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New Program Pays Central Valley Farmers to Grow Wildlife Habitat

Critical habitat for wildlife has been reduced by drought, development and other pressures. Ann Hayden of the Environmental Defense Fund talks about incentives for landowners to help fill the void.

Written by Tara Lohan Published on Read time Approx. 7 minutes
Staff
Environmental Defense Fund staff and other conservation collaborators visit Elliott Ranch to track restoration outcomes for Swainson's hawk habitat using the habitat quantification tool. Restoration is only the first step for Elliott Ranch. They have also agreed to maintain the habitat features for at least 15 years and implement a wildlife-friendly farm management plan.Mathew Grimm

California’s drought is taking its toll on wildlife. Years of sub-par precipitation have cut the amount of water available for wildlife refuges that supply critical habitat and food for waterfowl and other migratory birds. Reduced river flows are pushing endangered fish species to the brink. Riparian forests have also been impacted by the drought, as well as by groundwater over-pumping.

As well as the drought, increased development, population growth, pollution and other pressures have almost eliminated most of the vital riparian and wetland habitat that a number of endangered species need to survive.

To combat this, the Environmental Defense Fund, along with a partner organization, has launched the Central Valley Habitat Exchange, a voluntary program that gives landowners – farmers and ranchers – incentives to create wildlife habitats on their land.

To understand how a market-based system for habitat protection works and who benefits, Water Deeply spoke to Ann Hayden, the senior director of the California Habitat Exchange and Western Water program at the Environmental Defense Fund.

Water Deeply: Can you explain what the Habitat Exchange is and why you chose to focus efforts in the Central Valley?

Ann Hayden: The Habitat Exchange program we are developing throughout the country is aimed at creating incentives for farmers and ranchers to create habitat benefits on their land while maintaining agricultural productivity. In a sense, they would be getting paid to grow habitat in the same way they grow crops – it’s an additional commodity they would get paid for.

We started looking at the Central Valley out of the recognition that over 90 percent of habitat for wetlands and floodplains and riparian habitat-types have been decimated.

Since so much of our state is in farmland, it seems like a natural fit that farmers and ranchers should be brought into the fold to help meet conservation goals, and not just rely on land acquisition or looking to conservation banks. Those are valid tools that exist, but we think bringing farmers and ranchers to the table will bring in so much more habitat, while allowing agricultural productivity to be maintained.

Water Deeply: What kind of species are you focusing on in trying to create a habitat?

Hayden: It helps to have a driver like the Endangered Species Act because when listed species are impacted it will have to be mitigated, so there will be a need to offset that habitat somehow. We’ve focused largely on a handful of listed species at the state or federal level – Swainson’s hawk, the giant garter snake, Chinook salmon, Monarch butterflies and riparian songbirds, within which there are a couple of listed species.

Emma Cox carries a bucket of young salmon to be released in a holding pen in a flooded rice field near Woodland, Calif. Researchers from U.C. Davis, the California Department of Water Resources and a nonprofit group released thousands of salmon into a 20-acre rice field in an effort to understand whether such fields, flooded between harvests, can stand in for the wetlands that once filled in the area and served as a massive nursery for juvenile salmon. (Rich Pedroncelli, AP)

Emma Cox carries a bucket of young salmon to be released in a holding pen in a flooded rice field near Woodland, Calif. Researchers from U.C. Davis, the California Department of Water Resources and a nonprofit group released thousands of salmon into a 20-acre rice field in an effort to understand whether such fields, flooded between harvests, can stand in for the wetlands that once filled in the area and served as a massive nursery for juvenile salmon. (Rich Pedroncelli, AP)

Water Deeply: At what stage of development is the project?

Hayden: We’ve been in development since 2012. We got a USDA [U.S. Department of Agriculture] conservation innovation grant, which is a three-year grant that helped develop the infrastructure for the program, and flesh out habitat quantification tools – the mechanism to measure the quality of a parcel of land for a particular species.

We’ve developed a better understanding of what sort of legal and financial assurances need to be in place in order to get the regulatory agencies to have confidence in this approach being a viable tool in the toolkit for conservation.

