Growing Returns

Selected tag(s): habitat exchange

Birds, snakes and butterflies: Farming for more than crops and cash

Davis Ranch manager John Brennan pointed out a hundred year-old valley oak. Resting in the highest branches was a large nest about two feet wide, where a pair of hawks were nesting. As we dispersed about the ranch, one of the hawks greeted us by spreading its wings and soaring off into the blue sky.

A pair of Swainson’s hawk nest in a 100-year-old valley oak tree at Davis Ranch in Colusa, California. (Credit: Emily James)

The Golden State is well known for its robust and diverse agricultural output, even during times of drought. In 2014, California’s farms, ranches and nurseries turned out $54 billion worth of everything from oranges to rice, and milk to nuts.

Our farms and ranches are less renowned for the rich wildlife habitat they also provide, in some cases for threatened species like the Swainson’s hawk and giant garter snake, which have long struggled with the disappearance of their historic habitat in open grasslands and tule marshes.

The Swainson’s hawk population in California used to be close to 17,000 mating pairs. Today, that number is closer to 2,000. And the giant garter snake has faced the loss of 95 percent of its historic Central Valley wetland habitat. In both cases, landscape conversion and fragmentation, in addition to land management practices such as rodent control, have steadily worn away the suitable habitat for these species.

Fortunately, many species are adapting to these landscape changes and, with wildlife-friendly practices, are able to thrive on productive California farms and ranches. Farms like Davis Ranch. Read More »

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Why two California farms give me hope for the monarch butterfly

A monarch caterpillar eats showy milkweed at Davis Ranch in Colusa, California.

A monarch caterpillar eats showy milkweed at Davis Ranch in Colusa, California.

The western population of monarch butterflies is in steep decline, according to a recent study released by the Xerces Society, having fallen 74 percent in the past two decades, from roughly 1.2 million in 1997 to fewer than 300,000 butterflies in 2015.

Studies have documented the drop in eastern populations over the past several years, but this is the first time we’ve been able to understand the risks to the western population, which resides west of the Rocky Mountains.

The population is struggling because of development around the forested groves where they spend winters along the California coast and in Mexico, and because of pesticide applications that kill vital milkweed habitat. These threats and the population decline are significant, having the potential to influence a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decision in coming years if the situation fails to turn around soon.

I’ve feared for many years that the monarch might reach the point that it will require protections under the Endangered Species Act – a last resort that signals a dire state for the iconic and beloved species. But a recent trip to California gave me great hope that it’s not too late to change the monarch’s trajectory.  Read More »

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How can we better target public funds for wildlife conservation? Look to Elliott Ranch

The Swainson's hawk was listed as a threatened species in California in 1983 due to loss of habitat and decreased numbers across the state.

The Swainson’s hawk was listed as a threatened species in California in 1983 due to loss of habitat and decreased numbers across the state.

This week, the Delta Conservancy, a California state agency, awarded Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) a grant of $380,000 to implement a habitat enhancement project for the state-listed Swainson’s hawk on Elliott Ranch in West Sacramento, near the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. The grant is part of California’s public water bond funding being managed by the Delta Conservancy to restore wildlife habitat in the Central Valley.

The Elliott Ranch project will enhance Swainson’s hawk habitat on 300 acres. Specifically, the project will expand the hawks’ hunting grounds by restoring habitat for their prey and converting existing crops to bird-friendly pasture.

Central to the project will be the use of a habitat quantification tool (HQT) designed by EDF and local stakeholders to evaluate the current quality of habitat for Swainson’s hawk and compare restoration alternatives to optimize habitat outcomes. This will be the first time the HQT will be used as a mechanism to help allocate public funding to the most high value habitat improvements in California.

Improved accounting, improved outcomes Read More »

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What do western ranchers and a southern environmentalist have in common?

Sagebrush in Carson Valley, Nevada. Photo credit: Flickr user loren chipman.

