The 25,000-acre CREP program aims to improve water quality and access to recreational opportunities in the Big Sioux watershed

SIOUX FALLS, SD — A coalition of agencies and nonprofits in South Dakota has started a Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program in the Big Sioux River Watershed that hopes to expand wildlife habitat and improve water quality.

According to a Farm Service Agency report on the project, assuming full registration and no changes to incentive structures, the government’s share of the cost over 15 years would be $22.2 million.

“We believe it’s a win-win program,” said Matt Morlock, the associate director of Pheasants Forever in South Dakota, a nonprofit partner that helps the South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks Department connect with producers . “Producers are well compensated for converting environmentally sensitive, low-production land to other uses. And then the public will have access to more hunting and fishing opportunities.”

The program closely follows the successful James River Watershed CREP, which has registered about 80,000 acres since its inception in 2009 and has significantly increased breeding areas for pheasants, ducks and other waterfowl, according to the GF&P Commission, which spearheads both initiatives.

Like the dozens of CREP projects across the country, the Big Sioux River Watershed Initiative is a state cost-sharing initiative that builds on the foundational Conservation Reserve Program, the federal conservation program funded under the Farm Bill. Producers would sign CRP contracts and receive an additional CREP incentive on top of that contract.

The program begins by enrolling up to 25,000 acres of the 3.8 million-acre watershed in 10- to 15-year contracts that allow for the planting of permanent vegetation such as grassland or herbs.

Map of the water system.
A map of suitable streams for buffer strip development in the Upper Big Sioux River watershed.

Contribution/Commission to Game, Fish and Parks

To reduce the amount of sediment and nutrients entering the hundreds of bodies of water that drain into the Big Sioux River, the program will seek to prioritize areas that serve as buffers for specific streams in the water system. The registration of these buffer zones is subject to certain conditions, e.g. B. A break in haymaking from May 1st to August 1st to allow reproduction of waterfowl.

Lands contracted under the Watershed Initiative are open to the public for recreational access year-round, expanding convenient hunting and fishing opportunities for most of the state’s population.

“We’ve been talking about a CREP in South Dakota’s Big Sioux River watershed for at least half a dozen years,” Tom Kirschenmann, GF&P’s director of wildlife, told the mediation panel Nov. 10. “Primarily because of water quality issues and lack of habitat on the east side of the state. But that’s also where a large portion of our population lives in the state, and providing these additional hunting opportunities would be one aspect of the high quality of life that we could add.”

The tension between crop prices and interest in uncultivated land programs like CRP is a simple economic reality. And while the putative solution to this problem is the inscription of less productive land, overall incorporation into the general CRP continues to decline, in part due to crop prices as well as political factors such as lower total acreage caps and stricter bidding requirements.

Scott VanderWal, President of the South Dakota Farm Bureau

Contributed / SDFB

As of September 2012, there were nearly 740,000 CRP contracts nationwide covering nearly 30 million acres. Ten years later there are 560,000 contracts representing 22 million acres.

“Prices have gone up and in many cases it’s more profitable to farm,” said Scott VanderWal, president of the South Dakota Farm Bureau. “At the same time, they’ve increased CRP rental rates, which we don’t really like because the government is competing with farmers and ranchers for land.”

However, the Big Sioux CREP avoids some of these disadvantages. For one, South Dakota adds bonuses of at least 20% and up to 30% on top of CRP rental rates. Additionally, it’s an ongoing program that focuses on specific areas in the state, meaning farmers don’t have to bid on a limited pot of federal money.

After nearly a year of outreach through the media, conferences and one-on-one meetings with landowners, the program enrollment opportunity began on November 1st. As of November 17, no acreage has been registered, but GF&P emphasizes that there is interest from producers and agreements would come “within days”.

At last week’s Interim Appropriations Meeting, Bill Smith, director of the Division of Resource Conservation and Forestry at the South Dakota Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources, blamed the lack of applications in part on incentives that didn’t fully keep up with crop prices.

“As we put things in the market, crop prices started to go up, as did rent prices,” Smith said. “And the overwhelming message from our committee members was that our incentives were not high enough. So we’re working with GF&P, among others, to figure out what those incentive rates should be.”

The big question is how far the state can push these incentives. Kirschenmann said new habitat programs like the Big Sioux CREP were made possible in part by the Habitat Stamp, which was introduced in 2020 to “fund wildlife habitat development and public access improvements.”

As of Oct. 30, however, total stamp purchases are down about 2.5% this year compared to the same time last year, meaning the agency has earmarked about $100,000 less for the habitat and recreation area development goal must spend.

Funding also comes from a 2021 bill that will allocate $3 million to clean up the Big Sioux River, as well as from some private sources, GF&P said.

Prioritizing frontier, environmental work is key to the program’s success

One aspect of the Big Sioux River CREP that may make it better able to sidestep higher crop prices than other uncultivated land programs is its focus on registering land as part of the state’s Riparian Buffer Initiative, the land under 120 Feet from edge covers of eligible waters in the river system. Although the final total may vary, project leaders hope that around 20% of the total ingested acreage will be in these buffer areas.

According to Morlock, these specific areas can often be difficult for farmers to work with.

“If you’re targeting these sensitive areas with low profitability, then it makes sense to use them in this program,” Morlock said. “I think manufacturers with newer technology are doing a really good job of finding areas that aren’t making money anymore and they’re tired of putting expensive inputs into them, so that can be attractive.”

Screenshot from 11/17/2022 at 2:43 p.m..png
A map of eligible tributaries in the Lower Big Sioux River watershed.

Contribution/Commission to Game, Fish and Parks

With respect to development of recreation and public access, GF&P informed the Grants Committee that the inclusion of buffer strips in the James River watershed has allowed for an expansion in pheasant and duck populations.

But outside of these barrier areas, which are key to waterfowl reproduction, permanent vegetation in these areas is a goal for environmental groups like Friends of the Big Sioux River, another nonprofit organization that works with state agencies on the Big Sioux CREP.

“By taking land out of crop production and planting grasses next to the water bodies, it helps filter out sediment losses and excess nutrients,” said Travis Entenman, executive director of Friends of the Big Sioux River. “So there’s going to be that water quality benefit of just putting the CREP on the ground. But it is also another conservation tool with additional funding that helps conservation organizations compete with rising commodity prices.”

The benefits of improving water quality can also be economic. A DANR report added that water quality tests, particularly in the southern parts of the river system, had found E. coli and other faecal bacteria likely derived from animal manure. The report said that building natural bank barriers is key to keeping the river viable as a source of domestic drinking water.

“Because the City of Sioux Falls relies on the Big Sioux River Aquifer for a portion of its drinking water, addressing these issues may have a future impact well beyond the current recreational and aesthetic issues,” the report states.

Jason harward is a

Report for America

Corps reporter who writes about state politics in South Dakota. Contact him at



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