Conservation Versus Conservation



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.

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:




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.

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.

Three Centuries of Conservation

Yesterday’s hunt with my friend Jeff Kerry was thought-provoking. As is usual when we hunt together, we spent much of our time discussing waterfowl and waterfowl conservation. We are both very concerned about the future of waterfowl and waterfowl hunting.

Jeff and I met because we are both real estate brokers and hunters. Our first interaction was in a real estate transaction where he represented the seller and I represented the buyer of a grasslands duck club. We had so much in common that it was natural for us to become friends.

There is nobody who I know of who is more passionate or knowledgable about duck clubs in California than Jeff. He has the hands-on knowledge of managing habitat and experience dealing with people in both the private and public sector. One thing Jeff and I agree on is that we have spent much of our life trying to make a difference in conservation and we both have the feeling that we have not been able to make a significant difference.

The forces of politics, economy and the human expansion are too overwhelming for most individuals to deal with.

When I looked up Conservation in North American on Wikipedia (, I came upon some familiar names and some unfamiliar. But I believe that for the purposes of discussion, it is helpful to break conservation in North America into three centuries.

The first century included developing an awareness of the impact of man upon nature.

As a hunter, my view of conservation is slanted towards those who laid groundwork for and development of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation. Two of the most prominent individuals in that arena are Aldo Leopold and Theodore Roosevelt.

Among non-hunters two of the most prominent people I have been aware of are Henry David Thoreau and John Muir. Hunters or not, the emphasis on their work is oriented to habitat conservation and environmental health.

The men mentioned above, and many others, established principles that guided the creators of many modern conservation organizations – organizations that helped determine the theme of the second century of Conservation. A few examples of these groups are The Sierra Club, The Nature Conservancy, Ducks Unlimited, The Wildlife Society and The Boone and Crockett Club.  These are some of the organizations that I grew up hearing about.

Legislation that has greatly impacted conservation at the beginning of the third century of  North American conservation is the Endangered Species Act of 1973. (

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) has become the most powerful wildlife force in modern conservation. The reason it is powerful is because it gives the government teeth so the law can be enforced. Like all legislation that expands the powers of government, the ESA is  like a double-edged sword. It cuts in both positive and negative directions.

The way all this relates to yesterday, is that my discussion with Jeff yesterday often clarified some of the negatives of the ESA and how those negatives  impact waterfowl and the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation.

As I’ve pointed out before, I believe that one of the crucial weak links in the ESA is that is too strongly protects the life of individual animals. By so strongly defending the “take” of an individual, wildlife managers are ham-strung while managing for all species. This greatly impacts waterfowl managers. For example,  plowing, mowing, predator management and herbicide use are all important aspects of successful waterfowl management. However these activities are most often precluded in areas managed for endangered species such as snakes, frogs and salamanders.

As more and more resources are dedicated to, or impacted by, management of endangered species, waterfowl species are declining. Sometimes this is due to an inability to manage effectively for waterfowl. Marsh intended for but not properly managed for waterfowl has little benefit to the birds.

Another problem is efforts to offset carbon emissions (, such as the prototype program at Mayberry. Our Mayberry duck club is being managed for carbon offsets (another form of conservation authorized by Cap-and-Trade legislation) and also as a way of preventing subsidence (ground settling due to oxidation of highly organic soils). It is my belief that this prototype is too radical and those who support it are too single-minded. Mayberry was more environmentally sound before it was converted to growing cattail. The duck club was offsetting carbon emissions and subsidence before it was converted and it was also having a tremendous benefit for waterfowl.

Today Mayberry probably produces greater carbon offset and subsidence prevention than it did as a duck club, but it has almost no benefit to waterfowl. Not only is the benefit for migrating waterfowl in winter gone, but the expected benefit to nesting waterfowl in spring has proved to be negligent.

The next phase of the Mayberry prototype is to expand it to other areas. The success of the Mayberry prototype is that it has proved that this type carbon-subsidence project can be better provided by the benefits of traditional waterfowl habitat and this radical program should not continue in its current form.

In this photo from 2010, Rob and Wes are plucking ducks facing the Mayberry Marsh as it was in 2010.

In this photo from 2010, Rob and Wes are plucking ducks facing the Mayberry Marsh as it was in 2010.

In 2011, work began to rebuild to create a permanent marsh designed for carbon offsets and subsidence prevention.

In 2011, work began to rebuild to create a permanent marsh designed for carbon offsets and subsidence prevention.

Mayberry 2012 is a paradise for fish, blackbirds and cattail, but not waterfowl.

Mayberry 2012 is a paradise for fish, blackbirds and cattail, but not waterfowl.

Over time, conservation efforts take dips and turns and not all of our ideas result in a net gain. Before taking actions that penalize one species for the benefit of another, we need to be sure it’s worth it. And, before we go berserk worrying about global warming, we need to carefully evaluate programs like Cap-And-Trade – which will have many unintended and sometimes destructive, consequences.

