Fund Your Land: Wildlife Habitat Conservation and the WHIP Program

Government program helps landowners with costs of enriching their properties and wildlife habitat conservation.

Snowy Owl

Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, in Massachusetts, is home to this snowy owl.

iStockphoto.com/Ken Canning

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Got any spare land lying around? Want to increase your contributions to wildlife habitat conservation?

According to the 2007 National Resources Inventory, a statistical survey that monitors such things, nearly 1.4 billion acres of non-federal rural land exist in the United States. These lands are predominately forestland (406 million acres), rangeland (409 million acres) and cropland (357 million acres).

In a time when the nation is suffering from diminishing wildlife habitats, it’s nice to know that, in some instances, government funds are available to help property owners and local wildlife. 

The Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP), a little-known national program, provides technical and monetary assistance for people who want to create or improve wildlife habitats on their land.

Through WHIP, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) helps a landowner determine the most effective way to make property wildlife-friendly and assists in getting cost-share funds to carry out projects. Eligible land includes private agricultural land, non-industrial private forestland and tribal lands. 

How WHIP works

WHIP is available in all 50 states. To participate, NRCS state offices consult with local conservation groups on specific wildlife needs of that particular state, then develop a weighted ranking system to determine which projects will receive funds. Priority is given to land that protects or has the potential to provide habitat for any threatened species of fish or wildlife.

On a national level, NRCS regulations do not place limits on the number of acres that can be enrolled in the program or the amount of funding that can be allocated per project. However, each state may choose to establish its own parameters.

Property owners can visit the website of their state’s NRCS office to determine current wildlife priorities as well as cut-off dates for applications and other key information. Forms are also often available on these sites.

NRCS staffers evaluate all applications, giving priority to property that can sustain wildlife species experiencing population declines, or to fish and wildlife habitats that may not be otherwise funded.

If the property qualifies, participants work with NRCS to prepare a development plan covering the landowner’s goals for improving wildlife habitat and the steps necessary to reach those goals. NRCS provides cost-share payments to landowners for five to 10 years, depending on the practices to be installed. Higher share rates are available for participants who enter into 15-year agreements.

Under these agreements, landowners agree to follow the practices set out in the plans and to allow NRCS access to monitor the effectiveness of landowners’ actions. In exchange, NRCS agrees to provide technical assistance and pay up to 75 percent of the cost of installing the practices. Additional financial or technical assistance is often available through cooperating partners.

Funding for WHIP through 2012 is authorized at $85 million per fiscal year. A state NRCS office may also be familiar with other conservation programs that could provide additional funds for that region’s
habitat restoration plans.

Since WHIP began in 1998, nearly 33,000 cost-share agreements have benefited more than 5.5 million acres. Species benefiting from WHIP activities include the grasshopper sparrow, bobwhite quail, swift fox, short-eared owl, Karner-blue butterfly, gopher tortoise, Louisiana black bear, Eastern collared lizard, Bachman’s sparrow, ovenbird, acorn woodpecker, greater sage grouse and salmon.

Examples of projects that have received WHIP funds include:

  • Seven acres of pastureland in Illinois restored to savanna habitat by the planting of native plant species;
  • Eighty acres of flat cropland near Chicago restored to a healthy wildlife habitat by tree planting, wetland construction and grass re-seeding;
  • An upland game bird habitat created on eight acres in Ellsworth County, Kansas;
  • Removal of invasive plant species from a 12-acre orchard in New Salem, Massachusetts;
  • Removal of invasive species on a 13.6-acre property in New Jersey, opening up the forest for proliferation of native species;
  • Implementation of conservation plan on 1,000 acres in Searcy County, Arkansas;
  • Fifty-two acres of woodland in Williamsburg County, South Carolina, improved by thinning and prescribed burns.

WHIP has proven to be a highly effective and widely accepted program across the country. Landowners often can’t afford wildlife habitat enrichment, so cost share is a proven means of overcoming reluctance to make a long-term investment.

For a list of state WHIP contacts, visit the program website at www.NRCS.USDA.gov/
programs/whip.