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Xerces Society and the NRCS: 17 Years of Conservation Partnership

By Mace Vaughan on 22 June 2021
Mace Vaughan

Seventeen years ago, I was first introduced to the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). The NRCS administers much of the U.S. Farm Bill’s conservation program funding, and provides all of the technical guidance for how tax-payer dollars go to help farmers, ranchers, foresters, and pasture managers conserve natural resources on their land. In 2004, my old friend Sam Earnshaw—at that time, the hedgerow guru for the Community Alliance with Family Farmers—organized a road trip of trainings on hedgerow design for NRCS field offices throughout the Central Valley of California. He asked me to come along to talk about pollinators. One of our stops was the NRCS Plant Materials Center in Lockeford, where I met Wendell Gilgert, the California NRCS state biologist at the time and now one of Xerces’ Science Advisors.

 

Dark blue flowers of ceonothus and the pink of red bud light up this hedgerow planted along a farm track.
The partnership between the Xerces Society and the USDA NRCS grew from a chance meeting during a field day to promote hedgerows on farms in California’s Central Valley. This hedgerow of native shrubs and forbs was planted some years later, but illustrates the on-the-ground changes thanks to that partnership. (Photo: Xerces Society / Jessa Kay Cruz.)

 

Every so often, you experience something or meet someone that fundamentally changes your life. Learning about the NRCS on that road trip, and meeting Wendell was one of the clearest examples of such a turning point for myself and for Xerces. We quickly realized that Xerces’ three-decade history (at that time; it’s now fifty years) of pollinator conservation and relationships with some of the best pollinator conservation researchers in the U.S. was a perfect complement to the goals Wendell had for expanding what wildlife conservation meant for the NRCS. It also was our first lesson in how Farm Bill conservation programs could be an important tool for funding pollinator and beneficial insect conservation across the U.S.

The NRCS administers programs like the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) through which NRCS conservation planners at the county level work with agricultural producers to design and fund conservation work on the ground. When it came to wildlife conservation, the NRCS had focused on the traditional targets of migratory birds, game animals, and fish. Snakes, bats, and frogs were seldom conservation targets, much less bees, butterflies, and beetles. However, Wendell and his colleagues saw pollinators and other invertebrates as fundamental elements of wildlife conservation—something he and I dubbed the “Forgotten Wildlife” in honor of the Forgotten Pollinators campaign launched a decade before.

 

A mass of brightly colored wildflowers fill the habitat strip between two fields of golden-grown wheat. Yellow-petaled sunflowers stand tall against the blue sky
Seventeen years of collaboration between the Xerces Society and the NRCS has resulted a million acres of new habitat on farms and ranches across the U.S. The native plants growing in this field strip supports beneficial insects on a wheat farm in Montana. (Photo: Xerces Society / Jennifer Hopwood.)

 

This transformative partnership began with several NRCS Agricultural Wildlife Conservation Center grants and Conservation Innovation Grants, thanks to which we worked with research partners such as Claire Kremen, David Biddinger, Rachel Winfree, Neal Williams, and Rufus Isaacs to showcase how NRCS practices could be designed to support pollinators. This work laid the foundation for me to become Xerces’ first partner biologist with the NRCS, in 2008, based out of the West National Technology Support Center in Portland, OR.

Since then, Xerces and the NRCS have benefited from a steady deepening of this partnership. We now have eleven staff who are in partner biologist positions with the NRCS from California to Maine, housed in NRCS field offices, state offices or the three National Technology Support Centers. This team has developed a huge number of pollinator and beneficial insect habitat guidance documents, plant lists, seed mixes, and conservation practice specifications for NRCS staff, as well as worked directly with growers to create hundreds of farm-specific conservation plans. We have helped to stand up several national and regional efforts targeting pollinator conservation, monarch butterflies, and honey bee habitat; and we have informed how all conservation programs and dozens of conservation practices can be used to support pollinators and other beneficial insects. Xerces and the NRCS also have partnered on training and outreach events that have reached tens of thousands of farmers, ranchers, NRCS staff, and other conservationists!

 

Row of vegetable plants grow in narrow strips in the brown soil either side of a strip of white, pink, and blue flowers. In the background are trees
Bringing wildlife back into the agricultural landscape can be done in many different ways, including cover crops and, shown here on a farm in Minnesota, insectary strips. (Photo: Xerces Society / Sarah Foltz Jordan.)

 

The result of all of this work is over 1,000,000 acres of pollinator and beneficial insect habitat on the ground all across the U.S. This habitat includes cropland converted to permanent meadows, prairies, and field borders; cover crops designed to provide bursts of bloom; wetlands planted to support monarch butterflies; riparian corridors restored to grow an abundance of insects for fish and wildlife; in-field insectary strips planted to feed beneficial insects that attack crop pests; and much more.

During this Pollinator Week, as I look back on our collaboration with the NRCS, I am both amazed by what we have accomplished together, and humbled by the consistent hard work of our amazing team and their NRCS collaborators. Thank you to all of these conservationists for what they have done to help preserve pollinators.

 

A small group of young men and women work with shovels and other tools to care for a hedgerow
With staff based in multiple states, Xerces conservationists are able to engage directly with communities across the country, reaching tens of thousands of people through trainings, field days, and other events. This hedgerow was planted at the Research Farm Organic Unit of North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University, where staff and students benefited from hands-on learning. (Photo: Xerces Society / Nancy Lee Adamson.)

 

Further Reading

Read more about Farm Bill conservation programs.

Find out how to get assistance from the NRCS.

Learn what you can do to Bring Back the Pollinators and take the Pollinator Protection Pledge.

Find information about Rethinking Pesticide Use in Yards & Gardens

The Pollinator Conservation Resource Center contains a wealth of information about how to help.

For farmers and food companies: Bee Better Certified.

For towns, cities, and colleges: Bee City USA & Bee Campus USA.

Participate in community science with Bumble Bee Watch.

 

Authors
Mace has led Xerces’ Pollinator Conservation Program since 2003 and acted as Joint Pollinator Conservation Specialist to the NRCS since 2008. In his tenure at the Xerces Society, the pollinator program has grown from a small pilot project on California farms to a national program implementing pollinator conservation projects across the US. Mace has written numerous articles on the conservation of bees, butterflies, aquatic invertebrates, and insects, and is co-author of the publications Attracting Native Pollinators: Protecting North America’s Bees and Butterflies, Farming with Native Beneficial Insects, and the Pollinator Conservation Handbook. He is the lead author of Farming for Bees: Guidelines for Providing Native Bee Habitat on Farms. He was a lecturer on honey bee biology and beekeeping at Cornell University, from which he holds Masters Degrees in Entomology and Teaching. Mace has conducted research into the behavior and community ecology of insects, and has worked as an insect wrangler and bee expert for PBS Nature. 

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