The Nature Conservancy: Science and Market-based Solutions

California’s Central Valley hosts millions of ducks, geese, swans and shorebirds each winter as a critical link in the Pacific Flyway. Their trek takes them from lands with virtually pristine conditions, down to California, where less than 5 percent of the historic wetland habitat remains. Despite habitat loss, California’s Central Valley still supports 60 percent of the ducks and geese, and 30 percent of the shorebirds on the entire Pacific Flyway. Serving as a critical wintering spot, California is the linchpin of the Pacific Flyway. With 95% of historical wetlands habitat converted to agriculture and othe land uses, TNC’s goal is to ensure that sufficient habitat is available in the Central Valley each winter through diverse methods, including by working with farmers on private agricultural land.

Over the past several years, the Natural Resource Conservation Service, the California Rice Commission (CRC), Audubon California, Point Blue Conservation Science and TNC have been working to develop the Waterbirds Habitat Enhancement Program (WHEP), Which incentivizes the adoption of bird-friendly farming practices using public funds provided under the Farm Bill. Though WHEP is separate and unaffiliated with this program, the continued success of WHEP is a core component of TNC’s approach to effectively partnering with the rice industry. In that context, this program is an opportunity to bring private funds to further incentivize bird-friendly farming. By working closely with the CRC, TNC  has developed the BirdReturns program which incentivizes bird habitat creation when and where it is needed most, utilizing the latest in precision science tools and a competitive bidding system.

Ricelands provide essential migratory bird habitat

While the number of birds on the flyway has sharply declined, globally significant concentrations of waterbirds endure because birds have adapted to use farmlands to supplement their limited natural habitat. Because bird-friendly farmlands are threatened by a multitude of development and land-use pressures, we are working with farmers to align their interests in a long-term agricultural future with TNC’s interest in providing wintering grounds for migratory birds. Many rice growers are already excellent stewards of the land, providing some the most important and highest quality surrogate habitat for birds. Rice production uses many practices that support bird habitat, such as winter-flooding for decomposition. With some additional effort, the value of ricelands for migratory birds can be enhanced. TNC hopes to help incentivize these activities.

Scientific analysis shows where, when and what habitat is needed

Shorebirds typically depend on shallower water than waterfowl and other waterbirds, 4 inches or less in depth, relying on open, flooded ground with little or no vegetation. Shorebirds depend on a range of shallow water depths capable of supporting different species which vary in size and thus use different water depths for feeding on the abundant insects and other invertebrates that emerge from flooded soil. The number and types of shorebirds in a given area is influenced by proximity to existing habitat provided by wetlands, seasonally flooded agricultural areas, and wildlife refuges. With partners, TNC is developing models using information on seasonal shorebird distributions, crops and surface water availability to predict shorebird responses to habitat enhancement and to show where, when and what habitat is needed.

Private donors are willing to fund new models of cost-effective conservation

Piloting efforts to bring private funds to incentivize habitat in ricelands TNC sees an opportunity to attract private funds to further incentive habitat creation. These donors are private individuals and foundations who value migratory birds. These funders choose to give based on the conservation outcomes created by their philanthropic dollars. If successful, TNC hopes to increase the funding available to incentivize bird-friendly farming. For this reason, TNC’s aim is to incentivize efficient habitat creation through a market, in much the same way as any commodity is sold. Using a bidding process, TNC’s goal is to efficiently create bird habitat, recognizing that costs to grower to provide this habitat varies from farm to farm. The vision is to incentivize habitat creation on farmlands through a program that balances the need to keep farming viable with the need to support the Pacific Flyway in the Central Valley.

About The Nature Conservancy

TNC is the world’s largest, private conservation organization. TNC’s mission is to conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends. Established in 1951, TNC has contributed significantly to public lands, including national and state parks, as well as protected productive farmlands and ranches through conservation easements across California. In addition, TNC has invested in efforts to align actions by private individuals and companies, such as farmers, fisherman and energy developers, to sustainably produce the food and fuel people depend upon in a way that benefits nature. TNC is a nonprofit, science-based organization.  Visit www.nature.org for more information.

Fast Facts

Spring & Fall 2015

  • 11,000 acres enrolled
  • 30 growers participating
  • 350,000 birds counted
  • 69 species identified including Dunlin, Long-billed Dowitcher, and Least Sandpiper

Spring & Fall 2014

  • 15,000 acres enrolled
  • 45 growers participating
  • 14 irrigation districts represented
  • 350,000 birds counted
  • 57 species identified including Dunlin, Northern Pintail and Greater White-fronted Goose