Protection of the Tricolored Blackbird under the California Endangered Species Act (ESA) was allowed to expire in June, ending an emergency listing by the California Fish and Game Commission made last December.
At its June 11 meeting in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., the commission voted 2-1 not to list the Tricolored Blackbird as threatened or endangered.
The move means that nesting blackbirds in forage crops and elsewhere are no longer protected, subjecting farmers to incidents of “take” under the California ESA if they harm or kill a Tricolored blackbird in the course of normal farming practices.
This is significant because just a few weeks earlier Tulare County dairy farmer Frank Mendonsa, who also serves as chairman of the Western United Dairymen’s board of directors, opted to delay harvest of his triticale to protect nesting for Tricolored blackbirds on his Tipton, Calif. farm.
The farmer was compensated through a Farm Bill program operated by the Natural Resource Conservation Service to delay harvest.
Mendonsa was paid $600 per acre to delay harvest of about 80 acres of triticale that became the temporary home of a colony of over 2,000 Tricolored blackbirds.
Early in June, Mendonsa discovered the nesting birds in his forage crop.
Because of a partnership developed between Mendonsa’s dairy trade association, several other groups including the Natural Resource Conservation Service and Audubon California, Mendonsa discovered he was eligible for the Farm Bill payments to delay harvest and thus protect the blackbirds.
The decision still left Mendonsa without a portion of his forage crop, which he would have to replace on the open market. Moreover, delaying his triticale harvest pushed back the planting of corn, which he also feeds to his dairy cows as chopped silage.
Mendonsa milks just over 1,000 Jersey cows near the Tipton, Calif. farm where he grows forage crops. He also owns other dairies in Tulare County.
Mendonsa said delaying harvest to allow nesting blackbirds to migrate away after the babies left the nest was “the right thing to do.”
Agricultural groups including Western United Dairymen (WUD) and Dairy Cares testified to the commission in opposition to the continued listing.
“Incentive-based, voluntary efforts are the way to save this species,” explained Paul Sousa, director of environmental services for Western United Dairymen. “This collective effort by dairy producers played a major role in the positive decision made this week. Western United Dairymen members have committed to doing the right thing and I look forward to focusing our resources on the needs of the species rather that a protracted regulatory process.”
Following the December emergency listing, WUD along with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), the California Farm Bureau Federation, Dairy Cares, Sustainable Conservation and Audubon California announced in January a proactive and innovative conservation project to reimburse farmers for lost yield in fields where the blackbirds nest, boost habitat, and do outreach work for the Tricolored Blackbird. The partnership was one of only six distinct conservation projects selected in California through the new NRCS Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP).
That program remained in effect until the recent decision by the Fish and Game Commission.
Not everyone is happy
Audubon California was not pleased with the commission’s decision.
“The Fish and Game Commission betrayed its mandate,” said Brigid McCormack, executive director of Audubon California. “The Commission’s stated mission is to ensure the long term sustainability of California’s wildlife, but today two of its members chose politics over sound policy and rejected the science-based recommendations of its own staff in order to deny protection to one of California’s most imperiled birds.”
According to Audubon, Calif. the Tricolored Blackbird, which once numbered in the millions, has declined by 44 percent since 2011. It typically nests in marshlands and wetland areas, but California’s drought has eliminated those opportunities. Biologists with the NRCS say forage crops like triticale are ideal for nesting blackbirds because of feeding opportunities for the birds.
The loss of 90 percent of the Tricolored Blackbird’s historic habitat is likely the main cause of its decline. A recent survey conducted by UC Davis with the support of Audubon California and the California Dept. of Fish & Wildlife counted 145,000 Tricolored Blackbirds remaining in California, down from 260,000 in 2011.
In recent years, Audubon California has supported efforts by the Natural Resources Conservation Service to create agreements with dairy farmers to delay harvests to allow the young birds to fledge. These agreements with farmers have saved many thousands of Tricolored Blackbirds.
Because of the loss of their traditional wetland habitat, Tricolored Blackbirds often create their huge colonies in forage crops grown for dairy cattle in California. This puts them at risk when the farmer needs to harvest the field before the young birds have fledged.
“While we are displeased the Tricolored Blackbird won’t be listed this year, this set back will not hinder our commitment to its recovery,” McCormack said. “We are committed to working closely with our partners at government agencies like the Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Natural Resource Conservation Service, as well as agricultural groups like Western United Dairymen, to save this iconic species from extinction.”