Innovative program builds partnerships, provides wildlife habitat

Local farmers and the Service are working together to improve wildlife habitat near the Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge in California and Lower Klamath Refuge on the California/Oregon border.  Here, Dustin Taylor, a pest management specialist from the Klamath Basin Refuge Complex, and Joshua Du Bose, manager of Horsley Farms, visit a section of wetland near Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: Byrhonda Lyons/USFWS

By Byrhonda Lyons
April 6, 2017

As Rob Crawford drove around his property, something caught his eye. He suddenly stopped his pickup truck and grabbed his binoculars.

“See?” he asked. Everyone turned to the right side of the truck, straining to see what Crawford was talking about. In a just a few seconds, it became clear. A group of deer were grazing on Crawford’s soon-to-be flooded field.

“I think my father would be proud,” he said with a smile, his pride difficult to mask. “He loved wildlife and he was a conservationist.”

Located along the Pacific Flyway, the wetlands serve as resting stops for migrating birds during the spring and fall, and leftover grain serves as the birds' food. For decades, local farmers have leased land on the refuges for agricultural production. Credit: Byrhonda Lyons/USFWS

The same can be said about Rob. He is a lifelong farmer who, with the help of his neighbor, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, has implemented conservation practices that have improved everything from soil quality to wildlife habitat on his farm.

“What you’re seeing here, what we’re a part of is real,” he said. “It’s not for the ducks; it’s not for the fish. It’s for everything.”

After years of building trust and forming relationships with each other, local farmers and the Service are working together to improve wildlife habitat near the Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge in California and Lower Klamath Refuge on the California/Oregon border. Both refuges are located along the Pacific Flyway, and during spring and fall, the wetlands serve as resting stops for migrating birds and leftover grain from nearby farmers serves as the birds’ food.

A white-tailed deer peers out from the tall grass on Ron Crawford's Klamath Basin property. “What you’re seeing here, what we’re a part of is real,” says Crawford,  “It’s not for the ducks; it’s not for the fish. It’s for everything.”  Credit: Byrhonda Lyons/USFWS

Tule Lake and Lower Klamath Refuges were established to benefit migratory birds. The Service manages the refuges for water bird habitat, with full consideration for agricultural use too.

“Conserving and protecting the refuges is a collective effort,” said Greg Austin, project leader at the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex in Tulelake, Calif. “We have to have buy-in from the community to be successful, and that’s what we have.”

“Walking Wetlands allows us to work with farmers
to increase the number of wetlands in the area and
provide more wildlife habitat,” says the Service's Dustin Taylor.
Credit: Byrhonda Lyons/USFWS

For decades, local farmers have leased land on the refuges, and years of continuous production were beginning to take a toll. To address this problem, the Service and its partners decided to do something different and innovative. The Tule Lake Irrigation District, refuge employees and the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR), created a plan to flood a poorly producing farm field, turning it into a temporary wetland. They were looking to use the wetland as a conservation tool.

“We took some land that was infested with nematodes [an agricultural pest],” said Dustin Taylor, integrated pest management specialist at the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex. “People weren’t interested in farming it, so we [the Service and BOR] flooded it.”

The results were positive: improved soil health, nematode and weed reduction, and more birds on the refuge. When the land was farmed three years later, yields were much better. In addition, since the field had not been sprayed with pesticides in three years, the crop was considered organic—increasing the farmer’s bottom line.

“That rest period really improved the soil health and decreased weeds and nematodes, which help improve their crop yields,” Austin said.

That was the start of the Walking Wetlands Program.

Walking Wetlands, Cooperative Farming

The Walking Wetlands Program gives landowners incentives to flood their leased or private farm fields, using wetlands as a crop rotation. Farmers offer to convert acres on their private land to a wetland, in return for crop acreage on the refuge, which increases habitat for water birds.

Joshua Du Bose gazes across a tract nearby Lower Klamath
National Wildlife Refuge. He, like most farmers, take
a long view. “The benefit to the flood rotation is that
the soil gets a rest from the farming,” he says. Credit:
Byrhonda Lyons/USFWS

“This program has increased our conservation footprint across the landscape,” Taylor said. “Walking Wetlands allows us to work with farmers to increase the number of wetlands in the area and provide more wildlife habitat.”

And for some landowners, this kind of collaboration works.

“The benefit to the flood rotation is that the soil gets a rest from the farming,” said Joshua Du Bose, manager of Horsley Farms in Lower Lake, which is north of the Lower Klamath NWR. Horsley Farms is a fifth-generation farm. Du Bose married into the family. And according to him, the farm has been leasing land on the refuge for decades.

“We have a long relationship with the refuge,” Du Bose said. “They were doing business way before my time here.”

Horsley Farms grows conventional and organic crops. In 2010, they used a wetland rotation, through the Walking Wetlands Program, to transition to organic.

“With organic, you can’t spray weeds, and having the wetland helps control the noxious weeds better,” Du Bose said.

While the benefits are clear, according to Du Bose and Taylor, sometimes there can be challenges.

Du Bose and his border collie at the end of a work day.  Du Bose's company, Horsley Farms, has leased land on Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge for decades. Credit: Byrhonda Lyons/USFWS

“It’s difficult when drought hits,” he said. “Balancing different water needs is hard, and in the prior two to three years, I didn’t have any summer wetlands because of the lack of water.”

Meeting everyone’s water needs is also a challenge for the refuge. However, one of the biggest obstacles doesn’t involve water or crops. According to Taylor, it’s communication.

“A lot of people don’t recognize the wildlife values we’re bringing to the table here and how this benefits agriculture and wildlife,” said Taylor. “We’re trying to do a better job of communicating and by doing that, it’s only going to benefit both the birds and the farmers in the valley.”

The Service works with the agricultural community throughout the Pacific Flyway, including in the Central Valley and Klamath Basin, to provide water and food sources for migratory birds in the spring and fall.

 

Byrhonda Lyons is a public affairs specialist and social media coordinator for the Pacific Southwest Region's External Affairs Office located in Sacramento, Calif.