Today’s Solutions: April 14, 2024

Wildlife and the agricultural industry have long been at odds in California’s Central Valley. The rich farming region known as “the breadbasket of the world” is responsible for 20 percent of the US’ rice production, but it’s also a critical habitat space for migratory birds which have struggled as 95 percent of the Central Valley’s wetlands have been turned into farmland. Now, in a bid to find some harmony between wildlife and growers, a collection of nonprofits and farmers have formed the Migratory Bird Conservation Partnership (MBCP). 

Ecological nonprofits, Audubon California, Point Blue, and The Nature Conservancy have partnered with Central Valley farmers and government agencies to revive habitat for wildlife in areas turned into farmland. 

To help migratory birds, MBCP convened with rice farmers to discuss the specifics of their growing and harvesting seasons. With those details ironed out, MBCP laid out a plan in which rice farmers would be compensated with funding to flood their fields and create a safe habitat for migrating birds in between growing seasons. The funding is being provided by the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, the California Rice Commission, and the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

The leftover rice grains and fertile soil make for an ideal stopover point for migratory birds in search of nutrition and shelter. The program, called BirdReturns, benefits farmers too. The birds serve as natural fertilizers and dig through the ground to revitalize natural nutrients, allowing farmers to cut down on their synthetic fertilizer use. 

After BirdReturns’ successful launch in 2012, nonprofit California Trout began looking into similar programs that could also help native salmon species. Led by senior scientist Jacob Katz, a fish program was established in which salmon were spawned in flooded fields and released into nearby rivers after spending their early lives in the protected, insect-rich fields. 

There is a longstanding perception that agriculture and conservation cannot coexist, but groups like MBCP and the Food and Agriculture Climate Alliance, which we wrote about last year, are demonstrating that strategic cooperation can support, and even enhance, both farming and wildlife populations. Meghan Hertel, director of land and water conservation for Audubon California told Grist, “One of the most important outcomes of this work is that the conservation community now looks at farmers and ranchers as partners.”

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