Private landowners within Butte Sink Wildlife Management Area in northern California are not only managing their own properties for the benefit of wildlife, a number of them also are contributing labor and equipment to help restore and enhance habitat on the federal land.


Butte Sink WMA consists of 733 acres of government–owned lands (the Butte Sink Unit) and 10,311 acres of private land protected by conservation easements.


The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service purchased the easements to protect wetlands from agricultural, commercial and residential development, says Craig Isola, conservation easement program manager for the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex. “The primary goal of the conservation easement program is to protect the Butte Sink wetlands in perpetuity.”


In the extensively farmed and developed Sacramento Valley, Butte Sink’s wetlands are crucial to hundreds of thousands of waterfowl for overwintering and migration. Some years, biologists have estimated more than 750,000 birds on the 650 acres of wetlands within the Butte Sink Unit and upwards of two million birds using the entire Butte Sink WMA.


“It’s one of the highest densities of wintering waterfowl in North America,” Isola says of the Butte Sink WMA, which is also an important stopover for neotropical migrant songbirds that use its abundant riparian forest vegetation.


Many of the private lands within the WMA are hunting clubs that have an obvious interest in enhancing habitat for waterfowl. As with many wetlands in the area, there is a constant battle to control invasive plants. Bermuda grass is particularly problematic.


Bermuda grass control requires extensive herbicide treatment followed by disking using large tractors and stubble disks—equipment too heavy to cross a bridge on the unit’s access road. As a result, Bermuda grass had taken over much of the area. Neighboring hunt club members recognized this and approached Butte Sink Unit staff to offer assistance.


Over the past six years, the West Butte Club, Butte Lodge Outing Club and other clubs have donated work time and machinery to help control Bermuda grass and other invasive species. In 2009, the unit received a Department of the Interior grant to match the hunt clubs’ donation of $13,000 of in–kind services for vegetation control. The treatments have reduced Bermuda grass, and increased desirable wetland plants such as annual smartweeds, watergrass, river bulrush and swamp timothy.


The battle against invasive species rarely ends with one effort, so the nearby clubs continue to assist. “We want to improve our hunting, but we also want to improve the whole habitat structure,” says Wally Emery, part owner of the Butte Lodge Outing Club. Private landowners and other hunting clubs also formed the Butte Sink Waterfowl Association, which addresses issues such as water rights and wetland management. The association, the Service and other partners established the Butte Sink Cooperative Management Plan to formalize how water is managed. Most water control structures have been replaced or retrofitted to enhance flow through the wetlands and improve fish migration.


The water control improvements benefit waterfowl habitat as well as threatened Chinook salmon and Central Valley steelhead that pass through the Butte Sink on their downstream and upstream migrations of Butte Creek.


Butte Sink WMA’s public–private partnership is a success because it also runs two ways.


“While the Service has worked closely with private landowners to protect, restore and enhance private and public wetlands, private landowners have invested a tremendous amount of time, sweat and money in improving habitat on their lands as well as contributing to improvements at the Butte Sink Unit,” says refuge manager Mike Peters.


Kendall Slee is a Colorado–based freelance writer.