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Evaluating establishment of conservation practices in the Conservation Reserve Program across the central and western United States

June 25, 2021

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) is one of the largest private lands conservation programs in the United States, establishing perennial vegetation on environmentally sensitive lands formerly in agricultural production. Over its 35 year existence, the CRP has evolved to include diverse conservation practices (CPs) while concomitantly meeting its core goals of reducing soil erosion, improving water quality, and providing wildlife habitat. Ongoing threats to grasslands and decreased CRP acreage highlighted the need for a national evaluation of the effectiveness in providing the program's intended benefits. To address this need, we conducted edge-of-field surveys of erosional features, vegetation, and soil cover on 1 786 fields across 10 CPs and 14 central and western states from 2016 to 2018. We grouped practices into three types (grassland, wetland, and wildlife) and states into six regions for analysis. Across practice types, ≥99% of fields had no evidence of rills, gullies, or pedestaling from erosion, and 91% of fields had <20% bare soil cover, with region being the strongest predictor of bare soil cover. Seventy-nine percent of fields had ≥50% grass cover, with cover differing by practice type and region. Native grass species were present on more fields in wildlife and wetland practices compared to grassland practices. Forb cover >50% and native forb presence occurred most frequently in wildlife practices, with region being the strongest driver of differences. Federally listed noxious grass and forb species occurred on 23% and 61% of fields, respectively, but tended to constitute a small portion of cover in the field. Estimates from edge-of-field surveys and in-field validation sampling were strongly correlated, demonstrating the utility of the edge-of-field surveys. Our results provide the first national-level assessment of CRP establishment in three decades, confirming that enrolled wildlife and wetland practices often have diverse perennial vegetation cover and very few erosional features.

Publication Year 2021
Title Evaluating establishment of conservation practices in the Conservation Reserve Program across the central and western United States
DOI 10.1088/1748-9326/ac06f8
Authors Mark W. Vandever, Sarah K. Carter, Timothy J. Assal, Kenneth Elgersma, Ai Wen, Justin L. Welty, Robert Arkle, Rich Iovanna
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Environmental Research Letters
Index ID 70221868
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Forest and Rangeland Ecosys Science Center; Fort Collins Science Center