Putting a Feline Face on the Farm Bill

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Ocelot, © Erwin & Peggy Bauer / Wildstock

Farm Bill funding helps restore and protect the habitat needed by the endangered ocelot and other imperiled wildlife. (Photo: © Erwin & Peggy Bauer / Wildstock)

Funding crucial to wildlife conservation

Hidden behind the big budget numbers and Capitol Hill policy debates over the reauthorization of the Farm Bill—the largest single source of federal funding for wildlife and habitat conservation—are the faces of the wildlife the law helps to protect. 

Take ocelots. Once hunted for their dappled velvety fur and snatched up for the pet trade, the 80 or so ocelots that manage to hang on in a sunny little pocket along the Gulf Coast of Texas are today victims of habitat loss and fragmentation, genetic isolation and road mortality. Or more specifically, mile upon mile of farmed fields, mega shopping malls and a dizzying zigzag of roads the cats can’t safely cross. 

If the ocelot is to survive in this country, they’ll need more territory—not just tiny pieces of habitat. Only two breeding populations survive and although they are only about 15 miles apart, they are isolated from one another. The cats are becoming dangerously inbred, making them vulnerable to birth defects and disease. The Farm Bill’s Conservation Reserve Program is crucial to connecting these two populations. It has allowed the federal government to essentially pay private landowners to restore corridors of native, thorny mesquite bushes that link territories together. And farmers can turn marginal agricultural land and monoculture row-crops into places where ocelots can once again hunt and rear their young. 

Of course, ocelots are not the only species to benefit. Farmers across the country have enrolled more than 33 million acres into this program, helping to protect a wide array of wildlife from sage grouse to checkerspot butterflies to whooping cranes. 

When it comes to threatened and endangered species, half are found mostly on private or state lands, making agricultural land incredibly important. “But Congress is now trying to take away the farmer’s incentive to keep land out of production,” says Timothy Male, Defenders’ vice president for science and conservation policy. 

Under the House proposal, farmers actually have an incentive to plow fencerow to fencerow because any risk of crop losses would be covered by more taxpayer-subsidized crop insurance. “The threat of losing millions of acres currently in conservation to crop production and of bringing millions more acres into production would be devastating for wildlife and a blight on the American landscape,” says Male. “This is precisely the formula that led to the Dust Bowl days of the Great Depression, and it would destroy more than a quarter-century of conservation gains.”

To prevent this from happening, Defenders is working to ensure Congress and President Obama pass a five-year Farm Bill that maintains conservation funding, continues to protect soil from erosion and preserves wetlands and grasslands. “This is especially important given that crop prices have been going up,” says Male. 

Each year wildlife habitat is lost to cropland. More than 23 million acres of grasslands and wetlands were converted to cropland between 2008 and 2011 alone, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data. “Pushing crops into environmentally sensitive lands does almost nothing for our food supply,” adds Male. “But it does have disastrous consequences for wildlife—and Congress shouldn’t expect the American taxpayer to subsidize that destruction.”   

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