BISMARCK -- Efforts to increase declining meadowlark populations and grassland habitat in North Dakota received a healthy boost this week with news that the North Dakota Game and Fish Department and several partnering organizations have received a federal Meadowlark Initiative grant through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Regional Conservation Partnership Program.


Administered by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, RCPP is a voluntary Farm Bill program that offers incentives for qualifying producers to implement conservation practices on working lands.

Greg Link, conservation and communications chief for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, highlighted the RCPP grant Monday night during the District 7 Advisory Board meeting in Bismarck.

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Game and Fish conducted the meetings in person again this year in each of the state’s eight Advisory Board districts after holding the 2020 spring and fall meetings virtually because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Monday night’s Bismarck meeting also was available virtually for people who wanted to attend online.

Speaking Monday night, April 26, in Bismarck, Link said Game and Fish has looked for ways to improve conditions for grassland-dependent species in North Dakota as part of its State Wildlife Action Plan. Every state compiles action plans for Species of Conservation Priority in an effort to keep them off the federal Endangered Species List, he said.

The western meadowlark – North Dakota’s state bird – was listed as a Species of Conservation Priority in the Game and Fish Department’s most recent State Wildlife Action Plan in 2015 and now is considered rare in the eastern third of the state.

Managing habitat rather than individual species is the best way to address the state’s conservation priorities, Link said. The effort has involved a coalition of conservation, agriculture and industry partners and stakeholders to work together on behalf of North Dakota's native prairies, Link said, "all in the name of beef, birds, bugs, bees and butterflies."

“We know that we have some really core habitats, some key habitats, that supply the diversity that these critters need,” Link said. “So what do we do? We manage those habitats, and one of those really important habitats in North Dakota, being a grassland state, is native prairie.”

Native prairie provides diversity and serves as the “buffet” for a lot of different species, Link said.

“The best thing we can do to keep these species around and fulfill our State Wildlife Action Plan is to do a better job managing those grasslands,” he said. That includes “knocking back” invasive species, reconnecting fragmented areas of grassland habitat and providing a buffer in places where ag practices might be especially intense, Link said.

In addition to Game and Fish and NRCS, core contributing partners in the RCPP grant include the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Audubon Dakota, North Dakota Natural Resource Trust, Delta Waterfowl, Ducks Unlimited, The Nature Conservancy, Mule Deer Foundation, World Wildlife Fund, Northern Great Plains Joint Venture, Ecological Insights, Millborn Seeds and the North Dakota Grazing Lands Coalition, Link said.

“Many, many more partners and stakeholders were involved in collaborative discussions that went into development of the overall initiative, its vision, goals, and objectives,” Link said.

Game and Fish learned April 26 that it had been approved for RCPP funding. As part of the grant, the department and its partners will provide $12 million of “in-kind” funding, Link said.

USDA, in turn, will match that with $10 million, of which $7 million will go directly to producers for on-the-ground habitat projects.

“The partners are putting up, in some cases, things we’re already doing,” Link said. “We’re using our in-kind, or salary, and matching that with USDA dollars.”

Details about the RCPP grant and how the department will coordinate sign-up with the NRCS are a work in progress, Link said. The department will participate in a national orientation webinar Thursday, May 6, for all new RCPP grant recipients, Link said. After that, Game and Fish will begin working out specifics of the award and how it will be delivered with Jill Howard, the state's RCPP coordinator for NRCS, Link said.

“If all goes off without a hitch, we should be able to get the ball rolling in July,” he said.

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Brad Dokken
Brad Dokken