Background

Agricultural lands are extremely important to the long-term maintenance of biodiversity. They provide habitat for many species of birds, fish, amphibians, reptiles, ungulates, carnivores, and invertebrates. Some of these species depend largely on the natural areas within agricultural landscapes. Others have adapted to croplands and pasturelands and thrive in and around domesticated plants and animals.

Certain ecosystems in the United States are uniquely suited to agricultural production, and have been converted to agricultural lands to a greater degree than others. According to USGS publications, 98% of the native prairie in the Midwest and elsewhere has been converted to other uses, largely grain production and cereal crops. Sixty percent of the nation’s wetlands have been drained, 20% of this for agricultural use. Nationwide, more than 90% of natural streamside vegetation has been removed. Other habitats at risk in agricultural ecosystems include bottomland hardwood forests, oak savannas, and shrub steppe systems, with a greater than 90% loss of historic reach.

Agriculture occupies 55% of the land in the contiguous United States. Widespread conversion of certain ecosystem types into working landscapes has had significant impacts on some species. Habitat loss and conversion is the leading cause of species endangerment. Many now rare species depend on active habitat management by farmers and ranchers. For example, according to USDA statistics there is 770 million acres of public and private rangeland in the U.S. (this is double the number of acres in crop production.) According to the USDA, rangelands provide habitat for 84% of mammals and 74% of bird species found in our country.

Significant examples of agriculture coexisting with wildlife habitat exist. Many experts believe that the additive effect of many relatively small, orchestrated changes to agricultural operations will begin to show landscape-wide results. This will demonstrate that farms/ranches and wildlife can co-exist, and the public will develop a deeper appreciation for the contribution farmers and ranchers make to the protection of the nation’s biodiversity.

Vision for the Future

We envision an agricultural landscape in which native plant and animal communities co-exist with agriculture and sustain ecosystems over time. Farmers and ranchers seek out and are given the technical support needed to manage working landscapes that support healthy, sustainable fish and wildlife populations. The general public assumes their responsibility in preventing the spread of invasive species so farmers and ranchers do not disproportionately bear the costs for their control. Farmers are rewarded for special efforts to integrate habitat into their operations. Ranchers are rewarded for maximizing the habitat value of grasslands and rangelands, and for including species other than livestock in their natural resource management decisions.

Broad strategies to achieve this vision:

  • Avoid converting sensitive or priority habitats to agricultural production.
  • Where possible, restore sensitive habitats using native vegetation that historically occupied the site, focusing on priority areas identified by landscape scale conservation plans.
  • Provide as much vegetation as possible around water bodies to provide functioning ecological systems that support a diversity of wildlife. This will also help protect water quality for the benefit of fish and people alike.
  • Manage habitats on farms/ranches with an eye toward the larger landscape and needs of wide-ranging species; connected patches are generally best, however, some species need large continuous areas.
  • Prevent the introduction and spread of invasive species of plants and animals.
  • Manage crop and rangelands to meet the habitat needs of fish and wildlife.
  • Develop a working knowledge of the native plants and animals found in the area and if possible monitor for selected indicator species from different groups.
  • Wildlife pests (when not threatened and endangered species) are managed using integrated pest management techniques. Where applicable habitat supports native predators to control wildlife pest populations.

List of Evaluation Criteria and their Goals

Continuing Education for Wildlife Habitat Issues: Managers can become knowledgeable about wildlife habitat issues, as a long-term goal, but managers with current knowledge are awarded higher scores. Managers who can identify native vegetation, and/or manage their operations in a way that protects threatened and endangered species and priority habitat types also score well.

Habitat Conservation Improvements: Producers who have invested in habitat conservation and/or restoration are recognized in the scoring process.

Invasive Species Prevention and Management:  Higher scores are awarded to managers who do not commercially produce invasive species; control and eradicate established invasive species when possible; and prevent the introduction and establishment of new invasive species on their land.

Threatened and Endangered Species Protection:  Higher scores are awarded when managers learn about, and if applicable, protect threatened and endangered species or their habitat on their farm/ranch.

Wildlife Food, Cover and Water:  Higher scores are awarded when managers: consider ways to manage fields and production areas to benefit wildlife, in addition to producing crops; consider the specific requirements of wildlife on the farm by providing functioning buffers near water bodies.

Linking Individual Wildlife Habitat Conservation Activities Together: Recognition in the scoring process is given to managers who work with nearby landowners, and/or as a part of regional plans designed to create the greatest habitat value possible for wildlife and threatened and endangered species.