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Farming for Wildlife

Skagit Valley farm

Three farmers in Washington’s Skagit River Delta in northwest Washington State are adding a new crop to their fields
shorebirds. By flooding parts of their fields with two or three inches of water for part of each year, the farmers are hoping to create new or improved habitat for shorebirds such as Western sandpipers, black-bellied plovers, dunlins, and marbled godwits, and at the same time improve the health of the fields for farming.

The farmers, David Hedlin, Alan Mesman, and Gail Thulen, are participating in an innovative research project The Nature Conservancy has launched in cooperation with Washington State University, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Skagitonians to Preserve Farmland, and Western Washington Agricultural Association.

Called “Farming for Wildlife,” the three-year project will study the relationship between three farming practices mowing, grazing, and flooding and habitat for migratory shorebirds. The intent of the experiment is to discover how habitat rotation can be compatible with crop rotations in the Skagit Valley.

The Skagit Delta Community

The Skagit Delta is a vibrant rural community—one of the last strongholds of farming in Western Washington and a bread basket both regionally and nationally. The local community is rightfully proud and protective of its family farming heritage, which reaches back for generations.

At the same time, the delta is rich in wildlife. Though altered over the years by human development, diking and draining, the delta continues to support tidal marshes and riverine habitats which host one of the largest and most diverse concentrations of wintering raptors on the continent.

And in recent winters, biologists surveying the delta have counted more than 150,000 dabbling ducks and more than 65,000 shorebirds, underscoring its status as a critical stop along the Pacific Flyway.

For the Birds

Scientists have documented the decline of 14 species of migrating shorebirds that rely on near-shore and estuary habitats, said Kevin Morse, the Conservancy’s Skagit Delta project manager. The Skagit Delta “is one of the last best places for shorebirds. But they’ve lost this type of habitat along their migratory routes,” Morse said.

The three farmers have each committed about 70 acres of land to the three-year Farming for Wildlife project. They’ll employ mowing, grazing, and flooding on different portions of their land, and then scientists will evaluate the effects of each practice on both soil and the varieties and abundance of shorebirds.

Farmers will be compensated for their time and expenses in the project, up to a total of $350,000. The project is funded by the Environmental Protection Agency, the Puget Sound Marine Fund, and private donations.


farming for wildlife in the Skagit
A Win for Farmers as well as Fliers


In addition to compensation for time and expenses, the farmers can benefit from a grant from the Pacific Coast Joint Venture Discretionary Fund. This grant will sponsor an informational trip by some of the participating farmers and other agricultural stakeholders in the Skagit Delta to Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge in the Klamath Basin region of Northern California.

Working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, farmers there have discovered that certain wetland rotations have increased their yields by 25 percent and reduced costs by some $200 an acre because they no longer needed pesticides to manage soil-borne pests.

It turns out that keeping a field in grass or sheet pond for three years, which improves soil fertility, could also enable the farmers to transition to organic status if they were looking for a way to do so, since federal organic standards require farmland to be pesticide-free for three years.

The real payoff will come if The Nature Conservancy learns which practices are successful and can be replicated in other areas of the country. As part of the study, the Conservancy will rigorously monitor use of the habitat by shorebirds at different tide heights, as well as the presence of weeds, invertebrates in the soil, and overall soil condition. If significantly higher numbers of shorebirds are feeding in the pilot fields than in neighboring farm fields, and the soil condition is measurably improved, and farmers embrace the treatments, that will spell success. The study is expected to be completed in May 2010.

“If 100 years from now,” farmer Dave Hedlin said, “there are healthy viable family farms in this valley and waterfowl and wildlife and salmon in the river, then everyone wins.”

Photos © Keith Lazelle and Kirsten Morse

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