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Birds are back, thanks to farmers' recovery efforts
Issue Date: July 12, 2006 by Kathy Coatney, California Farm Bureau Federation Ag Alert
A wetlands rotation program at the Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge enhances wildlife habitat as well as farm production.
Migratory waterfowl that make an annual stopover at the Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge in California's far north are once again increasing in number after several decades of decline, and the area's farmers and ranchers are largely responsible for that recovery.
Established in 1928, the Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge was once considered the single most important waterfowl refuge in North America, providing a home to more than 2.5 million ducks and 1 million geese.
Over the ensuing decades, the number of waterfowl birds at the Northern California sanctuary dropped to a mere fraction of what migrated through the area in the 1920s. But those numbers are increasing again thanks to the cooperative efforts of local farmers and ranchers, the Tulelake Irrigation District, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
Beginning in the late 1990s, the groups involved began an experimental wetlands rotation on commercial farmlands within the Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge. With initial results showing enhanced soil fertility and reduced pest populations, the program evolved into the Walking Wetlands Program.
The program was so named because the wetlands rotate from field to field on a set schedule. Each field stays in wetlands for three years, then the water is drained and it is planted with an agriculture crop.
One of the program's most enthusiastic participants is Tulelake farmer Marshall Staunton, who with his brothers, Sid and Ed, produces a variety of crops at Staunton Farms.
Staunton recalls that he planted barley in his first field out of the Walking Wetlands Program and noted that the crop had a very high yield. He also reported improved fertility and a zero nematode population in the field.
Walking Wetlands Program participant Marshall Staunton shows land that is currently being flooded for wetlands at the Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge. This land will eventually be planted with an agricultural crop.
"The next year we planted potatoes and had the University of California run a sample out in our field, and the yield was very high. And we did not have to go to the expense of fumigants, so we became highly interested at that stage, and it's worked," Staunton said.
As growers like Staunton examine the inherent advantages of the wetlands program, the environment continues to benefit as well. Every year in late April, close to a half-million Arctic Nesting Geese pass through the refuge basin, according to Ron Cole, Klamath Basin Wildlife Refuge manager.
This is the most critical time of year in the birds' life cycle, Cole said, because they must build up fat reserves for nesting. The agricultural land provides 100 percent of their diet during this period. In addition to the Arctic Nesting Geese, there are up to 250 other bird species in the basin.
"We wouldn't see those numbers (of birds) in the basin if it weren't for agriculture," Cole said. "I don't think farmers and ranchers have received their due recognition on the conservation practices that they are providing for these birds," he said. "That contribution needs to be recognized, and if society feels that those kinds of birds in those big numbers are important, then they better recognize who is responsible for that."
Meanwhile, the successes associated with the Walking Wetlands Program have created a friendly competition among growers.
"There's been almost a bidding war" to enroll in the program, Staunton said.
Several farmers, including Staunton, have expressed an interest in incorporating wetlands onto their private lands if an economically workable program can be created.
Dave Mauser, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said that the main problem with initiating a wetlands program on private lands is that when the growers' land is in wetlands status, it is not providing any income. Incentives help encourage growers to participate, he said.
The migratory waterfowl population at Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge has increased dramatically, thanks in large part to area farmers and ranchers.
"One thing that we're doing is that we have a certain amount of farming on the refuges here, and so if a guy puts say 100 acres or 200 acres into walking wetlands on his own land, we compensate him with similar acreage with farmland on the refuge," Mauser said.
Staunton and other farmers are trying to get the rules changed so that more growers can afford to put part of their acreage into wetlands. They propose rotating the fields on a two- to three-year basis as is currently done with the Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge lands.
"Right now you can be paid to create wetlands, but they have to be permanent or long term," Staunton said, adding that the ground must be set aside for 15 to 30 years, which from a financial standpoint is difficult for growers.
Extending the wetlands program to private land would also be costly. Because Tule Lake is mostly row crop and sprinkler operations and there are no levees, the levees would have to be built to hold water on designated fields, Mauser said.
A grant through the Natural Conservation Resources Service has been requested, and if funded, would assist growers in creating a pilot wetlands program on their lands. A payment strategy through the Farm Bill would be another way to compensate farmers while their lands are in wetlands status, Mauser said.
The Walking Wetlands Program has resulted in increased levels of waterfowl, including species that have not been seen at the Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge in 25 years. "The program has created a win-win situation. Farmers get cleaner, more productive land while wildlife habitat increases," Mauser said.
(Kathy Coatney is a reporter in Corning. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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