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Minnesota authorized 10,800 additional acres to strengthen habitat for pheasants

WILLMAR -- During the recent "Pheasant Fest" event held in Des Moines, Iowa, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced that the U.S. Department of Agriculture was authorizing 300,000 additional acres for specific conservation practices under the Conservation Reserve Program.

The additional acres include 100,000 acres of habitat buffers for upland birds; 50,000 acres for duck nesting habitat; and 150,000 acres for CRP's State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement initiative -- sometimes referred to as SAFE.

Similar to other continuous Conservation Reserve Program practices, the state enhancement projects target smaller parcels of environmentally sensitive land.

Under the enhancement initiative, state and local agencies, nonprofit organizations and other conservation partners have identified geographic areas where enrollment of farmland in CRP would benefit threatened, endangered or other high-priority species.

Currently, USDA's State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement initiative includes 75 approved projects that involve up to 500,000 acres in 22 states. With these additional acres, the projects may now be increased to 650,000 acres.

On Jan. 19, 2008, Minnesota became one of the first states to receive USDA approval for a project. The purpose of the project was to restore and enhance habitat for ring-necked pheasants.

The project, called the "Back Forty" program, targeted farmland in the southern half of Minnesota, and approximately the southern half of the Red River Valley.

The project was initially allocated 23,100 acres. However, the project proved to be very popular with Minnesota landowners. In less than two years, the project's acreage cap had been reached.

Of the 150,000 additional acres that USDA is approving for State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement projects, Minnesota's "Back Forty" program received 10,800 additional acres. That will increase Minnesota's total authorized acres to 33,900.

With the additional acres, interested landowners may want to visit their local USDA Service Center to determine if they have land that qualifies for Minnesota's "Back Forty" program.

Minnesota also received a 100-acre increase in its allocation for upland bird habitat, a practice offered under the continuous signup provisions of the Conservation Reserve Program. This will increase Minnesota's allocation for this practice to 600 acres.

Minnesota did not receive an increase in acreage for the CRP duck nesting habitat practice. Of the 8,000 acres that were initially allocated to Minnesota, approximately 3,500 acres remain available for this practice.

North Dakota and South Dakota received significant increases in their acreage allocations for duck nesting habitat. North Dakota received a 25,000-acre increase, raising their total allocation to 67,000 acres. South Dakota's allocation was increased by 15,000 acres to a total of 55,000 acres.

CRP general sign-up period forthcoming

During the "Pheasant Fest" event, Vilsack also announced that USDA will conduct a general sign-up for the Conservation Reserve Program sometime later this year.

Vilsack indicated that the sign-up dates and other general information will be announced upon completion of an environmental impact statement.

The last time a general sign-up period was held was in April of 2006.

Nationally, about 4.4 million acres will expire on Sept. 30. An additional 14.2 million acres are slated to expire between 2011 and 2013.

Atrazine comment period ends March 19

The Minnesota Department of Agriculture, in partnership with the Minnesota Department of Health and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, recently completed a multi-agency review of the herbicide atrazine. The review summary and the conclusions of the review have been posted on the Minnesota Department of Agriculture Web site at:

The conclusions of the review are also open to public comment. However, the 60-day public comment period ends Friday.

Citizens are asked to submit comments by letter, e-mail or fax to: Gregg Regimbal; Pesticide and Fertilizer Management Division; Minnesota Department of Agriculture; 625 Robert Street North; St. Paul, MN 55155-2538. E-mail: Fax: 651-201-6117.

Following the conclusion of the 60-day comment period, the Commissioner of Agriculture will determine what specific additional actions, if any, are to be taken for the prevention, evaluation and mitigation of atrazine impacts in Minnesota.

In recent years, atrazine has been the subject of extensive research and review. State water monitoring data indicate that atrazine is often detected in ground and surface water around the state. However, the levels at which it has been detected have not violated applicable water quality standards, and detections in groundwater have declined in recent years.

The Minnesota Department of Agriculture's special review of atrazine was the first of its kind in Minnesota. Reviews of other pesticides are being planned.

Wes Nelson is executive director of the USDA Farm Service Agency in Kandiyohi County.