New partnership hopes to address farmers' concerns on wildlife groups

BISMARCK - A new partnership seeks to address the concerns of farmers that politically active wildlife conservation groups may have too much influence when working with a federal agency on farm bill conservation programs.
Mary Podoll, left, state conservationist for North Dakota at the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service, Jill Howard, also with the USDA and NRCS speak with Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., second from right, and Terry Steinwand, director of the North Dakota Game and Fish. Mike McCleary / Bismarck Tribune
Mary Podoll, left, state conservationist for North Dakota at the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service, Jill Howard, also with the USDA and NRCS speak with Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., second from right, and Terry Steinwand, director of the North Dakota Game and Fish. Mike McCleary / Bismarck Tribune

BISMARCK – A new partnership seeks to address the concerns of farmers that politically active wildlife conservation groups may have too much influence when working with a federal agency on farm bill conservation programs.

Farm and wildlife group leaders Friday applauded the partnership between the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service and North Dakota Association of Soil Conservation Districts to employ biologists who provide technical assistance on the conservation programs.

Farm groups and U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., had complained that the biologists employed by groups such as Ducks Unlimited and Pheasants Forever shouldn't work in NRCS offices because the wildlife groups sometimes advocate for policies that run counter to the interests of the farm groups and their members.

Under the new partnership, the NRCS will partner with the association, which will work with the state's 55 soil conservation districts to manage farm bill biologists funded by the partnership's members.

"The appearance of any conflict or impropriety should be eliminated through this process, and this should lead to restoration of trust, not only between NRCS and the landowner and the farmer but then the various organizations in between," Cramer said during a news conference in Bismarck.

Mary Podoll, the NRCS state conservationist for North Dakota, said the partnership - which is unique to North Dakota - doesn't preclude the agency from contracting directly with DU or Pheasants Forever.

"But in a spirit of working with all of these great groups here, we discussed with Pheasants Forever and Ducks Unlimited this new model, and they are very supportive in their own way of that," she said.

Pheasants Forever has three farm bill biologists working in NRCS offices under a contract that expires next June, and they'll be given the chance to apply for those positions with the soil conservation districts, Podoll said.

Ducks Unlimited relocated its two biologists from the NRCS offices in Turtle Lake and Steele to new offices in June. Johann Walker, DU's director of conservation programs for the Dakotas and Montana, said those employees have expressed the desire to remain under DU's umbrella when the contract with NRCS runs out Sept. 30, but DU has contributed financially and pledged in-kind support to the partnership.

"I think that it's exciting that the ag groups and the conservation groups are coming together for the first time I'm aware of to meet unprecedented demand for conservation programs," he said.

Walker said DU will continue to promote farm bill conservation programs, "we'll just be doing it from outside the (NRCS) offices, and then also supporting the soil conservation district model."

The NRCS has contracted with DU staff for conservation program assistance since 2009. DU raised the ire of farm groups last year as the driving force behind a ballot measure that would have used oil taxes to support conservation work, which could have included land acquisition. Pheasants Forever also supported the measure, which was defeated.

Pete Hanebutt, director of public policy for the North Dakota Farm Bureau, said the partnership allows the NRCS to deliver farm bill conservation programs to ag producers "through a third party that is mutually agreeable by both the wildlife folks and the ag community."

Cramer said similar issues have arisen in other states but not to the volume they did in North Dakota.

"It sends a pretty strong message in this formalized agreement that it might be a good idea to have good agreements before it gets to this point perhaps in other states," he said.

In addition to Farm Bureau, DU and Pheasants Forever, the partnership's members are the North Dakota Grain Growers Association, North Dakota Wheat Commission, North Dakota Barley Council, U.S. Durum Growers Association, North Dakota Corn Growers, North Dakota Soybean Growers, North Dakota Canola Growers, Delta Waterfowl, Natural Resources Trust and the state Game and Fish Department.