Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer today announced that USDA is seeking public comment on changes to the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP), designed to develop and improve fish and wildlife habitat on eligible land and water areas.
USDA released an interim final rule today that contains the legislative changes to WHIP. The rule, published in the Federal Register, is open for public comments. Public comments must be submitted by March 17.
"This highly effective and widely accepted program helps conservation-minded landowners establish and improve high quality fish and wildlife habitat on their land," Schafer said. "Changes to this program are designed to enhance fish and wildlife habitat on private agricultural lands."
The WHIP interim final rule can be viewed at the USDA-NRCS Web site; at the official government regulation Web Site; and at the Federal Register.
This interim final rule will incorporate statutory changes and establish the program's proposed policy for the life of the 2008 Farm Bill. Public comments on this interim final rule will be used to develop the final rule for WHIP.
USDA-NRCS administers WHIP, a voluntary conservation program that provides financial and technical assistance to private landowners to develop and improve high quality habitat for fish and wildlife on private agricultural lands, non-industrial private forest lands, and Indian lands. Producers receive assistance to develop upland, wetland, riparian and aquatic habitat areas on their property. WHIP agreements between USDA-NRCS and the producer generally last from one year after the last conservation practice is completed up to 10 years from the date the agreement is signed. USDA-NRCS can pay up to 75 percent of the cost to apply or install conservation practices for permanent fish and wildlife habitat. Agreements of 15 years or longer are available for essential plant and animal habitat.
The Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008, or 2008 Farm Bill, reauthorized and amended WHIP. There are now three categories of eligible land for this program-private agricultural lands, non-industrial private forest lands and Indian lands. The new farm bill excludes non-agricultural lands and publicly owned lands (federal, state, county or local) from eligibility.
Up to 25 percent of WHIP funds will now be available for long-term agreements (15 years or longer) to protect and restore essential plant and animal habitat. Previously, the amount available for these types of agreements was capped at 15 percent of WHIP funds. USDA-NRCS can pay up to 90 percent of the cost to apply or install conservation practices for essential plant and wildlife habitat. Essential plant and animal habitat includes critical habitat designated under federal and state law, locations of listed or candidate species that can be improved with specific practices, or particularly rare and unique habitats that could support at-risk species.
Another statutory change specifies that payments to an individual or legal entity cannot exceed $50,000 annually. Projects that support state, regional or national initiatives will be given priority under certain conditions. Furthermore, the 2008 Farm Bill will allow landowners to receive payments to develop other types of wildlife habitat, including habitat established on pivot corners and irregular areas.
For additional information about WHIP, please visit http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/programs/WHIP/ or call (202) 720-1844 during business hours.