Nov 29, 2021

2021's conservation wins at the Capitol

By Mark Hennelly, Vice President for Advocacy

(Originally published in the Winter 2021 issue of California Waterfowl)

For California hunters, much of what is debated and passed into law at the state Capitol looks increasingly negative. Each session now typically includes bills to restrict or ban certain types of hunting, make it more diffcult to possess or use firearms and put more burdens and paperwork on private landowners. Generally speaking, we as sportsmen and -women seem to lose more freedom each year as politicians in California seek to further regulate our activities.

But this year, waterfowlers in particular did benefit from a number of measures that provide significant funding for conservation work, including both waterfowl wintering and breeding habitat projects.

(Click here to see the full list of outcomes on bills CWA sponsored, supported or opposed.)

Big boost for breeding habitat

First, CWA-sponsored AB 614 (Cecilia Aguiar-Curry, D-Winters) was signed into law to provide about $2 million each year for gamebird nestcover projects, specifically for our local mallards and ring-necked pheasants, which have suffered long-term population declines. Funds will be used primarily to pay farmers and duck clubs to establish or enhance nesting cover through July 15 in areas adjacent to waterfowl brood water, but can also be used on state wildlife areas and national wildlife refuges.

This is a substantial infusion of money to increase gamebird populations in ways we know will make the most difference. It is well established that California mallard populations are being held back by insufficient breeding habitat.

And CWA President John Carlson Jr.’s statement in our press release announcing the bill signing got it right: "I am proud that once again, California hunters are stepping up to lead the way on conservation of habitat that will benefit nesting birds in this great state of ours."

The bill we proposed would have added a $5 fee to the state waterfowl and upland validations. In a 2019 survey, 74% of members and supporters said they’d support that fee. Unfortunately, the Legislature chose to double our proposed fee, and we were unable to reduce it to a more reasonable level.

While the increase is substantial compared with the current cost of validations, it’s a very small price to pay for long-term benefits for some of the most sought-after gamebirds. It is also consistent with the “user-pays, public-benefits” principle that has funded so much of North America’s game conservation efforts.

And unlike many other sources of conservation funding, it provides a permanent source of annual revenue specifically dedicated to gamebird production purposes. It’s also known to be effective: Incentive programs are extremely popular with landowners and highly successful at improving habitat conditions.

Big boost for DFW funding

Nearly $251 million of new money went into the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s budget this year, including at least $819,000 for water pumping and other wetland management activities on state wildlife areas, which was a direct result of CWA’s discussions with the Department of Finance. Most of the $251 million is intended to help DFW better meet its mission after a study showed it was substantially underfunded. The new funding includes money to increase access to department lands and provide a mobile application to display hunting and fishing licenses.

There was also budget trailer bill language that will provide $15 million for various conservation purposes, but most notably “purchasing water from willing sellers to benefit wildlife.” CWA, as well as the Grassland Water District, had lobbied for water rights funding eligibility this session not only to benefit Central Valley Project Improvement Act wetlands, but also the water-deprived Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge. This drought-related funding can be spent through June 2023.

Finally, also in response to the ongoing drought and the relatively limited flooded habitat available for migratory waterfowl this fall (only about 100,000 acres of post-harvest rice is expected to be flooded compared with 250,000 in a normal year), the California Department of Water Resources has made available $8 million to farmers for groundwater pumping for flooding harvested rice fields, as well as $2 million to flood managed wetlands on duck clubs and other private lands. Funds will be distributed through the California Rice Commission, and CWA, Ducks Unlimited and other conservation groups will assist with the wetlands portion of the landowner sign-ups.