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Bobolink Project Is Triple Win for Farmers, Wildlife and Vermonters

A single bobolink sits on top of a plant. (photo credit: US Fish and Wildlife Service, Steve Maslowski)

Burlington--A program that uses community contributions to pay farmers to adapt their farming practices is helping to protect nesting habitats of grassland birds, in particular, the bobolink, which has declined in numbers in recent years.

The Bobolink Project is a collaborative effort of University of Vermont (UVM) Extension, UVM's Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources and the University of Connecticut (UConn). It offers a way for Vermonters, who value the contributions that farms make to the environment, to pledge their financial support to those farms interested in managing their lands for wildlife.

This summer the project hopes to preserve several 10-acre hayfields in Addison and Chittenden Counties for bobolinks, the amount of acreage dependent on the number of pledges received by April 29. Information about the project and how to pledge can be found at www.bobolinkproject.com.

Once one of the most common birds in Vermont, bobolink populations across the Northeast have plummeted by 40 percent in recent decades. The reasons are many, including loss of habitat, eradication as a pest in its wintering grounds in South America and destruction of nests and young due to earlier mowing of hayfields, an increasingly common practice as farmers seek to maximize crop yield and income.

"In Vermont, birds like the bobolink that nest in tall grass depend heavily on those managed hayfields," says Dr. Allan Strong, a wildlife biologist with UVM's Rubenstein School, "but harvests during the nesting season destroy nests or expose fledglings to predation with mortality near 100 percent. That's where the Bobolink Project comes in."

The program works with farmers willing to delay mowing of hayfields until after the bobolink-nesting season with the understanding that they should think about bobolink habitat as a farm product that they sell for a fair profit, just like hay, milk or meat. The goal is to connect farmers who would protect bobolink habitat if economically feasible to consumers willing to pay for that farm commodity. It's a win-win situation for farmers, the community and the bobolinks and other ground-nesting birds.

"The project is not only about conservation," Dr. Lisa Chase, UVM Extension natural resources specialist, explains, "but is also university research into the most effective ways of capturing the public's value for habitat protection.

"Community members pledge what they feel is appropriate for varying levels of protection," she notes. "They are billed after the project determines how many fields it can support, and billed only at the needed amount that corresponds to those fields."

Research and administrative costs are covered by a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant, so 100 percent of the money pledged in Vermont goes directly to Vermont farmers.

"If you pledge more than we can use, we will refund the remainder of your pledge," Dr. Stephen Swallow, UConn agricultural and resource economics professor and project leader, adds. "That way, you know that your dollars are staying in your community."

To learn more or to contribute to the Bobolink Project, visit the web site (www.bobolinkproject.com) or contact Stephen Swallow at (860) 486-1917 or stephen.swallow@uconn.edu.

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