habitat quality for grassland birds:
• Option A authorizes the Rangeland Conservation Program (RCP) under the Farm Service Agency to provide 50 million acres to annually and sequentially rest pastures in a grazing system (see Figure 1.).
• Option B authorizes the use of Rest-Recover-Recapture scenarios for Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) programs and mandates short-to intermediate-term contracts to rest specific pastures for foregone income.
ABC’s other two top priorities are providing more technical assistance so that producers can implement good practices that benefit ecosystems, and bolstering the Conservation Reserve Program, an important program under the Farm Bill’s Conservation Title:
Helping Hands — We recommend increasing and stabilizing partner conservation delivery capacity in the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP). Producers need NGOs and other partners to provide technical assistance, which requires predictable funding. ABC seeks to modify the administrative cap and expand the overall partner Technical Assistance (TA) limit from 25% to 30%.
Strengthening the Conservation Reserve Program — We recommend reauthorizing and increasing Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) enrollment to 70 million acres. CRP provides far-reaching benefits. It has improved conditions for ground-nesting birds by increasing nesting and brood-rearing success. The Inflation Reduction Act was unable to grow CRP as it did with other conservation programs, so we
recommend a similarly aggressive CRP expansion. We also recommend requiring the Farm Service Agency (FSA) to adjust rental rates annually to encourage more enrollment.
The good news is that the Inflation Reduction Act allocates an additional $19 billion over five years to programs under the Conservation Title. It’s absolutely critical that this money is protected and that it goes to funding practices and supporting programs that are good for both climate AND biodiversity.