Enhance the ecological value of California rice fields to help sustain the millions of waterbirds in the Pacific Flyway for future generations.
The California Ricelands Waterbird Foundation (“Foundation”) is a partnership between rice farmers and waterbird conservation groups for the long-term preservation of habitat for waterbirds in California’s Sacramento Valley. This close relationship between the Foundation and the California Rice Commission brings a significant number of California rice growers to the table who are willing to alter their farming practices for the benefit of waterbirds. In addition, cooperative contributions from many waterbird conservation partners bring forward key technical expertise to ensure that projects will successfully result in desired beneficial waterbird conservation objectives.
Through over a decade of work to develop and refine beneficial waterbird practices, the Foundation now has a working model for receiving private and public financial contributions and efficiently putting these dollars right onto the ground in real, quantifiable waterbird conservation.
The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has invested nearly $15 million in initial start-up funding to help the California Rice Commission and three of its shorebird habitat conservation partners—Point Blue Conservation Science, Audubon California and The Nature Conservancy—develop a uniquely targeted and cost-effective approach to ricelands waterbird conservation. This collaboration has resulted in a California NRCS initiative called the Waterbird Habitat Enhancement Program (WHEP). The successful outcomes of WHEP are documented in the CRC’s November 2014 publication titled, Waterbird Habitat Enhancement Program, Bird-friendly Farming in California Rice Fields. This report, authored by the three conservation organizations listed above, makes an insightful finding about the cost-effectiveness of WHEP:
“Estimates suggest that, at current costs, an annual payment program similar to WHEP could conceivably be run for hundreds of years and still cost less than permanently acquiring and restoring the same amount of land.”
Through the ability of this Foundation to bring rice growers and conservation groups together, this WHEP model is now ready to be applied at a much larger, landscape-scale level to benefit millions of waterbirds throughout the Pacific Flyway which, in California, has lost over 90 percent of its historic wetlands.
California’s Central Valley was once an expansive complex of permanent and seasonal wetlands. Over 100 years ago, some four million acres of these valuable habitats lined the Valley; habitat supporting an estimated 20 to 40 million waterfowl and countless millions of other shorebirds, wading birds, raptors and other wildlife. By the 1970’s, this wetland complex dwindled to less than 250,000 acres; just five percent of historic levels. Still, with intensive management of the last remaining wetlands and 500,000 acres of ricelands, the region still supports nearly six million waterfowl and hundreds of thousands of other waterbirds and wetland-dependent species.
These rice fields and wetlands are designated as Shorebird Habitat of International Significance. This special conservation area makes a significant beneficial conservation impact on waterbird populations in the Pacific Flyway because of the unique nexus of birds and agriculture in the Central Valley:
The Foundation funds practices that fit well with rice cultivation and are beneficial to a variety bird species and other wildlife, including:
California "working" ricelands have become important surrogate wetland habitats for many wildlife species. These lands are doing double-duty by producing the highest yeilding rice in the world as well as essential waterbird habitat. In fact, nearly 230 species are known to use California ricelands. With the extensive loss of about 95 percent of the native wetland habitats in the Central Valley, riceland habitats have become essential to the management of certain wildlife, such as waterfowl and shorebirds. Moreover, many special-status species have also successfully adapted to cultivated ricelands. For some wetland-dependent species, ricelands provide essential wetland-like habitat that has contributed to the stability of populations. In some cases, habitat provided by ricelands has helped to support population increases.
Early in the nineteenth century, the Central Valley was characterized by large numbers of small creeks, sloughs, oxbows and major rivers that were subject to periodic flooding. The scouring associated with seasonal flooding created a mosaic of channels, depressions, lowland swamps, marshes, and hummocks across wide expanses of the Central Valley. An estimated four million acres of wetlands, together with extensive grasslands, riparian forests, and valley oak woodlands, formed a complex mosaic of habitats that supported enormous flocks of ducks, geese, swans, cranes, shorebirds, various wading birds and other species.
In the mid-nineteenth century, the landscape of the Central Valley began to undergo a gradual conversion to one dominated by intensively managed agricultural lands, finally becoming one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world. This loss of habitat resulted in substantial declines in the estimated 40 million waterfowl, and other waterbird populations that historically used the Central Valley. Despite this enormous habitat loss, three million to six million ducks, geese, and swans continue to winter in California. During their annual cycles, large numbers of shorebirds, pelicans, egrets, herons, ibises, songbirds, and raptors use the Central Valley wetlands. The total annual waterbird count (including migrants) in the region has been estimated as high as 10 to 12 million.
With the gradual loss of wetlands in the Central Valley, wildlife has become increasingly dependent on suitable agricultural lands for food and cover. Certain types of agriculture—primarily rice cultivation—help to sustain remaining populations by creating valuable habitat that provides functions similar to native valley habitats. Rice cultivation provides surrogate wetland habitat that serves as essential breeding and wintering habitat for waterfowl, shorebirds, wading birds, and other wildlife.
Each year, approximately 500,000 acres of land, mainly in the Sacramento Valley, are planted in rice. Rice fields are flooded during the summer growing season, and as a result of straw burning legislation to improve air quality (Rice Straw Burning Act, 1991), many rice fields are also flooded following harvest in an effort to decompose rice straw. In total, many of these fields are flooded for up to eight months of the year, during which time the rice fields become temporary wetlands with enormous significance to bird populations wintering and breeding in the Central Valley. In addition to the surrogate wetland values they offer, rice fields also provide a high-value food source in the form of 75,000 tons of waste grain remaining on the ground following the annual rice harvest in the Central Valley. It is this waste rice grain, as well as other valuable food in rice fields, that enables wintering waterfowl in the Sacramento Valley to gather nearly 60 percent of their nourishment from rice fields.
