Sunday, September 26, 2010

Unlikely refuge

Published in the Post Register, November, 2010

DAVIS, Calif. -- A place within easy view of the Sacramento skyline to the east and earshot of nearby Interstate 80 is an unlikely habitat for wildlife -- migratory and shore birds, mostly -- that probably shouldn’t exist.

By Idaho standards the Vic Fazio Yolo Wildlife Area is small -- 16,000 acres tucked between urban centers, highways and rice farms -- but has an astonishing number and diversity of nesting and migratory birds. The star of the show is the great white egret, though in a single morning it’s not uncommon to see many types of herons, egrets, ducks, geese, sandpipers and raptors, plus many smaller birds.

The area is known as the Yolo Bypass whose primary purpose is flood protection in this lowland just north of the California Delta and an hour northeast of San Francisco. Though largely originally funded by federal and state money, restoring the wetlands took the cooperation of local farmers, biologists, engineers, and scientists. Some water still flows through the wetlands and to nearby farms, which helps provide income to manage the wildlife area.

As late as the 19th century this area of California, which drains much of central California’s river systems, was dominated by marshes and swamps. Within 100 years, most of it had been drained or corralled by a levy system to control flooding and open farmland. The Fazio signaled a reversal of that trend.

“For 100 years (the Army Corps of Engineers has) drained swamp in the country,” said Bruce Babbitt, Interior Secretary in 1997 when the project was launched. “Now we are asking them to put it back together.”

Now managed by the California Department of Fish and Game whose mandate includes mosquito abatement to protect the suburban areas nearby, the project clearly has succeeded in opening another home for wild fowl.

On a casual walk-ride through the area a visitor will see dozens of the area’s unofficial mascot, the great white egret. In addition to those beautiful large bird visitors are likely to see the occasional great blue heron or snowy egret, plus hundreds of smaller shore birds. Ducks Unlimited has been the major private partner in the project, with funding help from a number of businesses and other non-profit organizations. The non-profit Yolo Basin Foundation manages educational programs and tours.

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