Missouri farmers can reduce Gulf oil spill’s impact on birds

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JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri landowners have until Aug. 1 to join a federal initiative to help migratory birds whose winter habitat has been damaged by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) recently unveiled the Migratory Bird Habitat Initiative (MBHI). The initiative aims to maximize migratory bird habitat and food resources on up to 150,000 acres of private land. The acreage will provide critical wintering habitat for a significant number of waterfowl, wading birds, sparrows and other birds.

Participating landowners receive payments through the Wetlands Reserve, Wildlife Habitat Incentives and Environmental Quality Incentives programs. The three programs are part of the federal farm bill. The MBHI is expected to make $1.9 million available to Missouri landowners for wetland-friendly practices.

Agricultural land in parts of eight Gulf Coast and Lower Mississippi Valley states are eligible for MBHI enrollment. Eligible counties in Missouri are: Bates, Bollinger, Butler, Cape Girardeau, Cole, Cooper, Dunklin, Johnson, Lafayette, Mississippi, Moniteau, New Madrid, Pemiscot, Ripley, Saline, Scott, Stoddard and Vernon.

Landowners can contact the nearest NRCS office for more information about the MBHI or visit www.nrcs.usda.gov/.

The sign-up period ends Aug. 1.

“This is an urgent situation,” said Keith Jackson, private land programs supervisor for the Missouri Department of Conservation. “Some of the affected birds arrive in Missouri as early as mid-July. Birds ranging from mallards and herons to songbirds are going to find their traditional wintering areas along the Gulf Coast severely impaired by the ongoing oil spill. One important way to help them is to make sure they come through their southward migration in good condition. Enhancing the availability of natural foods and resting areas in Missouri can help them get through the coming winter.”

The MBHI encourages farmers, ranchers and other private landowners to manage their land in ways that create or enhance wetland habitat. Conservation Department workers are available to help landowners develop management practices that work for them and qualify for federal incentives.

“I am very appreciative of the Missouri Department of Conservation for joining in this effort with NRCS to provide additional stopover habitat for these birds,” says NRCS State Conservationist J.R. Flores. “Providing more food and foraging opportunities will give the birds more energy reserves if faced with limited habitat around the coastline.”

Eligible lands include wetlands farmed under natural conditions, existing farmed wetlands and prior converted croplands. Rice fields are particularly suited for this initiative, as are aquaculture farms (catfish and crayfish) no longer in production, since they can easily be flooded to provide these immediate habitat conditions.

Shallow water, ranging from mudflats to less than one foot, is key to creating suitable habitat. Most shorebirds forage in water less than 4 inches deep; most other water birds, including waterfowl, forage in water less than 12 inches deep.

The NRCS has identified three essential practices, along with supporting practices, to achieve MBHI’s goals. The essential practices are:

• Developing or managing wetland habitat for wetland wildlife (practice code 644)

• Inundating lands to provide habitat for fish and/or wildlife (practice code 646)

• Managing for early plant succession to benefit desired wildlife or natural communities (practice code 647).