We are well under way. We’re at the point where we are developing credit-ready projects. We have a number of parcels in the Central Valley. Davis Ranch is one of them, where we are working with willing landowners and going out to their property, testing and using the tool on these properties to do a site assessment to understand the baseline of habitat quality on the land. From that can really understand what sort of changes in management practices or additional restoration should happen in to increase that score, the habitat function of that site.

Now we are at the point of trying to match it with demand.

Water Deeply: Are there other landowners who have committed?

Hayden: One development is a property in Yolo County called Elliott Ranch and we just received funding through the [Sacramento-San Joaquin] Delta Conservancy, as part of their Proposition 1 funding, to implement some restoration on Elliott Ranch. We’ll be doing some crop shifting to pasture that provides better foraging habitat for Swainson’s hawk and then we’ll also be planting some hedgerows to increase the foraging habitat.

That is our first transaction through the Habitat Exchange. For the first time we are going to have a clear indication of how our public dollars for restoration are being spent. That’s been a challenge with bond funding, for example, where we’ve had huge amounts of money being invested in restoration efforts with not a very clear idea of the outcomes that have been achieved. We are trying to change that paradigm through the Habitat Exchange.

We also have preliminary agreements from a handful of other landowners in the Central Valley to work with us.

Water Deeply: Besides using Proposition 1 money, how else would the project be funded?

Hayden: Any entity that is interested in either meeting a conservation goal, such as the Delta Conservancy, or meeting a mitigation mandate, such as a water agency that is doing some levee setback projects or a developer that is implementing a project – those projects that would impact habitat for certain species – would be a buyer of habitat credits through the habitat exchange.

Water Deeply: What has the response been from the agricultural community?

Hayden: The feedback we’ve received is that there is a lot of interest to participate in an effort like the Habitat Exchange, but so far the barriers of entry into the conservation mitigation market have been so high that it has been difficult to know how they even get there – it’s complicated or costly. So we are trying to lower the barriers of entry for folks in the agricultural community to be part of the market.

Water Deeply: What is the process for someone who does want to participate and are there upfront costs?

Hayden: We would work directly with them to do a site assessment with the use of the habitat quantification tool to understand the existing habitat quality, habitat function on the land. And then we talk with them about what sort of management practices they are currently implementing and where they might be open to shifting those somewhat to increase the habitat quality for species. We’d work with them on developing a management plan. There has to be a willingness to put a conservation easement on their land but that would be paid for by the buyer of credits.

Water Deeply: How do you measure the success of the projects?

Hayden: That’s the crux of the Habitat Exchange and where we see this approach being somewhat different from other approaches that exist today. It’s really through the use of the habitat quantification tool that’s a method for tracking and monitoring how the landscape is responding over time.

The idea is to use the tool initially to understand the baseline conditions and then have some sort of agreement to go back after a time to the property and run the habitat quantification tool again to see how the habitat is responding. This is not a tool that involves counting populations of species – it’s really looking at the habitat quality on the landscape. That will tell us how well it can support species.

Water Deeply: One of the species you mentioned is Chinook salmon. Can you explain why fish can benefit from agricultural lands?

Hayden: There is really innovative work going on at Knaggs Ranch, near the Yolo Bypass. Rice farms get a bad rap often for the amount of water used to produce rice in California, but rice farming can produce benefits for waterfowl species; and there are ways you can extend the flooding of rice lands during some critical periods of the year to simulate juvenile salmon-rearing habitat.

There have been some experiments done through the work of Trout Unlimited and U.C. Davis where they have determined that juvenile salmon reared in these rice fields during these critical months end up as “big fatties” – they come out stronger and much bigger than juvenile salmon coming down the Sacramento River which don’t have access to the food or protection from predators [as on the flooded rice fields]. Rice farms can simulate what the floodplain used to do before we changed the plumbing so much in the state and redirected water from these floodplains during these critical times.

Water Deeply: What’s most exciting about the impact this project can have?

Hayden: We’re really excited about the Habitat Exchange driving better conservation outcomes on the ground by working side-by-side with farmers who are original stewards. We think they have a critical role to play and we are going to have a much better chance of maintaining, and hopefully restoring, habitat that’s needed by working closely with working landowners.

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