These flooded rice fields are dynamic in their attraction to wildlife and in the habitat values they provide. Habitat quality varies with rainfall, site-specific flooding cycles, management practices, and the particular habitat requirements of each species. While specific management practices can influence the value of ricelands (Elphick and Oring 1998), the mere presence of summer and winter-flooded habitat has provided nearly 500,000 acres of wetland-like habitat in the Central Valley. This habitat, in conjunction with the abundant food source remaining in rice fields after harvest, has contributed to population increases of many wetland-dependent species. During the winter months, large flocks of water birds forage in flooded rice fields.
The Central Valley is an essential habitat area for waterfowl (ducks, geese, and swans). It serves as part of an annual bird migration corridor known as the Pacific Flyway. During the 1880s, an estimated four million acres of wetland habitat was available to waterfowl during the winter. Today, just over 205,000 acres of wetlands remain, supplemented by approximately 500,000 acres of ricelands. This additional surrogate wetland acreage plays an enormous role in sustaining the populations of the estimated 6 million waterfowl that continue to use the Central Valley during winter. Together, both rice and wetland habitats help establish the Central Valley as the most important waterfowl wintering area in the Pacific Flyway, supporting up to 60 percent of the total flyway population in some years.
Rice farmers also enjoy a healthy symbiotic relationship with the 75,000 acres of managed wetlands in the Sacramento Valley. Rice fields and the adjacent wetlands share the many of the same wildlife species as they move back and forth between the two habitats at various times of the year. In addition, the water released from rice fields is reused to flood over half of the Sacramento Valley’s wetlands. Overall, ricelands are known to be used by 187 species of birds, 27 species of mammals, and 15 species of reptiles. Of these nearly 230 species, 30 are currently considered special-status species. In addition, 17 of the bird species are part of a specially-designated habitat area that includes rice fields and adjacent wetlands of the Sacramento Valley.
Wildlife Known To Use California Ricelands, California Rice Commission, 2011
Our work to help the waterbirds of California is all thanks to generous donors like yourself. Any amount helps us in our effort to sustain critical habitats. Please donate today! The birds thank you.
Major sponsorships are a significant source of funding the Foundation will use to put waterbird habitat on the ground year after year. We welcome any level of donation and all donations are fully tax deductible and your logo will be displayed here on the Foundation website. Customized programs can be developed to meet specific habitat objectives of major donors.
For organizations interested in making major habitat investments into this Foundation, please contact:
Paul Buttner, Executive Director
Alternatively, you may fill out the contact form, or download our pledge form directly by clicking the green link on the right.
Paul Buttner has served as Manager of Environmental Affairs at the California Rice Commission since 2001 leading wildlife conservation. He has nearly 30 years of environmental resources management and public policy experience. He previously worked at Resource Management International and Cargill. Mr. Buttner holds a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Science from the University of California, Berkeley.
Mike DeWit is a second generation California rice farmer with a strong history of implementing innovative conservation practices for waterbirds including continuous enrollment in the Waterbird Habitat Enhancement and BirdReturns Programs. He has served on the California Rice Commission since 2001 including two committees that focus on rice waterbird conservation programs. Mr. DeWit graduated from Cal Poly with a degree in Crop Science.
Meghan Hertel has been with Audubon California since 2010 serving as Working Lands Program Director and focusing on bird-friendly management practices and habitat restoration on farms and ranches. Before Audubon, Ms. Hertel served as Conservation Program Administrator with Resources Legacy Fund where she managed the organization’s work on South Bay Salt Ponds restoration in the San Francisco Bay area. She holds a Master’s in Environmental Science and Policy from Clark University, was a 2009 Water Education Foundation William R. Gianelli Water Leader, and a 2006 Albert Schweitzer Fellow.
Mark Biddlecomb, currently the Director of Operations for the Western Region for Ducks Unlimited, Inc. (DU), has been with DU for more than 20 years. Initially, Mark restored wetlands and associated upland habitat throughout the Intermountain West then took over responsibility for program delivery in four western states.
Mark became the Director of Operations in 2010 and has focused his conservation leadership on stewarding the development of all conservation programs in the nine states of DU’s Western Region: California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, Hawaii and Alaska. Prior to joining DU, Mark was a biologist with the Bureau of Land Management in Nevada. He holds a B.S. in Wildlife Management from Utah State University and a M.S. in Wildlife Management from the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Josh Sheppard is a fourth generation family farmer of 3,000 rice acres. He has served on the California Rice Commission Board of Directors since 1998 as well as the two major committees that focus on rice waterbird conservation programs. He was elected to serve as Chair the Industry Affairs Committee in 2014 and is a graduate of the USA Rice Leadership Class of 2009. Josh is active on USA Rice Conservation and Regulatory Affairs Committees and is the current Vice Chairman of the USA Rice Council. He is a strong proponent of working lands conservation program and has participated in the Conservation Stewardship, Waterbird Habitat and BirdReturns Programs. Mr. Sheppard graduated from Cal Poly in 1997 with degrees in Agribusiness and water science.