Column: Ag practices can support threatened Willamette Valley bird

Based on input from farmers, biologists and ecologists, the agricultural practices intend to improve breeding and nesting success for the Lark on working lands in the Willamette Valley.

By Niles Brinton

For the Capital Press

Published on April 23, 2018 12:33PM

Last changed on April 25, 2018 4:55PM


Recent Capital Press articles (March 8 and 15) have covered the lawsuit over the threatened Streaked Horned Lark, a ground-nesting grassland bird found in the Willamette Valley. This lawsuit has set the stage for a new opportunity for producer participation in the recovery of the Lark. An interdisciplinary group called The Lark Partnership is seeking farmers and landowners as partners in testing a new suite of agricultural practices for the Lark. The group consists of representatives from Willamette Valley farmers, the Oregon Farm Bureau, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, American Bird Conservancy, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Pacific Birds Habitat Joint Venture.

Based on input from farmers, biologists and ecologists, the agricultural practices intend to improve breeding and nesting success for the Lark on working lands in the Willamette Valley. If successful, these practices should help the population grow; a key condition for removal of the bird from the Threatened Species list. The practices are designed to provide farmers with options depending on what types of crops they grow and what habitat features occur in their fields, such as gravel road shoulders, drowned-out areas, drainage ditches or gravel ridges.

One general theme is to provide disturbed patches (ideal Lark nesting habitat) in non-critical or low-yielding areas, and then avoid those patches to allow for undisturbed breeding. In other cases, certain crops may provide suitable breeding habitat, and practices simply involve slight shifts in timing of non-critical farming activities, which allows the bird enough time to breed. The practices will be coupled with financial incentives, first funded by grants, and then as a standard program through a conservation organization, the Partnership hopes.

But questions remain. How effective will these practices be at improving breeding success? How costly will they be, and which practices will be most cost-effective? Importantly, what type of reassurances can be provided to cooperative landowners to protect their farm from regulatory risk? A Safe Harbor Agreement is one tool used by the Fish and Wildlife Service for this purpose, and could be initiated with interest from producers and landowners.

To answer these questions, the Partnership is seeking landowners that are willing to pilot these conservation practices on their farms.

The recent lawsuit filed by the Center for Biological Diversity has the potential to upgrade the status of the Lark to Endangered and to remove the special 4(d) rule that currently protects agricultural operations from prosecution for harming the Lark under the Endangered Species Act. A decision will likely take at least one year, and if the lawsuit is successful, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will have to re-evaluate the listing status of the bird at that point in time. Continued progress toward lark recovery through landowner participation will support the case for maintaining the agricultural protections under the 4(d) rule.

Farmland and farming practices provide the wide open spaces and disturbed areas the bird uses, but farming activities during the summer breeding season also create a risk of disturbing nests, eggs or young birds. Today the Willamette Valley harbors most of the remaining Lark population, and if there is to be any hope of de-listing the species, partnering with valley farmers will be critical. The Partnership remains committed to working collaboratively to help recover the Lark.

Farmers, landowners or others who are interested in the work on Streaked Horned Lark conservation can contact or join The Lark Partnership. For more information, visit www.larkpartnership.org or call Niles Brinton at 971-273-4813.

Niles Brinton is a conservation specialist with the Pacific Birds Habitat Joint Venture who works with landowners on Streaked Horned Lark habitat conservation. He lives in Salem, Ore., and works throughout the Willamette Valley. Submitted on behalf of The Lark Partnership. www.larkpartnership.org



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