State and Federal Wildlife Managers Preparing Habitat for Migrating Birds

California Drought Conditions
California Drought Conditions
California Department of Fish and Wildlife
California Department of Fish and Wildlife

California -( Each year millions of birds migrate along the Pacific Flyway relying on a diverse string of habitats that stretch from Alaska and Canada to Central and South America.

While the wetlands of the Central Valley provide less than 5 percent of the habitat historically available, they are critical as a feeding area during the migration and wintering of these birds. In following its mission, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) has responsibility to provide habitat for these migrating birds.

Because habitat conditions on the northern breeding grounds have been good, a higher number of migratory birds have been reported across the Pacific Flyway. The fall migration into California is anticipated to result in numbers like those seen in the 1970s, when record numbers of birds made their way to the state’s wetlands areas. As California endures one of the worst droughts in recorded history, managers of state, federal and privately owned wildlife areas have been coordinating operational planning and the potential impacts of drought on the coming waves of migratory birds that depend on California habitats.

To support these birds during their long migration, these efforts will greatly improve our ability to maximize habitat and food resources over the fall and winter with reduced water supplies.

“As the drought continues, it will be of key importance to balance the habitat needs of migratory birds and other species with the overall needs of domestic and agricultural uses,” said CDFW Deputy Director Dan Yparraguirre. “The situation is changing constantly so we will have to make some tough decisions ahead. We will continue to work with our partners to provide much needed habitat for waterfowl. In doing so, we will be employing the most efficient water saving strategies we can that provide the highest benefit to wildlife. Throughout the state, CDFW staff is carefully developing the most effective actions to conserve water and provide critical habitat.”

Migratory birds begin showing up in the Central Valley as early as July, with peak populations typically occurring in December and January. To accommodate the birds, wildlife area and refuge managers typically create habitat through water delivery to some wetlands in stages. As a result of extremely limited water supply this year, habitat availability on public areas will be all the more critical for early migrating species and to maintain natural habitat to reduce depredation on agricultural lands. Birds will congregate on fewer, smaller wetlands, likely increasing the effect of disease, which occurs even in wet years. Recreational opportunities on some public areas may be limited and reduced managed wetlands may also increase depredation on nearby agricultural fields.

Some state wildlife areas and the National Wildlife Refuge System were established as long ago as 1937 to provide core habitat areas and offset crop depredation by migratory waterfowl. State and federal agencies have relied on strong partnerships with nongovernmental organizations and private landowners to implement wetland habitat management and wildlife-friendly farming practices to meet the habitat needs in the Klamath Basin, Sacramento Valley, Suisun Marsh, San Joaquin Valley and the Imperial Valley regions. Those partnerships and private lands programs have resulted in providing two-thirds of the wetland acreage while the wildlife areas and refuges provide the remaining one-third.

In support of the habitat needs and as part of the Central Valley Project Improvement Act (CVPIA), the federal water project dedicates water supplies to 18 state and federal refuges throughout the Central Valley and the Grasslands Water District in Merced County. Due to limited water resources, these wetland habitats will be receiving only a portion of the water this year. Water supply quantities available to support the wetlands range from 30 percent at Kern National Wildlife Refuge south of the Delta, to 75 percent at Gray Lodge Wildlife Area, north of the Delta.

Other refuges and private wetlands that do not receive CVPIA water are also facing significant water reductions. While strong partnerships and coordination make maximizing water resources possible, the extremely limited water supplies are anticipated to result in a 25 percent reduction of all managed wetland and significantly larger reductions of wildlife-friendly farming which will likely impact birds and humans alike.

“Scientists are predicting one of the largest Pacific Flyway bird migrations this fall due to a wet spring and above average breeding conditions in the north. With California’s historic drought, this could be a devastating year for birds,” said Sandi Matsumoto, senior project director of The Nature Conservancy’s migratory bird initiative. “The Nature Conservancy is very concerned about protecting enough viable wetland habitat for the incoming migratory birds. We are working with partners, such as CDFW, to reduce the potential negative impacts.”

Governor Brown has called on all Californians to reduce their water use by 20 percent and prevent water waste – visit to find out how everyone can do their part, and visit CA Drought to learn more about how California is dealing with the effects of the drought.

About The California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s (CDFW)

The Mission of the Department of Fish and Wildlife is to manage California’s diverse fish, wildlife, and plant resources, and the habitats upon which they depend, for their ecological values and for their use and enjoyment by the public.