Sunday, September 21, 2014
YOLO COUNTY NEWS
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Habitat conservation program moves forward

0309 Swainson's HawkW

The Swainson's hawk is a covered species and conservation will be addressed in the Natural Heritage Program’s Local Conservation Strategy. Courtesy photo

By
From page A1 | March 09, 2014 |

Learn more

What: Yolo Habitat Conservation Plan Joint Powers Authority Advisory Committee

When: 4-6 p.m. Monday

Where: Atrium Training Room, County Administration Building, 625 Court St., Woodland

Info: www.yoloconservationplan.org 

Developers, farmers and conservationists often have competing interests when it comes to how land should be used.

After a decade in the works, a Yolo Habitat Conservation Plan that would help balance those interests and ease the effects of development on endangered species is nearing completion.

The plan, produced as part of the Yolo Natural Heritage Program, is projected to cost about $500 million over 50 years and would encompass all 650,000 acres of Yolo County.

Farmers and ranchers are concerned with potential inspection of their land for species counts and whether they could end up responsible for changes in these populations.

Conservationists are worried that keeping the plan affordable could result in a narrower scope of protection for plants and animals.

But those drafting Yolo’s plan are including safe-harbor provisions for farmers who participate and incentives to encourage growing crops that support endangered and near-endangered (threatened) species. An example cited by officials is growing alfalfa as a food source for the Swainson’s hawk, which the state currently lists as threatened.

From the conservation side, without funding to support regular check-ups to assess the health and numbers, species could end up “in the ER,” officials said. To answer this, a locally funded portion of the plan would broaden the net for local species of concern.

“From ag’s perspective, most farmers that don’t want to get involved in a conservation effort are very careful or cautious about plans that want to proliferate additional species next to their property,” said Chris Scheuring, a board member of the Yolo County Farm Bureau, who is also a member of the joint powers authority advisory committee.

Steven Greco, a UC Davis scientist who teaches conservation planning and also is a JPA adviser, acknowledges farmers’ concerns.

“One of the elements of the local (element of the) plan is to have hedgerows that promote pollination … and also act as cover for wildlife to move throughout the county,” Greco said. “Movement from habitat A to habitat B is necessary for survival,” and populations can become isolated due to the lack of cover common on many farms.

“We’d like to see farmers given a safe-harbor agreement — (to have) no penalty for creating habitat that attracts endangered species to agricultural areas,” Greco added. “That will be another unique aspect of our county’s plan. To penalize farmers for building habitat on their farm is not the idea.”

Participation in the safe-harbor agreement would be voluntary and would include a one-time baseline count of endangered species on a property, he said.

“After they do that, they’re not allowed to mitigate anything beyond what they found that one time,” Greco said. “That will help alleviate anxiety.”

Another part of the plan will include voluntary participation for farmers to grow crops that benefit certain species, such as alfalfa to support the Swainson’s hawk.

“In addition to the value of the alfalfa, (a farmer) gets an extra incentive to help out the species — these farmers would be forgoing their option to plant a more lucrative crop that’s not helpful for the Swainson’s hawk,” Scheuring said. “It’s a tradeoff. There are some farmers out there who would be into doing something for the Swainson’s hawk … as long as they’re not losing money doing so or facing additional regulatory restrictions.

“I think it’s a good effort,” Scheuring continued. “The ag community certainly wants to be helpful. Is the project desirable for ag? No, but the project is designed to help for impacts from development over the next 50 years. As the region grows up, how are we going to compensate for species?”

Up to 46 percent of Yolo County’s total acreage is devoted to agriculture, and only 7 percent is reserved for urban uses.

Urban developers would pay a one-time fee to a mitigation fund and then would be free to build without regulatory restrictions, Greco said. That fund would go directly toward habitat replacement.

Local oversight
The Yolo Natural Heritage Program is a countywide Natural Communities Conservation Plan/Habitat Conservation Plan designed to conserve important biological resources, obtain permits for urban growth and public infrastructure projects, and continue Yolo County’s rich agricultural heritage, according to the website for the plan.

A joint powers authority oversees the plan and reports to a board with representatives from each of Yolo County’s four cities and the county, along with a nonvoting UCD.

Assisting the JPA is an advisory committee of about 15 leaders representing development, agriculture and conservation interests. Despite a decade of planning and meetings and the ousting of the previous JPA director several years ago, these groups still remain at the table.

The plan will include a Habitat Conservation Plan — a federal plan that includes protections for threatened and endangered species. An HCP is often narrower in scope than a Natural Communities Conservation Plan, which can provide protection for species that are not yet listed as threatened or endangered, said Greco, the UCD scientist.

The addition of the NCCP, while more costly, will result in more effective conservation for Yolo County, he added.

The plan also has a voluntary local conservation element that, if funded, could extend conservation interests to species of local concern. The local conservation plan has several components, including a pollinator habitat proposal to enhance agricultural crop production in the county.

Delta interests

One area of focus in the plan is the Yolo Basin, which geographically overlaps with mitigation interests of the larger and costlier Bay Delta Conservation Plan — two proposed tunnels that would bore under the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to move water to Southern California.

The tunnel plan seems to be moving forward, as evidenced by a dozen public discussions in January and February in cities from Los Angeles to Redding.

The first draft of the Yolo plan was completed last year and received a $990,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife in July 2013.

A grant of $700,000 from the California Wildlife Conservation Board toward a second draft was awarded recently.

Both the Yolo and delta plans are answerable to federal protocol from the Endangered Species Act of 1982, which requires developers to mitigate the impact on species. An example of this mitigation is creating a new acre of habitat for every acre paved over.

The draft plans for both Yolo County and the delta are being written by the same consulting firm. Those in charge of Yolo’s plan say checks and balances will ensure that there is no conflict of interest for either group and that, in fact, there may be benefits. For example, both jurisdictions could share mitigation costs to species affected in the Yolo Basin, the water levels of which could fluctuate between now and the mid-2060s.

— Reach Jason McAlister at jmcalister@davisenterprise.net or 530-747-8052.

Covered species
The JPA will address conservation of the following species:
* Valley elderberry longhorn beetle
* California tiger salamander
* Western pond turtle
* Giant garter snake
* Swainson’s hawk
* Western yellow-billed cuckoo
* Western burrowing owl
* Least Bell’s vireo
* Bank swallow
* Tricolored blackbird

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