By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

The amount of Kansas land enrolled in the popular federal Conservation Reserve Program continues to slip, but conservation groups are sitting on pins and needles awaiting a decision on how best to cut the massive federal budget.

An idea floated just last week would call for massive cuts in the amount of land that could be enrolled in CRP.

"The big question is if CRP gets cut from 29 million (acres), the talk is 20 million or less," said Matt Smith, the farm bill coordinator for the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism. "There was an idea floated just last week to do that very thing."

That's where the so-called super committee comes in, that gang of 12 charged with finding $1.5 trillion in federal spending to cut.

But if Congress doesn't buy off on the super committee's recommendation -- due by late November -- mandatory across-the-board cuts must take place.

And that's good news, at least for CRP, Smith said.

"CRP is exempt from that," he said. "That may be the best thing."

Conservation groups have been showing support for CRP and other conservation programs, Smith said.

Most agricultural groups, he said, haven't been actively pushing for retaining current levels of conservation programs.

"They've got other priorities," he said, citing crop insurance as perhaps the single-most important program that other farm groups are hoping will remain virtually untouched. Some ag groups also have urged Congress to leave direct payments untouched.

"We're going to know a lot more in the next 90 days," Smith said of if and how much conservation programs might be cut.

If the amount that can be enrolled in the program is cut dramatically, land simply would be allowed to come out of the program as it expires. Likely, there wouldn't be any enrollment efforts for several years.

Kansas and other states might see just how important CRP has been for wildlife, including the all-but-endangered lesser prairie chicken.

What that tipping point might be, Smith said, is uncertain.

In the last enrollment, the 41st, Kansas saw about 200,000 acres go out of the program, according to county-by-county numbers just released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Kansas now has about 2.5 million acres in CRP.

Northwest Kansas accounts for 638,344 acres of that, a loss of about 23,000 acres.

It could have been worse, however, as more than 83,000 acres of existing CRP left the program, while more than 16,000 new acres were enrolled.

There wasn't much interest in the USDA's push to create an environment benefiting pollinators, such as honeybees. Only 671 acres statewide were enrolled in that part of the program. Ellis, Russell and Smith counties each saw slightly more than 30 acres enrolled in the pollinator effort.

Another 10,000 acres were enrolled in the rare-and-declining habitat section, aimed specifically at the likes of the lesser prairie chicken. Statewide, 64,402 acres were enrolled.

With only a few exceptions, most northwest Kansas counties slipped slightly in the amount of land enrolled.

How much of that is leaving the program and being broken out is uncertain, but Smith said he has heard anecdotal evidence of landowners simply exiting the program while keeping the land in grass for either haying or grazing.