Efficiency of the Conservation Reserve Program in Context of Focused Landscape Management for Northern Bobwhites and Associated Species

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Efficiency of the Conservation Reserve Program in Context of Focused Landscape Management for Northern Bobwhites and Associated Species

Northern Bobwhite and other grassland-associated bird species have been declining for decades because of the loss and degradation of grasslands. Private land conservation initiatives such as the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) aim to reverse these declines by incentivizing landowners to convert agricultural production lands into wildlife habitat. Many CRP practices create grassland specifically, but the context of the landscape (e.g., composition and configuration of land features surrounding the conservation field) and spatial arrangement of conservation fields may dictate population response. The National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative’s Coordinated Implementation Program (CIP) is a multi-state adaptive management program designed to understand how creating and maintaining habitat for Northern Bobwhite at landscape-scales influences population trends across their range. There are currently 19 states enrolled in the CIP. Each participating state records habitat management activities and measures habitat quality and bird response in a focal area (i.e., a managed area) and a reference area (i.e., no focal management for bobwhites). Many of these CIP landscapes are privately owned, so there is either some portion of the CIP area that is enrolled in CRP or there is potential for CRP enrollment. This presents the opportunity to understand how CRP fields contribute to Northern Bobwhite population recovery in context of coordinated landscape-scale management. Broadly, our objectives were to understand how CRP influences Northern Bobwhite populations at landscape-scales, and to uncover any differences in the efficiency of CRP in focal landscapes versus reference landscapes. Native CRP practices were much more efficient in managed landscapes compared to unmanaged landscapes. For example, in a focal area landscape, an increase in 5% native whole-field practices was predicted to increase local bobwhite populations by 0.34 males in the breeding season and 0.92 coveys in the non-breeding season. In reference area landscapes, native whole-field practices had a much lower probability of positively influencing bobwhite populations. Additionally, the extent of the landscape that mattered to bobwhite differed between the breeding and non-breeding season, which has implications for conservation targeting. In both seasons, the importance of CRP fields to local populations declined with distance. In the breeding season, any CRP field farther than 2 km away from a local population had no influence on that population. In the non-breeding season, any CRP field farther than 8 km away had no influence on local populations. The CRP is the cornerstone of private land conservation in the United States. Here, we uncovered differences in the efficiency of CRP depending on how the landscape surrounding conservation fields was being managed. This highlights the importance of the landscape-scale, targeted approach to conservation in fragmented systems such as farmlands. Additionally, we demonstrated that CRP in isolation is less efficient that clusters of CRP. Finally, we identified high variability in the effects of CRP, indicating that the effects of CRP may differ in different regions or landscapes, depending on the amount or arrangement of resources that are complimentary to those added by CRP. The implications of this study are that CRP can be efficient, but there are major information gaps that need to be filled before optimization of these practices is attainable.

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