State Sen. John Laird of Santa Cruz is hoping to catalyze more partnerships between ranchers and conservationists to preserve wildlife and support California’s climate goals.

The former secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency under Gov. Jerry Brown is making a second attempt at establishing a conservation ranching incentive program after the Senate Appropriations Committee killed his measure last year.

His latest proposal, which has the support of the California Cattlemen’s Association, would house the program within the California Wildlife Conservation Board, prioritizing wildlife protection over land conservation. The previous measure would have placed it under the direction of Laird’s former agency. Though housed within the same agency, the board is independent of the Newsom administration’s direction.

The incentives process would change as well, switching from direct contracts with landowners to funding block grants to environmental organizations and resource conservation districts.

The new bill builds on a series of state programs developed over the last four decades to benefit habitat and wildlife. Most recently, the Legislature appropriated $5 million to the California Winter Rice Habitat Incentive Program, which pencils out to about $15 per acre each year. The flagship program is aimed at waterfowl habitat, offering up to $60 per acre, and has a long track record of success. The Department of Fish and Wildlife estimates the program more than doubles the amount of wildlife for every acre enrolled.

The Legislature recently raised bird hunting fees by $10 to fund a program for nesting bird habitat incentives, which overlaps with the rice habitat grants. The Wildlife Conservation Board also administers several grant programs for habitat restoration and conservation, while the Department of Conservation funds efforts to establish agricultural conservation easements and CDFA offers incentives for sustainable and climate-smart agriculture.

Despite these programs, California continues to lose 20,000 acres of rangeland on average each year, even though the lands account for two-thirds of the state’s area. Research led by UC Berkeley and UC Davis shows the invasion of nonnative annual plants has led to a significant loss of carbon in the top layer of soil on California’s grasslands. Actively managing for biodiversity can help manage the exotic and invasive species, the research concludes.

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The conversion of rangelands coincides with the loss of more than half the grassland bird population since 1970 due to habitat loss and climate change, according to a Cornell University study. That amounts to 720 million fewer birds. Land conversion, habitat fragmentation and climate-induced stresses like fire and drought are adding further pressure to rangeland habitats and wildlife species.

“We then lose family ranches, habitat and other important environmental benefits like carbon sequestration,” Pelayo Alvarez, who directs rangeland conservation for Audubon California, told the Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee last week in his testimony for Laird’s Senate Bill 977. “We have an opportunity to curb this decline by providing incentives to keep ranchers ranching and manage their land for better habitat than all the other ecosystem services.”

The bill would help organizations like Audubon provide financial and technical assistance to ranchers for implementing conservation practices that improve bird habitat and soil health and capture more carbon and water.

“These programs are so important for us to continue to do the conservation work that we are doing in order to steward these grasslands,” said Doniga Markegard, who runs a 15,000-acre ranch on coastal grasslands in Northern California and advocates for regenerative agriculture. “These grasslands evolved with grazing animals. We need to have the ability to move them through the landscape, reduce the fuel loads, to be more resilient to these mega-fires that we are seeing.”

Markegard described her operation as producing both grass-finished beef and thousands of species, through bird and plant habitat. Such Audubon-certified grasslands hold “massive potential” for drawing down carbon.

Committee Chair Henry Stern of Canoga Park hoped Laird’s proposed program would provide another layer of market value for consumers shopping for sustainable products. His committee passed the measure with no opposition, advancing it to the same appropriations committee that held the bill in 2021.

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