Mar 1, 2022
New fee, new hope
By Mark Hennelly, Vice President for Advocacy
(Originally published in the Spring 2022 issue of California Waterfowl)
In October, the governor signed into law CWA-sponsored AB 614 (Cecilia Aguiar-Curry, D-Winters), which finally provides funding to implement the Nesting Bird Habitat Incentive Program.
The program will provide financial incentives to California landowners to provide breeding habitat for game birds, especially our local mallards and pheasants. The money will come from a new $10 surcharge on both the state duck and upland game bird validations, which will generate over $2 million annually, with most of the funding dedicated to landowner payments.
The need for the funding is clear: Lack of sufficient vegetative cover, especially in irrigated agricultural areas like the Sacramento Valley rice-growing region, is a significant limiting factor for breeding waterfowl and pheasants.
Breeding mallard populations have declined at least 36% statewide since 1992 (the most recent survey was in 2019). Most notably, they have fallen 72% in the Sacramento Valley compared with 1992-2000 – the greatest decline of any region in our state.
The 2020 die-off of over 60,000 waterfowl at the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex due to avian botulism, as well as the ongoing water crisis at the Klamath refuges, where many California mallards breed and molt, has further stressed local mallard populations.
And of course, most longtime hunters are keenly aware of the significant decline in ring-necked pheasant populations in California, which share many of the same breeding habitat requirements as mallards. Pheasant harvest has dropped dramatically across many areas of the state, including state and federal areas, where hunter effort has seen a corresponding decline.
AB 614 builds on the highly successful, non-regulatory approach of other waterfowl/bird conservation initiatives, such as those provided through the Federal Farm Bill, Federal Duck Stamp and North American Wetlands Conservation Act. These programs provide financial incentives and work cooperatively with private landowners who manage the majority of the waterfowl habitat in California. It is also consistent with the beneficiary-pays principle that helps sustain the North American Model of Conservation.
The new law was the culmination of more than three years of work by California Waterfowl, with the support of a number of other hunting, conservation and landowner groups.
How long before landowners can enroll, and habitat projects begin?
2023. Funding needs to be collected first from the new stamp surcharges, which go into effect for the 2022-23 license year. A budget change proposal was included in the 2022-23 governor’s budget, which provides the spending authorization for implementing the program and creates a permanent staff position for the Department of Fish and Wildlife to manage it.
How can we trust that the money will be spent appropriately and effectively?
The program will be monitored, similar to other habitat programs, and DFW staff have stated that monitoring will be a critical component to help ensure an efficient and effective program.
Why are the stamp surcharges $10? Could that be a disincentive to hunt?
Originally, the extra fees would have been only $5 per validation, which was enough to administer a modest program but likely insufficient to meet total landowner demand. In light of this and other considerations, the Assembly Appropriations Committee raised the surcharges to $10 per validation. Without this change, the bill likely would have died.
While we proposed a lower fee, we believe the $10 fee won’t be a disincentive to hunt. When the Federal Duck Stamp price was increased in 2015 by $10 to protect breeding habitat on private lands in the Prairie Pothole region of the Upper Midwest and Canada, there was no corresponding drop in stamp sales. A 2016 study by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources also found that hunting licenses sales tend to be inelastic – they don’t fall when prices increase modestly.
Why are hunters paying for the entire cost of the program?
This may be temporary. The Nesting Bird Habitat Incentive Program, created by CWA-sponsored AB 2697 (James Gallagher, R-Yuba City) in 2018, was supposed to be funded by Proposition 3, but voters defeated that measure. Additional funding sources are authorized under state law, including state bond monies, Federal Farm Bill funds and donations or grants from private entities. These will be pursued as opportunity allows.
How can we be sure the fees won’t be diverted from gamebird conservation?
All revenues derived from the new stamp surcharges must, by law, be deposited into a separate dedicated account that can be used only for the purposes of the program. The money is also part of the state budget, which provides additional transparency.
We already have programs like Duck Stamp and Upland Game Bird, so why another habitat program?
While there are a number of state and federal programs that serve the habitat needs of waterfowl and other gamebirds, none focus on nesting cover and meet the particular needs of California crop growers. For example, the Conservation Reserve Program which has successfully promoted nesting cover in the Prairie Pothole region of the Upper Midwest, has been largely inapplicable here because payments to fallow don't come close to what farmers would make from growing crops.
While state Duck Stamp and Upland Game Bird program funds could also be used for nest cover purposes, those programs have a wide variety of competing demands.
In the case of Duck Stamp, this includes wintering waterfowl habitat and research, for example, while much of the Upland Game Bird Program is devoted to public hunting opportunities for upland game birds.
Can funds be used on public lands?
Yes. The primary focus will be on creating nesting cover on agricultural lands, duck clubs and other private property located near waterfowl brood water, but funds can also be used on state wildlife areas and national wildlife refuges that are open for public hunting.
How flexible is the program?
It’s designed to be flexible enough to meet California growers’ needs. For example, it lets farmers rotate their enrolled fields each year around their property. It also incentivizes wheat farmers to delay harvest of their crop to give nesting waterfowl and other birds enough time to successfully hatch their eggs.
How can I enroll?
We’ll go over those details in a future issue of this magazine when the time to enroll approaches.