Yolo County RCD is restoring a unique wetland wildlife corridor

CLBL SLEWS volunteer planting Yolo bypass wildlife area

Travelers on the I-80 Causeway between Davis and Sacramento are able to rest their eyes on a beautiful stretch of managed wetlands and wildlife-friendly farming making up the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area (YBWA), which is owned and operated by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Located in an important flood management zone, heavy rains can sometimes transform the wildlife area into what appears to be a glassy lake. Though beautiful, flooding events can be hazardous for the abundant wildlife on the property. As flood waters rise from east to west, wildlife including deer, furbearers and ground nesting birds lack adequate cover to move out of lower areas or to escape aerial predation.

For years, land managers of the YBWA have seen a need to improve flood escape cover for wildlife, so in 2017 the Yolo County Resource Conservation District (RCD) secured a grant from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Conservancy for a little over $693,000 to create habitat escape routes. Leveraging $200,661 in partner match, the project creates wildlife corridors in the YBWA to provide multiple benefits: five miles of new habitat in two corridors that will provide cover for wildlife escaping flood events; enhance year-round habitat for migratory birds, pollinators and other wildlife; provide a half-acre public-access demonstration planting; and host high school field days and community volunteer stewardship events.

Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area and I-80

The busy I-80 Highway overlooks the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area.

The project is complex, and requires a wide range of expertise and cooperation, leading to a collaboration with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Yolo Basin Foundation, Putah Creek Council, the Center for Land-Based Learning, Point Blue Conservation Science, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, California Conservation Corps, University of California Davis, farmers and ranchers with YBWA leases, cbec eco engineering, and the general public.

The YBWA is multi-functional public area, being used for wildlife viewing and recreation, hunting, cattle grazing, farming, and of course as managed habitat for the conservation of wildlife. “It’s been a puzzle,” says Yolo County RCD Executive Director Heather Nichols. “We’ve had to be really communicative with our regulatory agencies. It’s been a creative process with our engineer, as well as with our own staff and partner biologist. How do we get this to function ecologically and be resilient if we’re constrained by the flood regime and permitting requirements?”

“One of the reasons we felt comfortable taking on this project,” Heather continues, “is because we manage the agricultural leases on the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area. So we’re out there. We see it. We understand the diverse interests and resource concerns. We want to conserve and improve the ecosystem so it benefits everyone from the ground up.”

sparrow found in wildlife area

The native shrubs planted in the grassland meadow will benefit overwintering songbirds -particularly sparrows. Birds like the golden crown sparrow migrate from Alaska, Canada and the Sierras. Some may even breed in the shrubby vegetation. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

With the Center for Land-Based Learning’s Student and Landowner Education and Watershed Stewardship (SLEWS) Program and Putah Creek Council, the RCD has been hosting work days to get plants in the ground. Local high school students learn the importance of environmental stewardship and gain a deeper understanding that the native shrubs, like coyote brush that they plant will provide cover and a food source for animals escaping floodwaters. A demonstration planting will be installed soon in the public entrance of the wildlife area, making the project accessible to all visitors. “It is our hope that our volunteers will be able to return in a few years to see that their hard work has paid off in these areas that will be habitat teeming with native bees, butterflies and songbirds,” says Heather.

By planting additional nectar producing plants, the project aims to double the amount of native bee species and add to butterfly species richness. Narrow leaf milkweed, goldenrod and gumplant thrive in the YBWA and will provide welcome forage for monarch butterfly populations. By engaging students and the community in the plantings, they hope to expose more community members to the wildlife area and increase appreciation for its wildlife.

In addition to installing the wildlife corridor, the Yolo County RCD has a range of programs, which include writing a carbon farm plan for a 7,400-acre cattle ranch, collaborating with Cache Creek Conservancy to actively restore 44 acres of critical riparian habitat along Cache Creek, native grassland and riparian planning and management for the East Regional and Storz Pond stormwater detention facilities, and administration and coordination for the implementation of the Westside Sacramento Integrated Regional Water Management Plan. On their website, the RCD’s mission reads that they “commit to protect, improve and sustain the natural resources of Yolo County.” They “employ a watershed approach that allows an integrated assessment of resource inputs, outputs and impacts,” which evident in projects like the YBWA Project.

The RCD will be hosting a dozen or so more volunteer work days in the next few months. Plantings are in areas usually restricted to the general public so it is a unique opportunity to see all the wildlife area has to offer. Contact Joanne Heraty, at heraty@yolorcd.org if you would like to participate. For more information on Yolo County RCD’s work check out their website and follow @YoloRCD on Facebook and Instagram.