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Program to Boost Duck Populations Sits in Sights of GOP-Led Congress

AFTER more than a decade of decline, the North American duck population is rebounding.

Hunters and conservationists are worried that the US government program responsible for much of the increase will become skeet for a budget-minded Congress. They are forming an unlikely alliance to try to save the program.

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In July, the US Fish and Wildlife Service estimated the North American duck population at 71 million, 12 million ducks more than last year and the highest since 1983. Biologists attribute the increase to favorable weather and the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which pays farmers to remove parcels of land from production.

Some 36 million acres of farm land, an area the size of the state of Iowa, are in the CRP, which is administered by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). Begun in 1985 to reduce soil loss on highly erodible cropland, the USDA pays farmers an average of $50 per acre per year to keep the land out of production. The land has been planted in native grass that provides cover for ducks and other animals.

At an annual cost of $1.8 billion, hunting groups think the program is a good deal.

''This program has created more wildlife habitat than all the wildlife refuge acquisitions of the last 50 years,'' says Eric Schenck, of Ducks Unlimited. With half a million members, DU has been a lead supporter of the CRP and it has mobilized a number of other groups, including the National Audubon Society and the National Rifle Association, to support CRP.

Biologists say the CRP has increased the nesting success for many species of ducks. ''The CRP is absolutely necessary if we are going to maintain waterfowl populations,'' says Ron Reynolds, a wildlife biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service. Mr. Reynolds, who is stationed in Bismarck, N. D., says the program also benefits non-game animals. ''We have found 73 different species of birds using CRP fields,'' he says.

The new GOP-controlled Congress, however, has taken aim at agriculture programs and the CRP could be eliminated or dramatically scaled back in the 1995 Farm Bill. ''Everyone agrees we need to find savings in the Agriculture Department budget,'' says Brian Gunderson, a spokesman for the incoming House majority leader, Rep. Dick Armey (R) of Texas. Mr. Armey has been a vocal critic of agriculture subsidies. Mr. Gunderson says Armey is ''concerned about paying farmers not to use their resources.''

During recent global trade negotiations, in a move to placate agriculture interests, President Clinton pledged to support the CRP. But the president's support may not be enough to save the program.

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In addition to the opposition from some congressional leaders, the CRP faces resistance from seed, machinery, and fertilizer producers. A Senate aide says some counties in western Kansas have more than 20 percent of their acreage in the CRP.

'FARMERS aren't buying equipment and machinery because everything they have is in the CRP,'' he says. ''The agribusiness companies are opposed to it [CRP] because it reduces production.''

Some states have already lengthened their hunting season. ''Hunters are saying they haven't seen ducks like this in 20 years,'' says Brian Sullivan of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Mr. Sullivan attributes much of the increase to the CRP. He says that during the 1970's, duck populations approached 100 million birds. ''With another couple years of good conditions, we could approach that number again,'' he says.

CRP supporters have a few more months to lobby for the program. Congress will vote on the 1995 Farm Bill early next summer.

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