Sagebrush in Carson Valley, Nevada. Photo credit: Flickr user loren chipman.

I trace my love of the outdoors to two memories: the first, sitting with my grandmother watching the goldfinches, chickadees and wrens that visited her feeder, and the second, camping in Pisgah National Forest with my parents and sister.

Days spent with my grandmother in our small South Carolina town left an indelible mark on my life. She taught me a conservation ethic that led me to Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). Camping taught me a love of the land and a respect for those that manage it.

As director of habitat markets, I’m focused on building conservation solutions for wildlife like the greater sage-grouse, a bird that lives more than 2,000 miles from my home in a landscape unlike any of the forests or farms I grew up exploring.

The sage-grouse is an indicator species of a vast declining ecosystem spanning more than 150 million acres across 11 states. The grouse relies on the cover of sagebrush – one of the most iconic symbols of the western landscape.

Because EDF puts a premium on policy, science and collaboration with diverse stakeholders, we’ve been working with landowners, industry, and state and federal agencies to create a habitat exchange program to better ensure the bird’s survival. Common values make this collaboration possible. Read More »

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Monarchs still need milkweed, and farmers are growing it

Rain builds over a field near Lubbock, Texas. Photo credit: Flickr user Craig O'Neal

Rain builds over a field near Lubbock, Texas. Photo credit: Flickr user Craig O’Neal

I am watching the rain pour down outside my window as I write this blog. El Niño is once again giving central and north Texas a good drenching, which has brought with it some severe and deadly flood conditions. But the rains are a welcome sight to Texas farmers and ranchers who have become all too used to drought and wildfire conditions. And they aren’t the only ones benefitting from the heavy rains.

All this wet weather has resulted in a spectacular display of spring wildflowers, including vast expanses of milkweed and nectar plants that the iconic North American monarch butterflies need to survive and thrive.

Recent headlines suggest that milkweed loss is just one of several threats to monarch populations, with drought, habitat fragmentation and reduced availability of nectar plants also influencing the species’ decline. In reality, all of these threats are interconnected in a recipe that could spell disaster for the monarch. Read More »

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First-ever habitat exchange opens for business

Nevada rancher works to conserve sage-grouse

Nearly two dozen Nevada landowners have already submitted letters of interest to generate conservation credits for sage-grouse through the exchange. Read more >>

For the first time ever, ranchers are able to enroll in a habitat credit exchange program to earn revenue for activities that protect and enhance habitat for the greater sage-grouse.

The state of Nevada and federal agencies today announced the approved use of the Nevada Conservation Credit System to protect the grouse’s sagebrush habitat on public lands.

This program will create a robust mitigation market that will bring greater certainty and transparency to the state’s agriculture and energy industries, ultimately allowing both sage-grouse and the economy to flourish.

About the Nevada Conservation Credit System

The Nevada Conservation Credit System is an advanced approach to protecting habitat for the greater sage-grouse that ensures impacts are fully offset in a way that helps create net benefit. It does so by creating new incentives for industries to avoid and minimize impacts, and for private landowners and public land managers to preserve, enhance, and restore habitat. Read More »

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With help from farmers, the monarch butterfly will not go extinct

Monarch butterfly lands on a flower. The monarch butterfly could face extinction if conservation efforts cannot reverse habitat loss.

The monarch butterfly could face extinction if conservation efforts cannot reverse habitat loss. Credit: Prepare for Docking via photopin (license)

A report released yesterday in the journal Scientific Reports found “substantial probability” that the eastern population of monarch butterfly could be wiped out in a “quasi-extinction” event in the next two decades.

The study attributed the increased likelihood of an extinction event to extreme weather, which has historically posed a threat to monarch populations. But the study also noted that the most recent declines have been primarily caused by the eradication of milkweed from farms in the United States.

Despite the results of this report, I am convinced that we can save the monarch.

