Southeast Missouri farmers put 90,000 acres into special wetlands program

Friday, October 29, 2010 | 2:22 p.m. CDT

DEXTER — Bootheel farmers have put 90,000 acres into shallow water wetland habitat as part of a comprehensive program to provide expanded habitat for ducks, geese, shore birds and song birds.

The federal government has allocated approximately $40 million to increase this kind of habitat in eight states, primarily along the alluvial valley. Those states are Missouri, Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana and portions of coastlines in Texas and Florida. There is a small portion in Georgia.

Of the allocated funding, $4.5 million is being spent in Missouri for the 90,000 acres in wetland habitat.

Dave White, chief of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, was at the Otter Slough Wildlife Management Area on Wednesday. He said the program was developed after the large oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Conservationists began making plans to attract migratory birds in southern states along the Mississippi River because they feared severe pollution in the interior marshes. The marshes never became as polluted as feared, but the idea continued because of the positive impact it would have on migratory bird populations, White said.

The program offers financial incentives to farmers who participate by providing shallow water habitat. White says this could be in the form of mud flats for wading shore birds, water no more than a foot deep for other waders and water up to five feet deep for diving birds such as the Scalp. The pay is roughly $50 per acre for participating farmers.

White said the goal was to get between 100,000 and 150,000 acres in this type of wetland habitat in the eight states. Currently farmers have enrolled 471,000 acres in the program in these states.

Davis Minton with Minton AgCo said the program would have been successful only if the farmers were offered incentives. Minton AgCo has approximately 1,000 acres in wetlands near the Otter Slough Wildlife Management area. Minton said Minton AgCo made a major commitment to wetlands habitat more than a decade ago, but to get more farmers involved requires some kind of incentive.

Minton said he believes once enrolled in the program farmers will see the positive environmental impact of increased wetlands and also realize how much it increases recreational opportunities for them and their families. He said it would benefit all species of birds.

Minton pointed out that migratory birds have a larger hatch when healthy which should lead to increased numbers.

"I believe this will lead to healthier, more resilient bird populations," White said while meeting with a group of conservationists, farmers and NRCS officials at Lake Meade. Lake Meade is located in the Minton VoAg wetlands area.

White said many of the farmers have enrolled for three years, although it was not required because the program is "strictly voluntary." He said the farmers committed to "keeping water on the ground until February." He said the program did not want to interfere with spring planting by farmers.

Funding for the program comes from the Wildlife Habitat Program, the Wildlife Incentive Program, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Wetland Reserve Program.

Minton demonstrated some new technology for irrigation which reduces water loss and is far more efficient than the standing pipe method used for years. The new system utilizes computer technology and flexible pipe that can be tailored to a particular field.

White believes that the shallow wetlands program will reap benefits for everyone by increasing and providing a healthier bird population. He said officials believe roughly 50 million birds fly through the alluvial valley on their way to the coast.

NRCS officials will be back in late November to check on the results. The University of Mississippi has been contracted to monitor the project and provide documentation to see if the program is meeting its goal.

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