Skagit River: How Farming and Bird Conservation Help Each Other

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Published on September 22nd, 2009  |  Discuss This Article  

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Successful bird conservation is far harder than it looks. But there are some wonderful examples out there that show how we can have more and better bird habitat and benefit people, too.

One of the coolest examples that I know about is the work being done by The Nature Conservancy in Washington in the delta of the Skagit River. Under a project known as Farming for Wildlife, Conservancy staff and partners are working with the local farm community to establish programs that create valuable habitat for migrating shorebirds and, at the same time, provide economic benefits by allowing the farmers to produce increased crop yields at lower cost.  Can you say “win-win”?

The Skagit River has numerous important ecological values, since it drains the west slopes of the Cascade Mountains into Puget Sound. Famed for its wintering Bald Eagle concentrations on the upper river (celebrated by a festival), the delta of the Skagit is also a well-known and critically important stopover site for shorebirds migrating up and down the Pacific Coast.

Given the biology of these shorebirds, stopover sites like the Skagit are enormously important for their long-term survival. Surveys have shown at least 50,000 shorebirds using the Skagit in spring and fall migrations; common species include Least Sandpiper, Western Sandpiper, Long-billed Dowitcher, and Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs. The Delta is also a very important wintering area for Dunlin, with counts of over 50,000 individuals.

The objectives of the Farming for Wildlife project are to assess the value of agricultural lands in the Skagit Delta as shorebird habitat, develop a model of crop- and bird-habitat rotation that benefits birds and farmers, achieve conservation goals without taking land out of production, and export these “best practices” to the entire Pacific Flyway.

Farmers participating in the program incorporate sheet flooding in their crop rotations to produce wetlands useable by shorebirds. This flooding, in turn, should improve soil fertility and reduce crop diseases, which improves crop productivity. Preliminary results are very encouraging: high shorebird use by 15 species has been recorded on the flooded fields and soil nitrogen levels are greatly increased. Final proof, though, waits for 2010, when the flooded fields will be cropped again.

In a more general sense, Farming for Wildlife demonstrates the importance in the United States of agriculture and cropping practices for bird conservation. Some of the most important factors influencing the benefits of agriculture for birds are the various conservation practices in the 2008 Farm Bill. That’s why The Nature Conservancy’s Migratory Bird Program helped sponsor the Field Guide to the Farm Bill, a guide to using various Farm Bill programs for conservation purposes.

That’s perhaps more detail than most of you need. But please know that the Farm Bill is an important driver of conservation throughout the entire United States. These are your tax dollars at work helping farmers and birds.

(Image: Trumpeter swans feeding in the Skagit River Valley. Credit: Dean Forbes/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.)

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Comments: Skagit River: How Farming and Bird Conservation Help Each Other

  •  Comment from barbara harnack

    This is the kind of action that keeps us going. We just drove through the heartland of our country recently. I could not notice all the hard working farms, both large and small. To see this kind of system come together on behalf of both nature and farmers is truly exciting.

  •  Comment from Keller

    Dave Mehlman – you are restoring the miracle of flight! Congrats TNC!

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