The The State Journal-Register, Chris Young, Associated Press
In a photo taken May 13, 2011, a ring-necked pheasant forages in a grassy field in Menard County, Ill. High commodity prices and budget pressures mean less land is available to serve as wildlife habitat.

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — It's not an easy task to make Illinois a SAFE place for pheasants, quail and other grassland birds.

Mike Wefer, agricultural and grassland wildlife program manager for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, says efforts to restore more grassland habitat are up against high commodity and land prices that make converting marginal farmland to grass less inviting.

And Federal Farm Bill programs credited with helping bolster numbers of pheasants, quail and even nesting ducks are facing reductions in funding.

Add to that last winter's blizzard, which likely put a chill on winter survival rates of bobwhites.

It is news that can "try men's souls," Wefer says.

But not all the news is bad. Targeted habitat initiatives already are paying dividends.

Illinois had 20,400 acres available for enrollment in the SAFE program, a component of the larger Conservation Reserve Program.

But the state wasn't able to enroll all the acres in its allotment, and 5,000 of those went off to other states.

"So far, we've used about 6,000-7,000 acres," Wefer says. "The bad news is we've only used 6,000-7,000 acres. The good news is we're using those in the right places."

Wefer said the program is showing results in Tazewell and Montgomery counties particularly. Projects also are getting off the ground in Livingston, McLean and Ford counties, and in Knox, Fulton and McDonough counties.

"We've seen positive responses from quail, meadowlarks, grasshopper sparrows and other grassland birds," Wefer says.

Pheasants are expected to respond as habitat continues to improve.

In most cases, SAFE acres are enrolled near already established habitat blocks in state-run areas or those developed by Pheasants Forever.

Mike Ward, an avian ecologist with the Illinois Natural History Survey, says habitat does not always have to be in contiguous blocks. For example, 2,000 acres of habitat within a 10,000-15,000 acre landscape will provide benefits for grassland wildlife.

"If you have several blocks of habitat near one another, you start getting that synergy," he said.

Ward, who is studying the response of grassland birds in SAFE areas, says the mosaic approach seems to be working.

"If we concentrate in these small areas where you get 10 acres here, 20 acres there and 50 acres there, and if you keep them within a mile of each other, you get a good results," he says.

Wefer says one bit of discouraging news is that few of the SAFE acres have been south of Interstate 70, where they could help bolster bobwhite numbers.

"A lot of the good stuff is not happening in the traditional quail range," he says. "South of Interstate 70, we did not have a lot of signup — only 600 out of a potential 10,200 acres."

At more than 25 years old, the Conservation Reserve Program is the backbone of Farm Bill conservation efforts.

Illinois has about 1 million acres enrolled in CRP. The 2008 Farm Bill authorizes 32 million acres nationwide, of which 29 million are enrolled.

CRP provides rental payments to landowners in exchange for taking marginally productive land, or land prone to erosion, out of production in favor of planting grass or trees.

Deficit reduction likely will force a reduction in CRP.

"Things going on in Washington, D.C., with the Federal Farm Bill could be scary for the future," Wefer said. "The economy is bad nationally, but farmers are doing very well.

"The Super Committee is supposed to carve so many billion dollars out of the budget. And farmers are not as likely to support conservation programs because they don't need them as much as they did in the past."

Wefer said with corn at $7 to $8 per bushel, there is little incentive to take farmland out of production and plant grass.

"And cash rents are nearly double CRP rental rates," he says.

Rental rates that average $120-$150 per acre in northern Illinois and about $100 in southern Illinois don't compare favorably with cash rents at $200-$300 per acre.

U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Indiana, was one of the original authors of the Conservation Reserve Program bill in 1985. However, Lugar said $40 billion could be cut from the Farm Bill to help reduce the federal deficit.

"There has been shrinking enrollment, and our land rehabilitation successes allow more acres to return to production," he said in a statement.

Under his proposal, CRP would be capped at 24 million acres.

Components of CRP could be consolidated to allow for additional savings.

Wefer said that, despite challenges, managers will continue to look for ways to maximize the habitat remaining.

"We're working on the Midwest Pheasant Recovery Plan," he says.

The draft is being revised to include the entire pheasant range.

And efforts to find ways to get the most out of SAFE acres will continue.

"We're trying to put habitats where they will do the most good," he says.

Information from: The State Journal-Register,