Study examines conservation programs

Targeted voluntary conservation practices can help improve and support pollinator populations while benefiting agricultural production nationwide.

That was a message conveyed in a Conservation Outcomes webinar hosted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service during National Pollinator Week. The webinar presented results from a study conducted by Virginia Tech in collaboration with USDA’s Conservation Effects Assessment Project examining the value and effectiveness of voluntary pollinator conservation efforts throughout the U.S.

“We want to know where pollinator habitat enhancements are most beneficial,” said Dr. Elissa Olimpi, a lead researcher for the project.

The study analyzed 51 voluntary, USDA-funded NRCS conservation practices on privately owned lands, including wildflower plantings and grasslands, pasturelands, forest and wetlands.

Researchers found that the NRCS practices create or enhance seminatural habitats and contribute to the national supply of pollinators at a higher rate than if those lands were not enrolled in those practices.

“USDA-funded pollinator habitat enhancements are indeed supporting pollinator conservation and protecting pollination services,” Olimpi said.

She explained that while many current conservation practices are in landscapes where expected benefits are highest, there are opportunities for improving conservation efforts in specific regions.

The study identified certain regions in the U.S. that are vulnerable to future pollinator habitat loss from urban development or intensive cropland expansion, such as in the Great Plains and the Pacific Northwest and along the East Coast.

“If we know which seminatural habitats are most vulnerable to (loss) in the future, we can think about prioritizing (conservation) in those areas,” Olimpi said.

The study also examined and identified cases of pollinator mismatch — areas in the U.S. with a high demand for pollination but a low supply of pollinators like wild bees.

For example, “a crop like blueberries is highly dependent on pollinators,” Olimpi explained. “Pollinator mismatch can occur when you have a crop that has a high dependency on pollinators, but at the same time, pollinators are limited by a lack of high-quality habitat in the surrounding landscape.”

Over 75% of important food crops depend on pollinators, and scientists estimate that one out of every three bites of food we eat exists because of animal pollinators. But wild pollinator populations continue to face steep declines from a range of stressors like habitat and forage loss, environmental stressors and pest pathogens — threatening crop production and food security.

“It’s very important to us both from an ag perspective but also from an ecosystem perspective to support these healthy populations across our landscapes,” said Izzy Hill, USDA’s honeybee and pollinator research coordinator. “We need pollinators, but they need us too.”

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