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Oregon agriculture to the rescue of threatened bird

Streaked horned lark prefers agricultural lands as it tries to build up its population

Oregon farmers and ranchers provide food and habitat to more than 70 percent of the state’s wildlife at different times of the year. That includes making a home for the streaked horned lark, recently listed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). However, the situation surrounding the streaked horned lark is a far cry from other bird species such as the spotted owl, which is already listed, and the sage grouse, which is a candidate for listing. In this case, normal farm practices appear to help the lark.

“The streaked horned lark’s habitat is open spaces and flat ground with not a lot of tall vegetation around,” says the Oregon Department of Agriculture’s Stephanie Page, special assistant to the director. “A lot of agricultural management practices seem to have actually helped this bird.”

The streaked horned lark was listed this fall as a threatened species under the ESA. The bird lives in the Willamette Valley and was once found in higher populations on native prairies and the Willamette River’s flood plain. As that habitat began to disappear, so did the lark’s numbers. Meanwhile, the bird looked for similar habitats and took a liking to the wide open terrain found at airports and certain types of agricultural lands in the valley. While some species need undisturbed habitat, the streaked horned lark needs bare, flat ground that is frequently disturbed. With grass seed fields making up about 40 percent of the Willamette Valley’s million or so acres of farmland, it is no mystery as to where to generally look for the lark.

Before grass seed growers become concerned about a federally listed bird making a home on their land, it is important to note that the USFWS prepared a special rule that exempts agriculture in the valley from penalties tied to the listing.

“Both agriculture and airports actually create the types of open space that benefits the bird,” says Page. “Since the US Fish and Wildlife Service perceives farm activities as helping the lark, they have exempted Willamette Valley farmers from regulation associated with the listing.”

USFWS biologist Cat Brown echoes the fact agriculture won’t be prosecuted for the taking of streaked horned larks.

“We had to acknowledge that even though agricultural landowners aren’t consciously creating habitat for larks, they are doing it incidentally. At this point, these larks depend on those habitats.”

So agricultural land in the valley, particularly grass seed fields, is the starting point as USFWS begins to consider a recovery plan for the streaked horned lark. There is much to be learned, both in terms of how many larks call these ag lands home and how they use those lands.

“Some agricultural lands do support small populations of the lark, but we need to find landowners who are willing to do more,” says Brown. “I really don’t think it will very hard to find ways to accommodate larks on active agricultural lands.”

Several years of research on the lark in the valley has been summarized in a report produced by the Center for Natural Lands Management and authored by Randall Moore of Oregon State University’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife. "Managing Agricultural Land to Benefit Streaked Horned Larks: A Guide for Landowners and Land Managers” focuses on management in the Willamette Valley but could be used as a guide for any lands within the lark’s range. The publication suggests it is possible for larks to fit into the farm landscape without much, if any, cost to the landowner, but with great benefit for the bird.

“Larks often use the margins of fields next to small, lightly traveled gravel roads,” says Brown. “The guide focuses on such things as not disturbing the margins during breeding season. We don’t want to affect the landowner’s ability to produce a crop, but we think the lark could benefit greatly from some small changes in the farmers’ practices.”

ODA’s Page says many activities farmers already do benefit the lark, but there are times of the year when it is best to avoid disturbing the ground, especially during nesting season.

“If there is already bare soil created in a field, if it can be maintained without actually disturbing the soil, that would benefit the bird,” says Page. “In fact, herbicide applications, made according to the product’s label between rows of crops during the growing season can actually help create the bare ground these birds need.”

New grass seed and Christmas tree plantings are prime locations for the lark. So is clover, especially after it has been grazed, because it might have patches of bare ground suitable for the bird.

Many farmers may not know they have the streaked horned lark on their land. Bird surveys on private land are hard to come by. The USFWS is looking for willing farmers to be partners as a recovery plan for the streaked horned lark is developed over the next year or so.

“We hope ag landowners will be open to working with us to get more information,” says Brown. “Because of the exemption [to the ESA listing], farmers don’t have much to lose by finding out more about larks on their land. It won’t prohibit them from doing their farming.”

USFWS is able to tap into incentive programs for landowners who are willing to get involved. The agency would like to work with farmers to design a project that might lead to increasing the number of larks in the area. A call for assistance will include working with such groups as the Oregon Farm Bureau and industry associations. ODA encourages the partnership and hopes that Willamette Valley farmers are interested in finding solutions that enhance streaked horned lark populations that eventually lead to the species being de-listed.

“This can be seen as a positive story abut how agricultural management benefits a wildlife species that has been affected by human settlement,” says ODA’s Page. “We are excited that agriculture can play a role.”

For more information, contact Stephanie Page at (503) 986-4558 or Cat Brown at (503) 231-6179.

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