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Landscapes That Work for Nature and Agriculture

Productive Partnerships

Melany Aten

Cattle graze near stands of blue oak on a California ranch. Photo by Melany Aten / PRBO
On a warm winter morning in the northern Sacramento Valley, Iím heading out to one of the ranches where I work as a Partner Biologist with PRBO and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). The landscape changes as I travelófrom sterile interstate, to rural community, to minimally maintained roads among old barns and pastures, and finally into open California foothills studded with majestic blue oaks. Surrounded by the intense songs of Western Meadowlarks and flashes of brilliant blue Western Scrub-jays, cattle make their way among boulders, shrubs, and trees. As Acorn Woodpeckers roll out their laughing calls, the cattle pause to study my presence.

I continue on foot to the weather monitoring station where we measure rainfall, if there is any. This has been a difficult year for all foothill residentsófurry, feathered, and bark-covered. While the natural community struggles under the stress of a drier-than-average winter, the human community struggles to hold onto its agricultural roots despite the challenges of living on an agriculture-based income. People here are sturdy, passionate, and progressive; they live off their land and continually look for opportunities to make the economics of California fit with the ecology of the woodlands.

Making conservation work on these landscapes isnít easy, and my job is to help people build working-lands relationships. How do we take steps toward recovering habitat in the foothills? How do we start the conversation about balancing wildlife needs and the economics of a cattle ranch? We listen to people, build trust with understanding, and reach out with education.

PRBOís Working Landscapes Program is partnering with NRCS to integrate the needs of wildlife into this regionís functioning agricultural landscapes. I try to show landowners how conservation plans can provide a host of positive responses in their landís productivity and for wildlife in the foothills.

At this beautiful foothill ranch today, Iím helping monitor and design a grazing management plan with wildlife values. I believe the community here understands the need for wildlife integration and, even more important, people appreciate that their land is host to a wonderful diversity of species. Landowners and ranch operators are amazed and delighted when I hand them their first species ID lists, showing dozens of birds (such as Mountain Bluebird, Lewisís Woodpecker, and Oak Titmouse), handfuls of mammals, and a variety of other wildlife now using their property. They also love seeing their successful management decisions result in an increase in productive habitat and species diversity.

This is why bridging that gap between the ecology and the economics of the land is so invaluable. People who apply their traditional practices within a wildlife management plan truly see the beauty of their land in a new light, and no one can put a price tag on that.