Conservation Versus Conservation

 

mayberry-feb3-026-mallard-flock-cropped

This great mallard habitat on Sherman Island is no more.

Our duck club, on Sherman Island in the California Delta, was some of the greatest seasonal marsh on earth. In winter, ducks, geese, shore birds, raptors, river otters, beavers, muskrats and many more critters thrived in that habitat.

It was great hunting.

After the California Department of Water Resources purchased the duck club from us, we continued to manage the property as a seasonal marsh. Then California decided that the property needed to be turned into a conservation experiment.

The primary goals were to reduce subsidence and sequester carbon. This was a prototype project. Unfortunately, the goals of the experiment conflicted with the existing use.

In order to test the hypothesis, the existing seasonal marsh would have to be replaced by permanent ponds.

DSC_0056 ducks

Our Sherman Island duck club was converted from seasonal to permanent marsh. It is no longer managed for waterfowl.

Having sold the property to the State, we were in no position to oppose the program. The rest is history. Although ducks and geese still migrate to Sherman Island, they avoid the permanent marsh in favor of the remaining shallow-flooded pasture that surrounds the property we used to own.

It’s easy to see the effects to waterfowl when you observe our property. It’s more difficult to quantify the effects this change had on the California waterfowl population, but when combined with other similar projects, it could be substantial. We’ll never know.

This was a situation where one form of conservation conflicted directly with another.

Conservation comes in many forms and we see conservation activities frequently, but underlying conflicts are usually invisible except to specialists who manage wildlife or wildlife habitat.

Ongoing are changes to wildlife preserves and refuges on public lands. Where lands are dedicated simply to wildlife, there is competition between thriving species and threatened species. Should endangered or threatened status always trump thriving or common?

Where land is purchased for and dedicated to a certain species or group of species, one would expect management of that land to be managed for that species. Is that always the case?

Take, for example, land purchased with Federal or State Duck Stamp money. Duck stamp funds are raised by our government agencies specifically to purchase habitat for migratory waterfowl. Hunters purchase these stamps with hopes that there will always be waterfowl to hunt.

California has a long list of threatened, endangered and special-concern plants and animals. What is the ultimate “trump” species? Can habitat for a threatened species displace waterfowl habitat on dedicated land?

garter snake on log

Sometimes habitat is designed by the forces of nature. Other times man redesigns land to favor one species or another.

Habitat can be converted by applying water. Timing of the water application is crucial. When water floods fields in winter and is left to dry during the spring, the habitat favors migratory birds. When farmers use water to irrigate, farming can create food for many species including waterfowl.

When land is flooded and water covers the land during spring and/or summer, it is beneficial for numerous species and sometimes waterfowl can nest there, but usually not.

When land is permanently flooded, it favors primarily fish species but there is little food to attract waterfowl, especially dabbling ducks.

We must not kid ourselves about permanent marsh. It may attract golf course Canada geese, but it is not important to migratory waterfowl.

It would be nice to think that conservation always benefits all things, but it’s not that simple.

Why a Habitat Committee to Oversee Public Hunting Areas?

IMG_3909 Sunrise from Blind 2bWetland management is a combination of science and art. A habitat committee should be run by an individual with many  years of experience in wetland development and maintenance.  A year or two of experience is nice, but marsh environments are dynamic. Weather is one of the major contributors to how a marsh grows and weather changes are dramatic and inevitable.

The more years one observes and manipulates marshland, the more they realize that there is no one-size-fits-all solution for creating and maintaining a marsh. The managers of individual public hunting areas should welcome advise and consultation with experienced marsh managers in the public and private sector. Marsh managers cannot rely on one technique applied over and over again when managing a wetland.

The habitat committee must be made up of individuals who are passionate about habitat and who are able to work with other people for the greater good. The leader of the habitat committee must be able to nurture a teamwork environment with participants in the agency and public sector.

The major marshlands of the California refuge system are located in areas critical to migratory waterfowl. Intertwined with these public wetlands are many private wetlands and related agriculture. Initially, the California wildlife refuges were created expressly to reduce the impact migratory waterfowl were having on farmers crops.

IMG_4054 December sun burning through fog

Ag lands like corn and rice provide short term food for waterfowl, but a seasonal marsh provides longer-term food as well as other habitat values.

The extent to which the initial motivation for public hunting areas has evolved can be argued. However the existence of private waterfowl hunting areas is a given and how the public areas are managed, especially regarding water and irrigation, has a major impact and direct impact on nearby private lands. This is another reason for a habitat committee with members with varied backgrounds.

One thing that is very clear to me, is that management of public hunting areas is a job that requires an understanding of hunters and the hunting culture. The passion of the hunter cannot be emulated or described by somebody who does not hunt.

The habitat committee should make sure that managers of public hunting areas understand that, for the most part, habitat on public hunting areas is there because of hunters and as a result, hunters want opportunity.

It’s always nice to be able to take photos of sunrises and decoys or observe seagulls, snipe, sandpipers, avocet and stilts, but a marsh without ducks and geese has no use for hunting.

