It Is Time For A Native Plant Policy At USDA

By Don McKenzie, NBCI Director

Native Plant Vegetation Flowers Field
It Is Time For A Native Plant Policy At USDA

Washington, DC –-( It is time for the US Department of Agriculture to embrace a native vegetation standard across all its agencies and programs.

Such a move will be good for the birds, the pollinating bees, the monarchs and many other butterflies. And for soil health, water quality and clean air. And for taxpayers. And, yes, also for producers and landowners.

USDA does not keep good data on introduced versus native plantings. But reading between the lines of USDA data on just one program, NBCI estimates roughly 1.25 million acres of aggressive, introduced vegetation that provides poor habitat was subsidized on private lands across the bobwhite’s range in 2014, by the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. In contrast, NBCI’s annual habitat management inventory documented only about 750,000 acres of private lands bobwhite habitat management fostered by state wildlife agencies that same year

(See NBCI’s Bobwhite Almanac, State of the Bobwhite 2015 ).

Across USDA, multiple programs in multiple agencies are working at cross-purposes with themselves: supporting native grassland restoration while subsidizing the spread of aggressive introduced plantings for agricultural and conservation purposes that replace and degrade native habitats.

Bottom line: bobwhites and many other at-risk grassland species still are losing ground every year.

The waterfowl conservation community figured out decades ago the fundamental dilemma of such an imbalance. A potent concept, known as “No Net Loss/Net Gain,” highlighted the need for a two-fold approach to restore ebbing waterfowl populations. Minimizing wetland losses was necessary before wetland restorations could catch up and begin rebuilding the continent’s total wetland habitat acreage.

The duck guys acted and fixed their problem by supporting legislative and regulatory policy reforms for wetland conservation.

The quail/songbird/monarch/pollinator guys should take heed. The nation’s native grassland habitats and wildlife populations cannot be stabilized or restored until the federally subsidized losses and degradation are minimized. Quail conservationists have been talking about this problem for many years, with no traction and no resolution. Meanwhile, the major federal public land management agencies already have adopted native vegetation policies – US Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service. Even the USDA Forest Service has a native vegetation policy. But not USDA’s agriculture agencies.

Natives First is NBCI’s national leadership effort to reform USDA’s decades-long tradition of relying primarily on aggressive plants introduced from other continents for conservation and production programs. Natives First would establish a new standard at USDA, so that native plants that provide high-quality wildlife habitat would become the default preference for all publicly funded financial and technical assistance programs. Note that our concept is not called “Natives Only.” We know some introduced plants that are not aggressive can provide suitable habitat for some wildlife. We also recognize some specific, narrowly-defined situations may require reliance on introduced plants that provide poor habitat. But those examples are, and should be treated as, just the exceptions.

NBCI is circulating a letter to Congress asking for a native vegetation standard at USDA to be included in the 2018 Farm Bill. That community letter has been signed by 50 partners, and more are asking to be added. NBCI also has established a Natives First Coalition, a more enduring alliance of partner groups committed to this cause for the long term. Check out NBCI’s website ( and our Natives First Facebook page for more information. We invite you, we need you, to join the Natives First Coalition.

The dire native grassland decline has been 75 years in the making; it won’t be solved overnight. But until a native vegetation standard is established at USDA, the problem won’t be solved at all. This is big ball. Adoption of Natives First by USDA could be the single most important conservation action to tilt the nation’s private land playing field in favor of restoring at-risk grassland wildlife.
National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative (NBCI)

About NBCI

Headquartered at the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture’s Department of Forestry, Wildlife and Fisheries, NBCI is an initiative of the National Bobwhite Technical Committee (NBTC) to elevate bobwhite quail recovery from an individual state-by-state proposition to a range-wide leadership endeavor. The committee is comprised of representatives of 25 state wildlife agencies, various academic research institutions and private conservation organizations. Support for NBCI is provided by the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Program, state wildlife agencies, the University of Tennessee and Park Cities Quail.

For more information, please visit

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Chuck Kowaleski

Unfortunately for Grassman and some of the others above USDA does not require native grass to be planted on CRP or any other property in most states with Kansas and a few other states being an exception to this practice. Here in Texas, 4 million acres of CRP plantings were almost entirely exotic grasses including old world bluestems, Lehman’s lovegrass and others. Those have been reenrolled in follow up signups, except for a short stretch of years where only natives received the highest points, ever since. This has been true in a variety of states around the country as well.


I do believe that in most programs the USDA administers, native plants are offered as a first choice to program participants. In most cases where non native species are used, it is for erosion control or forage for livestock.
Programs that are part of the USDA such as CRP have converted up to 40 MILLION ACRES of crop and marginal land to native grass and forb species.
The premise of this article is misleading and downright wrong.

Roy D.

They could rid Oklahoma of the red cedars and it wouldn’t hurt my feelings at all


How’s about DISBANDING the entire USDA right down to the dirt on which it is illegally founded?

NO AUTHORITY for this outfit to even exist. HOW can a nationwide bureaucracy make wise decisions in so many different places and types of land, each with its own unique characteristics? NOTHING USDA do is assigned FedGov in the COnstitution. EVRERYTHING they do thus is reserved to the States, or to the People. READ your Constitution.

James Higginbotham

right you are.
or for that matter for the existence of the FBI, ATF, CIA, BLM, EXT.

Wild Bill

H, The Feebees and CIA do not have the authority to make regulations with the force and effect of law, and I kind of think that we need the CIA. Oh, and what is ” EXT”?

Joseph Martin

The states need to be in control of their own lands and be able to make agreements with contiguous states for the good of all. Regional areas should form their own coalitions with their states to oversee their environments, which would be much better at address their needs than some damn bought and paid for hack political bureaucrat in Washington D.C. We still need public lands, but decisions for maintenance and use of those lands should be made at the state levels by residents, not fly-by-night bureaucrats who only reside within a state long enough to screw it up enough… Read more »


I did’t think you’s would my comment in,I know how you’s are.


Until GMO PESTICIDES,are dealt with in a responsible manner,we are going to keep on destroying our pollinators,& our environment.

Matt in Oklahoma

Yeah that’s what we need more .Gov oversight. Pure silliness
The USDA can’t handle the mission it has now