A Model for Private Lands Conservation

The Rancho Esquon property in California’s Central Valley showcases a number of conservation-friendly management practices

by Matt Young

The Central Valley of California historically has supported some of the largest concentrations of waterfowl in North America. As recently as the 1970s, more than 10 million ducks and geese either migrated through or wintered in the valley. Unfortunately, a widespread loss of wetlands has caused sharp declines in the numbers of waterfowl and other migratory birds that visit the region. In response, Ducks Unlimited established its Valley CARE program in 1993 to protect, restore, and enhance wetlands and other waterfowl habitats in the Central Valley. These efforts, conducted in partnership with duck clubs, farmers, conservation organizations, and government agencies, provide critical habitat for wintering waterfowl and other wildlife and help support California's rich waterfowling tradition.

An excellent example of where DU and its partners are working to conserve waterfowl habitat in the Central Valley is the 7,000-acre Rancho Esquon, owned by longtime DU supporter and Diamond Legacy Sponsor Ken Hofmann. Like many other properties in the area, the majority of the ranch is managed for rice production. Following the harvest, the fields are flooded to help decompose rice straw and provide feeding and resting habitat for waterfowl and other migratory birds. In addition, more than 1,100 acres of former rice fields have been restored as seasonal wetlands, vernal pools, riparian habitat, and upland nesting cover. Another 240 acres of natural wetlands are being restored with a grant from the North American Wetlands Conservation Act.

These habitats support tremendous numbers of migratory waterfowl during the fall and winter months, while in the spring and summer, they harbor growing numbers of breeding mallards, wood ducks, and other waterfowl species.

Claude Grillo helps to oversee habitat management on the ranch. "I work with many other landowners throughout the Central Valley, and we use Mr. Hofmann's ranch as an example of how a profitable, working farm can also support large numbers of waterfowl and exceptional hunting. We have a great relationship with conservation groups, government agencies, and our farm tenants, who work with us to conserve and manage the habitat."

In addition to waterfowl, many other migratory bird species visit the ranch throughout the year. Claude's wife, Karin, is an avid bird watcher who has traveled to South Africa, Malaysia, Borneo, and throughout North and South America on birding tours. She organized an extensive ornithological survey of the ranch, involving expert birders and biologists from Ducks Unlimited, California Waterfowl Association, Audubon Society, University of California-Davis, California Fish and Game Department, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In total, they observed more than 175 bird species—including 25 species of waterfowl and 22 species of shorebirds—during four surveys conducted in one year.

Says Karin, "Although we undoubtedly missed some birds that we could have seen, the list is pretty comprehensive. The habitat on the ranch is quite diverse, which attracts a wide variety of species."

Greg James, president and CEO of Topics Entertainment, is a good friend of Hofmann's and has hunted on the ranch during the past two years. "During my last trip to the ranch, I was really struck by both the abundance and diversity of birds. In two days, we saw at least 10 bald eagles, several other raptor species, and all kinds of herons, shorebirds, and songbirds."

James was also impressed by the intensive habitat management activities on the ranch. "As a Ducks Unlimited member and contributor, it was great to see a large habitat project firsthand, and it really reinforced to me that preserving wetlands is about much more than ducks. While visiting Ken's ranch, I clearly saw how many species of birds and other wildlife benefit from wetlands restoration," he said.