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Migratory Bird Conservation Partnership

Farming Habitat

Dawit Zeleke

Thousands of waterbirds flock over farmland habitat. Photo: The Nature Conservancy California.
Recently I was standing on the edge of a rice field in the Sacramento Valley, just before the sun went down. The thousands of waterfowl, cranes, and shorebirds amidst flooded fields were a sight to behold. More than that, I was standing on the edge of a great example of how conservation solutions can work—not just for us but for all stakeholders involved.

With more than 90 percent of historical wetland habitat in California’s Central Valley gone, rice and other flooded agricultural crops function as essential habitat for millions of birds in the Pacific Flyway. Conservation work in this landscape—creating new habitat where food grows and millions of people live—is an enormous feat. To be successful, making working lands work for wildlife needs to be a smart investment, not a luxury.

To tackle this and other wetland bird conservation challenges, The Nature Conservancy California, Audubon California, and PRBO Conservation Science formed the Migratory Bird Conservation Partnership in 2007. We knew we would have a better chance of creating lasting solutions if we had sound science behind our strategies and worked together to engage California’s farming and wetland management communities.
Sandhill Crane. Photo by Tom Grey.

Each of the three partner groups brings particular strengths that complement the others’. PRBO has a deep reservoir of avian science and decades of monitoring research, Audubon brings its army of bird lovers and cooperative land management skills, and The Nature Conservancy brings our proven model of working in the arenas of science, policy, and place to achieve conservation success.

Working closely with some of California’s most progressive farmers, we are pioneering a new approach and are learning what it takes to make conservation work for farming—and farming for conservation. In the short period since we formed, we have established relationships with over 50 growers and are testing wildlife-friendly management practices on farms comprising over 30,000 acres in the northern Central Valley alone.

We have so many questions that need answering: Will rice always be grown in the Central Valley of California? Will there be enough water to flood fields after harvest? How do we balance our resources in terms of promoting wildlife-friendly agriculture while also restoring and protecting wetlands and helping ensure they have sufficient water? How can we ensure that the economics of new strategies will work well into the future?

The answers and solutions are complicated and expensive, and time is short. Pooling our skill sets and resources—and engaging with even broader partnerships, like the Central Valley Joint Venture and the San Joaquin River Partnership—are needed in order to find conservation solutions amenable to a diversity of stakeholders in California.
Dawit Zeleke. Photo courtesy The Nature Conservancy California.

The Migratory Bird Conservation Partnership, like most, has been challenging to build but exciting and rewarding, as well. This is a passionate group of people. To me, these folks are “the salt of the earth,” an expression I have heard farmers say on many occasions. Together we will accomplish conservation goals that each could not have done on their own.