Wherever wildlife has interfered with man, we’ve seen the decline of targeted species. Wolves, coyotes, bear, mountain lion and other higher-level predators have all historically suffered a reduction in their natural ranges when their presence has caused livestock or crop losses. And, as the loss of forested and farmland acreage has accelerated across the country, remaining populations have been put in closer and closer contact with human activities, particularly in the densely populated portions of the Northeast.
Bear damage, such as to corn, is common in many states like New Jersey, where dense populations and dwindling open acreage compete against a recovered bear population. Bears were almost eliminated in New Jersey during the 1970s, but a ban on hunting — lifted only recently, and in a very controlled manner — has allowed their number to increase. Currently, human/bear interactions, and farmer complaints of crop damage, are commonplace.
Along with the elimination of natural predators from many areas, the deer population has found suitable habitat, and expanded greatly. Deer damage is arguably one of the primary reasons farmers face crop loss, forcing many to install costly deer fencing or utilize other deterrents, to limit damage and economic loss. Canadian geese are an increasingly common problem, devastating field crops. Raccoon, fox and owls commonly prey on poultry.
On the other side of the equation, farmland provides needed habitat for waterfowl, rabbits, turkey and other game birds or animals which are in danger of losing natural habitat. Non-hunted species, such as songbirds, too, have found that recent farmland conservation efforts have included restoration of their natural grasslands habitats. Forested areas, often found on working farms, provide habitat for even more species, including those with a tendency towards crop damage.
Farms and conservation
When farmers restore native landscapes — such as grassland habitats for bird nesting sites, or wetlands restoration for waterfowl, plant feed crops for game birds, wildlife thrives. By restoring environmentally-compromised areas of the farm — such as degraded riparian buffers, forests compromised by deer browsing and invasive species, or those of a uniform age with no successional habitat — back to a more native, natural state, ecological benefit extending beyond wildlife habitat, are realized.
The Conservation Reserves Program (CRP) allows farmers to receive monetary compensation in exchange for these types of land restoration projects. The program, begun in 1984, continues to pay farmers and other large landowners to “remove environmentally sensitive land from agricultural production and plant species that will improve environmental health and quality. Contracts for land enrolled in CRP are 10-15 years in length. The long-term goal of the program is to re-establish valuable land cover to help improve water quality, prevent soil erosion, and reduce loss of wildlife habitat.”
Current CRP programs include those aimed at bottomland habitat, upland grassland bird habitat, duck wetlands habitat and several others. Some of these programs potentially create lands conducive to providing habitat for species which can cause livestock or crop losses. But they are also providing the species in question with habitat and food sources which could divert them from causing loss to the farm’s crops. And, by restoring a more natural landscape, invasive plants and animals can be deterred, and a more natural wildlife balance retained.
While restoring lands via conservation programs can increase habitat for targeted wildlife, enhancing their long-term survival, it also creates the opportunity for recreational hunters to utilize the land. The flip side of species conservation is population control. As commonly seen with white tail deer, a species with limited predation and which is well-adapted to suburban and fringe landscapes, can quickly become damaging to the ecosystem, and cropland.
The role of hunting
According to the Land Stewardship Project, “Establishing and maintaining habitat can be purely for aesthetic and conservation purposes, or it can be done with an eye toward encouraging the presence of game species. Fee hunting or hunting leases can be a significant source of farm income if the farm acreage is large enough and productive enough.”
Hunting can be a way to manage a wildlife problem occurring on the farm, such as bear, deer or bird damage. The possibility of establishing prime hunting land can offer added incentive to planned conservation and habitat restoration programs. Farmers who find themselves with a natural mix of forested and open lands, yet are not actively controlling landscapes for wildlife, can also benefit from hunting, by selling hunting leases. Other farmers may choose to actively establish food plots and even stock game birds and make hunting — including hunting cabins or guided hunting stays — a part of their farm business plan. Removing marginal land from production and creating wildlife habitat may provide an economic benefit, as well as a ecological one, in many circumstances.
Pennsylvania’s Hunter Access Program, administered by the Pennsylvania Game Commission, encourages farmers to provide wildlife habitat and access to their land as public hunting grounds. In return, the farmer receives not only a conservation/ecological benefit to the land, but also some assurance of maintaining a balance and reducing nuisance wildlife via hunting activities.
Farmland conservation practices — including conservation tillage, contour planting, reduction of chemical crop protectants, establishment of pollinator habitat, soil erosion and runoff mitigation practices, and rotational grazing — all have a beneficial impact on the ecosystem, which includes wildlife. Along with the removal of marginal land from production and the establishment and management of riparian buffers, grasslands, wetlands and healthy forested habitats, these practices and tools allow farmers to develop healthy areas for wildlife. Through partnerships with hunters, and participation in conservation programs, the presence of wildlife on working farms can be enhanced, while the incidents of nuisance wildlife damage controlled.