Mayberry, March 2011


White front geese greeted me on the way to Mayberry. I recall seeing them at this same small pond during March of previous years – one of their last hangouts before they head north. (Click to enlarge photo.)

White-front geese near Antioch Bridge.

Another common site on the way to Mayberry in late winter is goats grazing on the levees. This levee maintainance is a necessary evil.

Levee goats 3-14-11.

Maybe the goats are early enough that the cover can recoup in time for pheasant nesting season. The levee is the only part of the property that has suitable cover for nesting.

Here's something new at Mayberry, Canada geese. Maybe they'll hang around to nest, if they can find a bush to hide behind.

 The weather was not good for photography, so I drove around the levees hoping to find something encouraging. A kildeer posed for me.

Kildeer are something else that's new.

I imagine we’ll have kildeer for a year or two, until the habitat matures. Then they look for another site with no cover.

A look at the neighboring pasture, brought back memories of the days when we had seasonal marsh.

A look at the Mayberry ponds was discouraging.

Mayberry’s ponds held a few ducks in the remaining shallow spots, but most of the ponds were deep and void of waterfowl use.

A flock of snows passed by and then a larger flock of white-fronts lifted off to the west and passed overhead.

These geese made a lot of noise.

The specs came by even closer.

White-front geese at Sherman Island

Waterfowl was evident all around, but mostly not using Mayberry.

A few sprig were using the shallowest portion of the ponds. As the skies lightened, I got a pretty good photo of one passing by.

Pintail drake over Mayberry.

Light conditions were very poor for photography of birds in flight, but the sun did come out to illuminate this pintail.

A few attempts to photograph the goldeneyes of Mayberry slough resulted in one pretty good shot.

The goldeneye live on the slough, but seldom travel over the ponds.

It’s almost time for the goldeneye to depart northward. They’ll be back again next Thanksgiving.

Cliff swallows are ever present at Mayberry.

Cliff swallows are tough to photograph in flight.

Antioch Bridge view from Mayberry.

I suppose the swallows make their nests on the bridge.

Along the Sacramento River bank, I photographed this snowy egret. He showed well on a gray day.

Snowy egret hunting.

He lifted off and the photo in flight came out pretty well too.

Things will improve at Mayberry as the habitat matures. It’s interesting to see how wildlife use changes with the habitat.

Grasslands Hunt 12-09-09

The grasslands is a hugh chunk of natural marsh that is loaded with ducks. Of course, not all marsh is equal, and my friend Jeff has some of best. He manages most of his 300-acre club for open water and keeps it shallow flooded. Most of his club can be waded in hip waders.

Large expanses of open water are very attractive to pintail, widgeon, shoveler and teal. The mallard component is smaller on the open water ponds.

Who knows all the reasons why his club is so good, but some of them are its central location and his comprehensive efforts to manage the habitat. Good duck clubs require a lot of work if you want to achieve maximum productivity.

The amount of shooting around me at first light was amazing and the birds were flying for their lives. I managed to knock down a snow goose right off the bat, but missed five straight ducks before I got on target. I finally realized I was behind the birds.

I told Jeff that the ducks in the grassland fly faster than they do in the delta. He laughed, but with all the shooting, it does seems to me that the grassland ducks are all flying full speed at daylight.

By 10:00 AM I had added a couple pintail and a couple widgeon to the string. In order to finish up, I shot three spoonies which will become jerky meat. You know how it is, sometimes you just have to bag a limit.

With many ducks on the pond, I was compelled to finish out my limit.

Aerial Spraying Results – 15 days after spraying

030 killing cattails in upper 3 cropped and resized

On Tuesday, June 16 2009 a helicopter spraying company hit our thick stands of cattails, tules, Bermuda and blackberries with a 3 quart to the acre mix of roundup.

Took a trip to Mayberry yesterday to view the results of the aerial spraying efforts. I found the cattails to be hard hit. Bermuda grass showed signs that it was on its way out. Tules looked sick, but not hard hit. The fragmities were somewhat hit, but may not have got directly hit by the spray so some were dying and others looked healthy. The berry bushes looked like they’d been fertilized.

Here are some photos.

cattail contrast cropped and resizedThis photo shows a healthy cattail patch vs one the was sprayed.

cattails pond 7 cropped and resizedHere’s the area which we considered top priority. It looks like these cattails are done for.

pond 3_0025 cropped and resizedThis photo shows some smart weed that was not hit, tules that are sick but still green and cattails which were most affected.

burmuda unsprayed cropped and resizedHere’s some healthy bermuda grass that was not sprayed. It is a dark green.

burmuda sprayed cropped and resizedHere’s some sick looking bermuda that was hit by spray.

My intention was to begin irrigation yesterday, but I decided to wait a few more days. I wouldn’t want to save any of the plants we want to kill. The cost of this effort was about $1,800 for the heliocopter and $3,000 for the materials. We’re hoping that the results are worth while, but the jury is out.

After we irrigate, we’ll do some disking and mowing to bring back some early stage vegitation.