We need a habitat committee in California. Tell the California Fish and Game Commission today. Sign the petition.

Here’s the link: http://chn.ge/2BfeLpd

 

 

 

California’s Public Waterfowl Hunting Areas

California is blessed with numerous public hunting areas. Many of those are waterfowl refuges where acquisition and management of the land has been and continues to be funded primarily with money garnered from sales of federal duck stamps or taxes on firearms and ammunition. This means primarily duck hunters.

In California you can break down the refuge system into four distinct areas. Northeastern California, the Northern (Sacramento River) portion of the Central Valley, the Southern (San Joaquin) portion of the Central Valley and the Imperial Valley of southeastern California.

State Wildlife Areas are managed  by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) and National Wildlife Refuges are managed by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). With a couple exceptions, the hunting program on all public hunting areas is managed by the State.

Currently there is a petition being circulated by Jeff Kerry, a very dedicated hunter and developer of duck habitat and also good friend of water-fowlers. He is seeking support for a plan to create more oversight by public hunting interests on the lands managed by CDFW and USFWS. A petition for a show of support is being circulated. I have personally signed on.

A few years ago, the California Waterfowl Association supported legislation requiring the CDFW to accommodate a Habitat Conservation Committee to provide public input into how the habitat on hunting areas is managed.

The effort met with resistance from the CDFW staff and an alternative solution was negotiated. The current system requires CDFW to hold meetings for hunters each year prior to the opening of duck season. Although these meetings may be productive in other ways, and they should not be abandoned,  it is unlikely that they will result in improved habitat conditions.

A habitat committee would review plans for annual planting, manipulation and flooding. The committee would be advised as to water allotments and how they would be applied as irrigation is the most important aspect of wetland management. Water is the difference between a seasonal marsh and just plain upland. Water is important before, during and after duck season.

Based upon the information I’ve gathered, I am now even more convinced that a Habitat Management Committee is needed to review how California hunting areas are managed. The committee needs access to management plans and the areas themselves.

I’m continuing to urge public area hunters to sign the petition. More to come as I continue to investigate.

Go to: http://chn.ge/2BfeLpd

 

 

 

White-front Geese

Each winter, white-front geese move into the California Delta in large numbers. By late January they begin to build up their numbers on Sherman Island. By April, the congregation of geese at Sherman Island can be quite large.

(Click to enlarge photo)

Waterfowl populations have flourished under close monitoring by hunter-funded programs.

Waterfowl populations have flourished under close monitoring by hunter-funded programs.

Thirty-five years ago, white-front goose numbers were so low that the daily limit was lowered to one white-front per hunter. Due to successful conservation efforts the limit this past season was increased to ten per day.

Click on the link below to view a recent video of white-front geese (aka specklebelly geese) as the gather in preparation for migration.

They are quite vocal.

Video of Ducks at Dusk

Took this video with my iPhone at dusk. Ducks and geese were flocking in to feed in every direction. Take a look for yourself.

http://youtu.be/3ynVax_MqQ4

These ponds are flooded for waterfowl hunting, but they provide a major food source for migrating waterfowl. Many more ducks benefit from these than are taken by hunters.  I’ll kill about 20 to 30 ducks and geese this winter. Try to figure out how many were feeding there on Friday night.

We spend money and effort to assure that these ponds are managed for waterfowl.

And, throughout California, other duck hunters like us expend a great deal of effort and their personal treasure for the benefit of waterfowl.

Hunting and Wildlife Populations

When a game bird population is high, the compensatory effect of hunting is greatest.

When a game bird population is high, the compensatory effect of hunting can be most beneficial.

I’ve most often seen the term “compensatory” used when describing the effect of hunting on game bird populations. At first glance, one might assume that the population of game birds at the end of a year which included hunting, might be the total number of birds at the start of the year minus the sum of birds killed by hunters and the birds which died from natural causes. In this case, the number of bird deaths would be additive.

A key to understanding the compensatory concept is the realization that changes in population density impact habitat and bird health. Therefore, when birds are removed from the population early on in a season, the remaining birds benefit from the population decrease. They have fewer birds competing with them for food and therefore are more likely to remain healthy and survive.

Not only that, but with fewer game birds in the population other sources of population depletion may be impacted. For example predator populations may decline. Or, a decrease in population density may prevent the spread of disease that might otherwise occur.

In a perfect world, precisely the right number of game birds are killed by hunters, thereby reducing the population to where a high percentage of the remaining birds survive. When this is the case, the effect of hunting is negligible.

DSC_0518 rooster

Another case that clearly demonstrates the benefits of using compensatory mortality is when a severe weather event causes a dramatic decrease mule deer habitat and food supplies. By removing deer from a specific herd, the remaining animals in that herd will have a better chance of surviving. If there’s only enough food for a predictable number of deer to live through a tough winter, game managers may call for a special hunt to reduce the population and prevent mass starvation.

Unfortunately other limitations make it difficult to manage precisely.