An initiative is under way to increase wetland habitat in the Mid-South for migratory birds heading toward oil-impacted Gulf of Mexico. The deadline for signup is Aug. 1.

The Migratory Bird Habitat Initiative will be administered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, using the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program and Wetlands Reserve Program.

Emphasis will be on creating or enhancing habitat for shorebirds and waterfowl, including shallow water, mudflat, and sandflat habitats. Of special interest are agricultural lands that contain wetlands farmed under natural conditions and prior converted croplands. Rice fields are particularly well-suited for the initiative, as are catfish farms.

Qualifying farmers will be paid to flood their fields, providing alternative habitat for waterfowl that would normally migrate to marshland now threatened by the BP oil disaster.

The initiative encompasses portions of Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Texas. NRCS has identified priority areas that offer the greatest habitat potential for migrating bird populations. (See map).

Arkansas is expected to receive $3.3 million for the initiative, Louisiana, close to $1 million, and Mississippi, $3.6 million.

“More than 50 million migratory birds traveling south in coming months will instinctively head toward the marshes and coastlands of the northern Gulf of Mexico,” said Arkansas state conservationist Mike Sullivan. “With some marshes and shorelines already degraded and the potential for larger-scale oil impacts in the coming months, it is essential that we provide inland and coastal food, water, and cover for migratory birds before they reach the oil-impacted areas.”

Sullivan said new habitats for migratory birds — if the water and food are good enough — could encourage some birds to stay instead of moving down to the Gulf. Other birds will likely continue their migration patterns.

Arkansas will cost-share on three practices: impoundment of water for wildlife, with and without pumping, with payments ranging from $7.50 to $18.68 per acre; planting of vegetation prior to flooding, $126.75 to $199.80 per acre; and disking of land to help manage for shorebirds, $25.44 to $30.53 per acre.

The Louisiana Rice Growers Association has formed a committee to study adequate compensation for farmers. “As an organization I think we ought to step up,” said LRGA board member Jackie Loewer of Branch, La.

Johnny Saichuk, LSU AgCenter rice specialist, said the cost of pumping water on fields averaged $25 an acre several years ago when diesel was much cheaper. “It’s pretty expensive and these guys couldn’t afford to flood up without compensation.”

NRCS anticipates improving habitat on up to 100,000 to 150,000 acres throughout the eight states, based on expected producer participation. Based on prior experience, NRCS hopes to see millions of birds coming to rest and feed in the priority areas.

“We expect there will be great interest from our farmers and ranchers who want to do something positive to help the migrating birds — not only this fall, but next spring and in subsequent years as well,” said Sullivan.

Louisiana state conservationist Kevin Norton said a range of water depth would be needed, from mud flats to 10-12 inches.

According to assistant state conservationist Al Garner, priority areas in Mississippi include the Delta region and counties that border the Mississippi River.

Arkansas partners in the initiative include Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, Arkansas Association of Conservation Districts, Ducks Unlimited, The Nature Conservancy and others.

Priority areas in Arkansas are in Arkansas, Ashley, Chicot, Clay, Craighead, Crittenden, Cross, Desha, Drew, Greene, Independence, Jackson, Jefferson, Lafayette, Lawrence, Lee, Lincoln, Little River, Lonoke, Miller, Mississippi, Monroe, Phillips, Poinsett, Prairie, Pulaski, Randolph, St. Francis, White and Woodruff counties.

The signup for the initiative will run from June 28 to Aug. 1. Interested producers should contact their local USDA Service Center for additional information. More information is available at: www.nrcs.usda.gov/news/nrcs_migratory_birds.html and http://www.la.nrcs.usda.gov/programs/MBHI/index.html.

The migration season will begin in a few weeks with shorebirds followed by teal.

e-mail: erobinson@farmpress.com