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Agriculture vs Wildlife

Can They Coexist?

by George Visger, "The Wild Guy"

For as long as there’s been agriculture, humans and wildlife have butted heads. The crux of the conflict is who owns the product. Historically, we as humans moved into an area, converted the native habitat into a non-native species producing ecosystem, and forget about who was there first. And I’m not talking about who was there a year earlier. In many instances, wildlife species have flourished there for thousands of years sustaining themselves on plants and animals native to the area. Once those food or prey species are replaced with others, wildlife has two choices. Move on, or learn to use what resources are available. Unfortunately, on occasion wildlife can be very destructive when it comes to agricultural operations. Let’s take a look at some wildlife interactions our ranchers and farmers face.

A common crop in the Sacramento valley is winter wheat. Back in 2007 and 2008, central valley hard red winter wheat prices ranged from $235 to $245 per ton, hard white wheat $285 - $315 per ton, and way down south in the Imperial Valley, Desert Durum hit $340 per ton. Those were great prices.

The problem is that it’s not only the farmers and consumers who enjoy the product. Winter wheat in the Sacramento valley is planted in November, a time when the ground is moist, days mild, and waterfowl are dumping in. For the most part, ducks don’t cause much of a problem with the exception of widgeon later in the season, but geese, being grazers, do. As the new, tender young wheat shoots begin to sprout, large grinds of geese can wreak havoc on the crop. Especially snow geese. Known to number in the thousands in a single flock, snows, like most other geese, will pull the entire seedling out, roots and all, virtually destroying a crop and potentially causing tens of thousands of dollars in damage overnight.

Coots can also be another problem from late January through late March. Much like geese, coots will graze on fresh sprouts when they have the opportunity. While I was the Lands Manager at Wildlands Inc., one season we were forced to apply for a depredation permit which allowed us to take 500 coots. I had just overseen construction of 110 acres of native seasonal and perennial marsh and native grassland habitats. The Sacramento valley is home to 84 native perennial and 42 native annual grasses, sedges, rushes and cattails. Some of the native grass seeds we used, such as blue wild rye, California melic grass, California melic deer grass, and purple needle grass, cost up to $35 per pound, and were installed at 25 – 35 pounds per acre. We installed most of the seeds by November and by the end of duck season, we not only had a beautiful green carpet sprouting, we had several thousand coots that decided there was no reason to migrate with all the good vittles at the Sheridan Mitigation Bank. Now a Depredation Permit from the US Fish and Wildlife is not an easy procurement. You must be able to show damages, a lot of damages, in order to be allowed to take any species. We easily substantiated the loss of tens of thousands of dollars in not only seed costs, but replacement costs, and lost mitigation revenue as well. Our one day coot shoot produced 500 coots donated to various groups, and convinced the vast majority of the other 2,000 coots to find a quieter neighborhood.

Passerines, or perching birds, are a bain to our fruit growers, especially those growing stone fruit like cherries, peaches and nectarines. With all but European starlings and English sparrows protected, farmers are faced with a dilemma, either file for a depredation permit which can be time consuming, but which allows one to remove (shoot or trap) a specific number of birds, or come up with a non- lethal deterrence, such as foil tinsel in orchards and vineyards, scarecrows, or noise makers such as gas powered canons or cracker shells. I have used all of the above to protect native habitats we constructed when I was the Lands Manager at Wildlands. Problem is, some of the methods are not very effective or cost efficient.

Another problem our ranchers face is depredation of crops by deer and hogs. Deer especially like the young grape vines, and a small herd of blacktails camping out in a vineyard overnight can literally destroy the equivalent of several cases of expensive vino. Compound that nightly for a few weeks and you get the picture. Hogs are notorious for rooting up freshly planted or ripe barley and wheat fields. But not all wildlife/agricultural interactions are negative.

Despite waterfowl having the potential to cost farmers big bucks, they are now paying it back. As the burning of rice fields was phased out, farmers who used to burn to get rid of the rice stalks which are rich in silica, then prevented the stem from decomposing. Now, instead of burning, they reflood the fields and hold water on for a couple months after duck season. That not only reduces air pollution in the valley, it encourages more waterfowl to hang in the valley longer. The churning action of waterfowl feeding in the flooded fields, in combination with the microbial “seeding” action from all their poop, accelerates the decomposition of the silica laden rice straw, not only fertilizing the field, but making it easier to plow and prep the field for the next planting.

Some of our herbivorous game animals will target non-native invasive plant species for food, helping to prevent the spread of undesirables.

The bottom line is not all wildlife/agricultural interactions are negative. In fact, many times it’s a positive return for both parties.

Ask the Wild Guy

George Visger aka “The Wild Guy” is an original Wilderness Unlimited member and now also serves as Principal Wildlife and Habitat Coordinator for the Wilderness Unlimited Foundation. The “Ask The Wild Guy” column is based on George’s outdoors experiences, presented in a light manner intending on illustrating the use of strategies to help members with their outdoor success. He has been a Wildlife Biologist for 20 years including several years owning his own environmental consulting firms, Visger & Associates and The Ranchers Group, where he specializes in wildlife management plans, habitat management plans, grazing plans, threatened and endangered species, habitat restoration, water quality and quantity improvements and storm water management.

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