He started noticing changes years ago. Fence rows were ripped up and plowed over, trees cut down and the surrounding grasses torn up. It’s hard to survive as a farmer in an arid state like Wyoming, and many farmers used all the land they could find, said Keith Gibbs, an avid bird hunter and dog trainer in Lingle.

A saving grace for the wildlife that depended on those native grasses was the Conservation Reserve Program, a federal program that pays farmers for returning their land to a more native state.

“The CRP program was a big plus,” Gibbs said.

Not only did it return farmland to native grasses or other good cover, but it was often where the Wyoming Game and Fish Department planted pheasants and negotiated walk-in hunting areas, he said.

Conservation Reserve Program lands in Wyoming, North and South Dakota, Kansas and Montana are where Gibbs and thousands of other pheasant and upland bird hunters go every year. It’s also where millions of ducks and other birds nest and hatch their young.

But those lands are going away. The federal government doesn’t have as much money to pay farmers, and in many cases the payouts aren’t keeping up with current crop prices.

Wyoming hasn’t seen as big of a decline in reserve program lands as neighboring states, in part because it didn’t start with as many acres. But some hunters and wildlife advocates say the loss of millions of acres of land in the West affects more than each individual state.

The Conservation Reserve Program started in 1985 as a way to eliminate soil erosion and stabilize commodity prices, said Gregor Goertz, the state executive director of the Wyoming Farm Service Agency.

Crop prices had plummeted with too much supply. The government paid farmers to take land out of production. The program reduced the amount of wheat, corn and other crops on the market, bringing prices back up again, Goertz said.

It also had the benefit of giving millions of acres back to wildlife.

Program leases ran for either 10 or 15 years and farmers were given money to help replant native grasses and other types of permanent cover, Goertz said.

A range of animals from song birds to white-tailed deer started using the new habitat. Ducks Unlimited estimates about two million ducks hatch each year on Conservation Reserve Program lands, said Rick Warhurst, manager of conservation programs for Ducks Unlimited in North and South Dakota.

Critical duck habitat, including ponds and wetlands, have been restored. If that land returns to farming, the ponds and wetlands may be drained and lost once again, Warhurst said.

In September 2011, more than 31 million acres were enrolled in the program nationally.

But crop prices started rising again and at the same time, the government started to decrease the number of acres available for the program. Nationally, 1.6 million acres left the program from 2011 to 2012, Goertz said.

States like North and South Dakota and Montana were among those hit the hardest, but Wyoming also felt a decrease. The Cowboy State lost 11,000 acres in 2012, mostly in Laramie County.

Tim Anderson, a farmer in Laramie County, enrolled some of his land in the program about 20 years ago and let his leases expire in the mid-90s.

“I put pencil to it and decided dry farming was better than CRP,” he said.

He didn’t worry about a loss of bird habitat, because Wyoming, and especially southeast Wyoming, has plenty. The drought has hurt birds and other animals worse than any loss of reserve program lands, he said.

But he has also watched as other farmers in the state wanted their leases renewed and were denied because their land no longer qualified under the increasingly strict requirements.

Changes from reserve program lands back to farmland are already noticeable, especially in North and South Dakota, said Larry Roberts, migratory game bird biologist for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.

Some of the better areas he’s visited for upland game hunting are already gone.

The result of losing conservation reserve lands is a ripple effect. Ultimately, it will be felt as a region, not just in individual states.

Ducks that nest in Montana’s wetlands are the ones hunters and wildlife watchers see move through Wyoming. If those wetlands are drained and grasslands plowed, ducks won’t be able to nest, which could mean fewer for hunters, Roberts said.

The Conservation Reserve Program is part of the five-year national farm bill. If a new bill isn’t passed, lands with current leases will continue but no new lands will be added in 2013, Goertz said.

Gibbs, the hunter from Lingle, does worry about the future of the West’s duck and upland bird populations if the program lands keep decreasing.

“It’s just a matter of time and we won’t know until it happens,” he said. “And the effects only multiply with the drought.”

Reach Open Spaces reporter Christine Peterson at 307-746-3121 or christine.peterson@trib.com. Follow her on Twitter @PetersonOutside.

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