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Bird Breeding Grounds : Conservationists Buying Wetlands

March 29, 1987|EVELYN De WOLFE | Times Staff Writer

Conservationists are using a developer's approach in an effort to curb the threat of further destruction to California's wetlands.

The wetlands are wintering ground for most of the 14 million waterfowl and untold millions of shore birds produced annually in the breeding marshes of western North America and the Arctic portion of eastern Asia.

Groups such as the National Audubon Society are no longer content to take their disputes to court and wait out the long delays of litigation.

Whenever possible, they are acquiring the land themselves to ensure restoration of natural habitats that once served to perpetuate the wild-bird populations of the Pacific Flyway, the birds' migratory route.

Typical of the new approach is the recent $1-million purchase by the National Audubon Society of a portion of Christman Island, 10 miles west of Modesto in California's Central Valley, at the confluence of the Tuolumne and San Joaquin rivers.

Tops List of Priorities

As part of a network of wetlands in California's Central Valley, Christman Island is an integral part of an area that has been ranked by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service as its No. 1 national priority for protection.

A major winter retreat for about 3.5 million waterfowl, that lowland area is an identified critical habitat for cranes and the Aleutian Canada goose, an endangered species of which there are only about 3,000 left in the world.

The landscape in that area, with its freshwater wetlands, valley oak woodlands and riparian forests, reflects California's early environment when tule elk, proghorn antelope and the grizzly bear roamed the San Joaquin Valley.

"The owners of the property contacted us after becoming alarmed by the discovery of about 200 to 250 nests of Great Blue Herons and the American heron and what their proposed agricultural expansion might do to endanger the island's natural habitat," said Glenn Olson, Audubon's regional vice president.

Seek Further Acquisitions

"They wanted to know whether we were in a position to acquire part of the property for a preserve. They, in fact, agreed to lower the appraised price from $1.5 million to $1 million, when it was all we had available for that purchase.

"Whenever possible we hope to gain ownership of land that must be protected, and we are lobbying in support of further acquisition by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service. We are currently lobbying to acquire the 22,500-acre Klamath Forest Marsh in southern Oregon, 40 miles north of Klamath Falls, that has been a property of the Nicol family since the turn of the century.

"The family is cooperating on the deal and is lowering the price to $325 per acre. We want to encourage Congress to appropriate money for this acquisition from its Land and Water Conservation Fund (derived from oil exploration royalties).

"The fund reportedly allows a maximum of $900 million to be appropriated each year for purchase of wildlife refuge and park areas, though normally not more than about $40 million or $50 million are appropriated," Olson added.

"This particular property would expand the boundaries of the existing San Luis Island National Wildlife Refuge, the home of the tule elk."

Funds for the 780-acre acquisition were received as an anonymous gift from a wealthy sportsman, Olson said, providing the Audubon Society with the opportunity to obtain a challenge grant and to create seed money to recapture other lands that should remain as wetlands.

Since it is unlikely that sufficient public wetlands will ever be acquired by private groups to meet the wintering habitat needs of Pacific Flyway birds, private wetland owners are being encouraged to assume a greater role in preserving and developing them, Olson stressed.

Sportsmen Praised

He said that affluent sportsmen, oft-maligned as causing a reduction in bird populations, for the most part, are active conservationists and are the ones primarily funding existing wetlands and waterfowl programs.

"As a wildlife preservation group, we are neither pro-hunters nor opposed to them," Olson said. "Our mission is to keep a certain balance in nature, and what our program is saying is that we have tipped the balance pretty far one way to the point where there has been a destruction of 4.5 million acres of the state's wetlands since 1850. That has left the Pacific Flyway with only 300,000 remaining acres in California, representing a 95% loss."

Most hunters in 300,000 acres of wetlands that are still extant in California are members of private hunting clubs. "We owe a great deal to them in terms of habitat preservation, and that's something that most people don't realize," Olson said.

"The easy way to preserve wildlife is to preserve the habitat, and that is what hunters have done. Most clubs maintain wildlife habitats the year round, but their hunting season is only about 70 days, with short hours, and that adds to maybe 20 or 30 days out of 365 days each year, which means you have a wildlife sanctuary for 330 days of the year.

'Barometers for Survival"

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