In comes corn, out goes wildlife

CornEthanolAndWildlifeReportCover Government incentives for corn ethanol are driving farmers to shift land into corn production, resulting in significant decreases in grassland bird populations throughout the fragile Prairie Pothole Region.

According to a new NWF report, U.S. ethanol capacity has grown almost 200 percent since the passage of the 2005 Energy Bill, which mandated a large increase in domestic ethanol production. In addition, the updated Renewable Fuel Standard requires corn ethanol production to increase from 10.57 billion gallons in 2009 to 15 billion in 2015. The result is that native grassland is being converted into cropland at an alarming rate and will likely continue to do so. NWF’s Julie Sibbing explains:

“Oftentimes these incentives are redundant, driving market demand for corn ethanol. The system makes it hard for farmers to resist converting native grassland into cropland or to keep their land in the Conservation Reserve Program.”

Change in cornBy identifying areas with the most dramatic land-use changes in Prairie Pothole states, researchers were able to see where there are “hotspots” of increased corn plantings and habitat loss. In North and South Dakota alone, more than 475,000 acres of previously untilled land were broken between 2002 and 2007.

 When researchers analyzed the relationship between corn plantings and grassland bird populations, the results showed that counties with high increases in corn plantings had significant declines of nearly 30 percent in populations of sensitive grassland birds between 2005 and 2008.

Becca Brooke, study co-author and MS/MBA candidate at the University of Michigan, School of Natural Resources and Environment and Ross School of Business says that “if we want to achieve widespread protection of wildlife and native prairie, policy changes are needed.”

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Published: January 14, 2010