That’s because all of the pieces will soon be in place to reverse habitat loss and make recovery a reality. Read More »

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Butterfly numbers may be up, but they still need our help

Earlier this week, The Washington Post reported that the monarch butterfly, along with the manatee, is on a “big rebound.” It’s true that the iconic North American butterfly is in better shape today than this time last year. But it’s too soon to celebrate.

A sensitive species

populationThe population of monarch butterflies has historically had drastic dips and spikes. That’s because the monarch is a sensitive species greatly impacted by extreme weather events.

In January 2002, the species experienced unprecedented and catastrophic mortality due to a rare freeze at its overwintering site in Mexico, killing an estimated 500 million butterflies. That’s more than two times the size of today’s population, even with this year’s boost.

Fortunately, the monarch is as resilient as it is delicate. This year’s bump in number proves that. It also shows that recovery is possible, that conservation efforts can make a difference. Read More »

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How California farmers can help salmon survive, and what’s in it for them

California's Chinook salmon are large fish that can grow up to 58 inches in length and weigh up to 129 pounds. But most salmon do not grow this large, especially in drought conditions where they lack sufficient habitat. (Credit: seafoodwatch.org)

California’s Chinook salmon are large fish that can grow up to 58 inches in length and weigh up to 129 pounds. But most salmon do not grow this large, especially in drought conditions, lacking sufficient habitat. (Credit: seafoodwatch.org)

Already an endangered species, California salmon populations have reached record lows.

Fisheries officials with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that just 3 percent of this generation of winter-run Chinook salmon survived in the Sacramento River. This is a record low survival rate – more than 10 times worse than the survival rate before the California drought.

How does drought affect salmon?

Salmon at any stage need cold water to survive, and severe drought conditions have put a chokehold on the state’s water supply, which relies on snow melt from the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Without this snow melt, there is less cold water flowing into California’s waterways, creating higher than normal water temperatures in the Sacramento River.

But it’s not just the lack of cold water that’s affecting salmon populations. They also lack sufficient habitat to grow and thrive. Even if the drought ended today, they would still be in peril without adequate habitat. Read More »

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How 2015 set the table for major agricultural and environmental success in 2016

agricultureIn 2015, U.S. agriculture proved to be a willing and powerful partner in the path to sustainability. We’ve seen farmers, ranchers and food companies make major headway in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, improving soil health, restoring habitat for at-risk wildlife and protecting freshwater supplies.

Here are some of this year’s highlights:

  • Approval of the first carbon offset protocol for crops in a cap-and-trade market (for U.S. rice growers), followed by approval of a grasslands protocol and a huge investment from USDA to develop a fertilizer protocol. These protocols reward farmers for conservation measures that reduce emissions and offer businesses new opportunities to offset the environmental impacts from their operations.
  • Launch of the innovative SUSTAIN platform throughout the United Suppliers agricultural retailer network. SUSTAIN, developed in coordination with EDF, trains ag retailers in best practices for sustainable farming and aims to enroll 10 million acres in the program by 2020. So far, over 300 sales representatives in Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, and Ohio have attended training. And food companies interested in making SUSTAIN a feature of their sustainable sourcing work include Campbell’s, Unilever, Kellogg’s, General Mills, and Smithfield.
  • A “not warranted” listing decision for sage-grouse under the Endangered Species Act, due in large part to ranchers’ commitments to develop and implement conservation solutions for the bird. Habitat exchanges – a solution developed by EDF and partners in agriculture and industry – are now available in Colorado, Nevada and Wyoming for landowners to earn new revenue for protecting and enhancing greater sage-grouse habitat.
  • Release of Colorado’s first-ever water plan to ensure the health and vitality of the state’s streams, rivers, communities and wildlife – without harming farmers. The plan addresses development of financial mechanisms to incentivize participation in alternative water transfer mechanisms and subsidize agricultural water system optimization. This innovative water planning can now be a model for other water-stressed communities.

So what lies ahead for 2016? We asked our experts to share their thoughts and wishes for the New Year. Read More »

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