Farms get incentives to protect bobolinks

ADDISON COUNTY — Spring has finally arrived, and across the region wildlife species are returning to their seasonal habitats, including flocks of migratory birds. But while there may seem to be an abundance of chirping birds returning to the area, the populations of Vermont’s seven grassland songbird species have, in fact, plummeted in recent years.
This year, an innovative project at the University of Vermont aims to restore habitat for one of those specie: bobolinks.
The Bobolinks Project, a collaboration UVM Extension, UVM’s Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources and the University of Connecticut, is collecting community donations to pay farmers not to harvest their hay fields during the bobolink nesting season. Changes to farm management practices in past decades allow dairy farms to harvest hay several times a year — and the end of their first cut or beginning of their second often coincides with the bobolink’s nine-week nesting period.
So far, nine farms in Addison and Chittenden counties have signed on.
“In Vermont, birds like the bobolink that nest in tall grass depend heavily on those managed hayfields,” said Allan Strong, a wildlife biologist with the Rubenstein School. “But harvests during the nesting season destroy nests or expose fledglings to predation with mortality near 100 percent.”
Once the most populous species of grasslands songbird in North America, bobolink populations have dropped by 40 percent in recent decades. The birds, which have the longest migration path of any North American songbird, face habitat destruction from their winter home in the grasslands of Brazil and Argentina, all the way up the Atlantic seaboard to the grasslands of Canada, where they spend their summers. They have been exterminated as pests in South America.
New England is an important stop for the birds because they are most vulnerable when raising their chicks. While nesting habitat destruction only accounts for part of the reason why bobolink populations are declining, it is a significant part.
The Bobolinks Project is designed to allow farmers to think of habitat preservation as a commodity, one that can be sold the same way as hay bales or dairy products.
“There’s really a variety of needs,” Strong said. “One of our challenges has been to assess the needs across this very diverse group (of dairy farmers). The conversation with every farmer is different.”
Farmers “bid” their hayfields to the project, and are reimbursed by the acre for not cutting hay during the nesting period (usually early June to early August). Each field must be within suitable bobolink nesting grounds, as mapped by the Rubenstein School’s researchers, and not already home to predatory invasive species.
Project organizers encouraged farmers to be up front about what they considered reasonable compensation per acre, and that monetary figure is declared when they submit their application.
“We’re really trying to stress, ‘Bid the price that works for your budget,’” Strong said.
Bidding will close on May 15. “After that, it’s just a matter of cutting checks,” Strong said.
Organizers say that the Bobolinks Project is a pilot of potential habitat preservation models for other species. Strong said the project had begun with bobolinks because it seemed manageable — unlike other birds, bobolinks don’t require too many acres for nesting, so it was financially feasible to compensate farmers for their acreage. And though bobolink populations are declining, the situation is not so dire that a conservation project faces a low chance of success.
The community-financed model itself, Strong said, could also be used to preserve wetlands birds or species in a number of habitats.
“The project is not only about conservation,” said Lisa Chase, UVM Extension natural resources specialist. “(It) is also university research into the most effective ways of capturing the public’s value for habitat protection.”
For Orwell farmer Elizabeth Frank, participation in the Bobolinks Project was a no-brainer.
“It really fits what I’m trying to do here,” said Frank, whose 54-acre farm in Orwell uses permaculture principles to grow crops.
Frank stressed that she is in a different situation from most Addison County dairy farmers, since she doesn’t have a dairy herd that needs feeding.
“I think it’s the financial piece that’s going to be persuasive,” Frank said of the Bobolinks Project. “(Participation) causes a gamble, so of course there has to be an assurance that there won’t be a financial loss.
“But I’d encourage people to think about the overall importance of ecosystems and habitat,” Frank added. “We’ve got an excess of milk happening, and an under excess of land. If someone has the opportunity to preserve habitat by waiting it out (on cutting hay) it’s worth it.”

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