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SAN LUIS NWRC: The Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program - Versatile Conservation Tool for the San Luis NWR Complex
California-Nevada Offices , October 25, 2016
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High school students from Los Banos, California working under the SLEWS Program on a Partners for Fish and Wildlife project planted four miles of native vegetation along a remnant slough channel of the San Joaquin River on Bowles Farm--private agricultural land in Merced County--to restore the land and habitat for wildlife.
High school students from Los Banos, California working under the SLEWS Program on a Partners for Fish and Wildlife project planted four miles of native vegetation along a remnant slough channel of the San Joaquin River on Bowles Farm--private agricultural land in Merced County--to restore the land and habitat for wildlife. - Photo Credit: USFWS
The Partners/SLEWS project site on Bowles Farm in December 2014 immediately following planting by high school students from Los Banos, California.
The Partners/SLEWS project site on Bowles Farm in December 2014 immediately following planting by high school students from Los Banos, California. - Photo Credit: USFWS
From nearly the same photo point as the previous photo, this is the Partners/SLEWS project site on Bowles Farm almost two years later.  The plant in the foreground with the cotton-like seed heads is milkweed – a plant species critical to the life cycle of Monarch butterflies.
From nearly the same photo point as the previous photo, this is the Partners/SLEWS project site on Bowles Farm almost two years later. The plant in the foreground with the cotton-like seed heads is milkweed – a plant species critical to the life cycle of Monarch butterflies. - Photo Credit: USFWS
Wildlife-friendly fencing installed at the River Ridge Ranch in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada through a Partners for Fish and Wildlife project to prevent cattle from damaging creekside vegetation.
Wildlife-friendly fencing installed at the River Ridge Ranch in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada through a Partners for Fish and Wildlife project to prevent cattle from damaging creekside vegetation. - Photo Credit: USFWS

By Madeline Yancey

 

The San Luis National Wildlife Refuge Complex protects and manages wildlife habitat on nearly 45,000 acres of public land in Merced and Stanislaus Counties in California. Include the 90,000 acres of private lands under U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service conservation easements in the Grasslands Wildlife Management Area and the amount of wildlife habitat swells to nearly 135,000 acres.

Hundreds of millions more acres of habitat are managed by the Service, other federal agencies, state fish and wildlife agencies and non-governmental conservation groups across the country. However, more than 73 percent of land in the U.S. is privately owned and more than 60 percent of fish and wildlife occur on those privately-owned lands. Publically-held lands managed by federal, state, and non-governmental agencies cannot completely provide for the needs of this nation’s fish and wildlife. However, the Service has a tool in its workshop that helps promote private-lands stewardship and efficiently achieve voluntary habitat restoration and management on those lands – the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program.

The USFWS Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program provides financial and technical assistance to private landowners. In so doing, the Service is able to meet the habitat needs of its federal trust species, which include migratory birds, threatened and endangered species, inter-jurisdictional fish species, marine mammals and species of international concern. The San Luis NWR Complex has a thriving partners program that has been in place since the national program began in 1987.

At any given time, a dozen or more Partners projects are underway at the San Luis NWR Complex. Private lands biologist, Reyn Akiona, said he thinks a major strength of the Partners Program is its accessibility for the private landowner who wants to develop and implement habitat restoration on their land.

“Refuge staff members are a phone call away,” he says. 

Service biologists work one-on-one with landowners to design, develop, implement, and manage habitat restoration/enhancement projects of all types. Refuge staff can also help landowners find other sources of funding for projects and help them navigate through permitting processes.

Partners projects vary greatly in type and character. One of the refuge's current projects is occurring on land managed by two adjacent private waterfowl hunt clubs. It is a habitat enhancement project intended to modify seasonal wetlands to function as permanent ones (wetlands flooded year-round).

The project involves earth moving and infrastructure changes that will make it easier to manage the wetlands for permanent water. It also includes developing the two properties’ water resources consisting of a well on one property and a lift pump on the other. When completed, this habitat enhancement will benefit several species. It will provide permanent water with increased accessibility to edge habitat between uplands and water – habitat needed by the federally and state threatened giant garter snake.

The permanent water will lead to increased dense emergent vegetation that will provide nesting habitat for the tri-colored blackbird, a songbird species currently under consideration for possible federal listing as endangered. The combination of permanent water and increased emergent vegetation will also provide perfect brood habitat for the area’s summer resident mallard duck population. Akiona says that pro-active hunt club owners and managers are beginning to realize that, while increased populations of waterfowl are important, functioning wetland ecosystems are also important for many other species, including people.

Another ongoing project is the enhancement and restoration of riparian woodland habitat occurring on Bowles Farm, local agricultural land along four miles of a remnant slough channel of the San Joaquin River. The landowner grows primarily annual crops, but is motivated to find areas on his land and methods that can positively impact wildlife while maintaining a productive agricultural operation.

Decades ago, a little more than one mile of the slough channel was denuded of vegetation and straightened to create a bypass intended to channel floodwaters away from low-lying land closer to the river that was inundated every year. The bypass never functioned as intended and the rest of the channel remained a degraded to relatively-intact riparian woodland. The farmer, a steward of the land, decided to restore the slough to a fully-functional riparian corridor. The project has involved weed eradication, earth moving, installation of irrigation infrastructure, and planting – thousands of plants – native trees, shrubs, vines, and forbs. When completed and mature, the site will provide more than four miles of habitat for pollinators, migratory songbirds, and raptors.

A unique characteristic of this project is that it is entering its third year of the involvement of a particular partner, the Center for Land-Based Learning’s Students and Landowners Environmental and Watershed Stewardship program -- or SLEWS.

SLEWS brings together farmers and high school students to accomplish habitat restoration projects on agricultural land. The landowner and other partners provide the land, funds, and materials while the students perform the fieldwork. In this project so far, students have weeded, planted, and performed monitoring activities on the project site. Environmental education – and fun – are major components of SLEWS, thus providing a well-rounded real-life habitat restoration and learning experience.

A third project is in progress on River Ridge Ranch in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. This one involves about one mile of creek bed and about 100 acres of land adjacent to the creek, as well as several smaller associated seasonal creeks. The site is suffering erosion from cattle grazing on this ranch. Cattle tromping through and along the creek have resulted in decreased water quality from soil erosion and little to no riparian plant growth along the banks. This has degraded habitat for the creek’s aquatic species and precluded birds that would use an intact riparian plant community. When complete, the project will include fencing installed to keep cattle away from the creek and vegetation planting will take place along the creek banks. The resulting erosion control and intact plant structure will increase the amount of time water remains in the creek in the spring, thus increasing habitat structure and diversity for species like red-legged frogs and migratory birds.

The partners program operates on a local level making possible a degree of personal attention and follow-through that goes far to develop trust and collaborative relationships between public agencies and private landowners. These relationships result in providing improved habitat quality and quantity in areas otherwise out of reach of government and other conservation programs. Without these mechanisms, Akiona says, the restoration of habitats on these private lands might never occur, because the conversations that lead to restoration would not take place.

Just these three projects have involved 10 individual partners including the three landowners. Nation-wide, partners programs have engaged more than 45,000 landowners and 3,000 conservation partners. More than 1 million acres of wetlands, 3 million acres of uplands, and 11,000 miles of streams have been successfully restored. The Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program is the Services’ “premier tool” for conservation delivery on privately-owned land, providing leadership and promoting partnerships for habitat and wildlife conservation across the country.


Madeline Yancey is a visitor services specialist at San Luis National Wildlife Refuge Complex in Los Banos, California.


Contact Info: Jack Sparks, 209-826-3508, jack_sparks@fws.gov
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