Wildlife Friendly Agriculture

Can we modify agricultural landscapes to enhance habitat for wildlife, in ways that also benefit the farm?

Burrowing owls in agricultural field in Yolo County, CA.  Photo: Ryan Barbour

Turning California into a global agricultural powerhouse has come at a significant cost to natural ecosystems and wildlife that once thrived in fertile places like the Central and Salinas Valleys. Production agriculture over the last several decades has become increasingly intensive and left little if any room for the natural habitats that sustain biodiversity and provide natural services to people.

Even small patches of habitat within farmlands can provide important places for wildlife to breed, move through the landscape, and find shelter from predators. Those patches can also provide valuable benefits for farmers, like water filtration services that improve water quality and reduce erosion, pollination services from native bees, and pest control services that may reduce the need for pesticides.

Restoring natural diversity in these landscapes can be done in ways that also work for farmers. But there are several important questions to consider. Are there trade-offs between nature restoration and agricultural productivity? How effective can restoration at the farm’s edge be in providing habitat for native diversity? Which habitats can provide high value natural services to the farmers? What other management practices in the farm fields themselves can be used to lessen the impacts of farming on lands and waters beyond the farm?

Applying our Science

Conservancy scientists and partners have been addressing these questions in several ways. We’ve been conducting studies to understand how the diversity and abundance of wildlife are affected by having natural habitats in the system. The science is showing that the diversity and abundance of native bird species is greater with even small, linear natural “hedgerows” along farm field edges.

Conservancy scientists, in collaboration with researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, have also investigated whether natural habitats create human food safety problems. This research showed that food safety policies that incentivized the removal of natural habitat were not actually improving food safety. In fact, natural habitats had very little effect on the prevalence of food-borne disease organisms. Moreover, the loss of natural habitats threatened the pest control services that nature provides.

Conservancy scientists are also evaluating the potential ecosystem service benefits of alternative farmland management practices, and the barriers and opportunities for farmers of implementing those practices. A Conservancy collaboration with Cambridge University has showed that, while several ecosystem service benefits are expected and in some cases realized (e.g. higher crop yield, pollination, improved soil quality with fewer impacts to water quality), there are significant gaps in our understanding of how well alternative management practices work and the potential trade-offs among the different services. Because the costs and trade-offs from these practices can also be barriers to adoption by farmers, scientists from the Conservancy and Cornell University are collaborating to investigate how farmers make decisions about which practices to use.

Together these studies will help us design strategies that can incentivize on-farm practices that benefit nature – and that in turn benefit the farm.


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2017 | Terrestrial | Science | Publications & Reports

A bustle in the hedgerow: Woody field margins boost on farm avian diversity and abundance in an intensive agricultural landscape

Sacha K. Heath, Candan U. Soykan, Karen L. Velas, Rodd Kelsey, Sara M. Kross

This paper discusses the potential for on-farm habitats along field margins as a conservation strategy within intensively cultivated landscapes. Specifically, the study examined the effects of woody field margin vegetation on winter and breeding season avian communities within diverse farm fields of California's Central Valley,…

2013 | Terrestrial | Science | Publications & Reports

Farm practices for food safety: an emerging threat to floodplain and riparian ecosystem

Gennet, S., J. Howard, J. Langholz, K. Andrews, M.D. Reynolds, S.A. Morrison

This paper discusses the 2006 outbreak of toxic foodborne E. coli and its impact on wildlife. The authors explain how farming practices for food safety that target wildlife can damage ecosystems but may not actually improve the safety of the food supply and how high…

2015 | Terrestrial | Publications & Reports

Comanaging fresh produce for nature conservation and food safety

Daniel S. Karp, Sasha Gennet , Christopher Kilonzo, Melissa Partyka, Nicolas Chaumont, Edward R. Atwill, Claire Kremen

In 2006, a high profile outbreak of E. coli in spinach was traced to California’s Central Coast. After that outbreak, produce growers were pressured to minimize potential presence of wild animals by removing surrounding natural vegetation that provides habitat, among other practices. This study shows…

2015 | Terrestrial | Publications & Reports

The Unintended Ecological and Social Impacts of Food Safety Regulations in California's Central Coast Region

Daniel S. Karp, Patrick Baur, Edward R. Atwill, Kathryn De Master, Sasha Gennet, Alastair Iles, Joanna L. Nelson, Amber R. Sciligo, Claire Kremen

In 2006, an E. coli outbreak linked to spinach grown in California’s Central Coast region catalyzed reforms in vegetable production. Without evidence, wildlife was targeted as a disease vector and, under industry and governmnet pressure, growers fenced fields, applied wildlife traps and poison, and removed…

2016 | Terrestrial | Publications & Reports

Field-scale habitat complexity enhances avian conservation and avian-mediated pest-control services in an intensive agricultural crop

Sara M. Kross, T. Rodd Kelsey, Chris J. McColl, Jason M. Townsend

Globally, loss of biodiversity and impacts to natural services and human health have been driven to a significant degree by loss of natural habitats due to agricultural land conversion and management practices. As a result, there is growing need and demand for designing or restoring…

2015 | Freshwater | Terrestrial | Publications & Reports

The benefits of crops and field management practices to wintering waterbirds in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta of California

W. David Shuford , Matthew E. Reiter, Khara M. Strum, Michelle M. Gilbert , Catherine M. Hickey, Greg Golet

Although agricultural intensification is one of the largest contributors to the loss of global biodiversity, agricultural landscapes can provide valuable habitat for birds. Recognizing this, wildlife professionals are working to promote “wildlife-friendly” farming. In this paper, authors assessed the value to wintering waterbirds of different…

2018 | Freshwater | Terrestrial | Science | Publications & Reports

Using ricelands to provide temporary shorebird habitat during migration

Gregory H. Golet, Candace Low, Simon Avery, Katie Andrews, Christopher J. McColl, Rheyna Laney, Mark D. Reynolds

Migratory birds face great challenges due to the climate change, conversion of historical stopover sites, and other factors. To help address these challenges, the Conservancy launched a dynamic conservation incentive program to create temporary wetland habitats in harvested and fallow rice fields for shorebirds…

2016 | Terrestrial | Science | Publications & Reports

Historic and Recent Winter Sandhill Crane Distribution in California

Gary L. Ivey, Caroline P. Herziger, David A. Hardt, Gregory H. Golet

Understanding the geographic distribution and long-term dynamics of Sandhill Crane (Grus canadensis) foraging areas and night roost sites is fundamental to their conservation and management. The authors conducted surveys and compiled existing information on the distribution and abundance of these birds at these habitats across…

2019 | Terrestrial | Planning | Science | Publications & Reports

The benefits of crops and field management practices to wintering waterbirds in the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta of California

W. David Shuford, Matthew E. Reiter, Kristin A. Sesser, Catherine M. Hickey, Gregory H. Golet

Agricultural intensification has been a major factor in the loss of global biodiversity. Even so, agricultural landscapes provide important habitat for many bird species, particularly in the Central Valley of California, where >90% of wetlands have been lost. This study demonstrates that wetlands, and certain…