A Duck Hunter’s Legacy Soars at the Island Ranch
This article was produced in partnership with California USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.
“Wouldn’t you want to land here if you were a bird?”
The closer you get to the Island Ranch, the louder the cacophony of birdsong. When visitors to California’s Sierra Valley start seeing birds gathered in the hundreds, they can safely assume they’ve hit Dean and Sharon Cook’s property line.
Upon arrival to the Cook’s home, it’s easy to see why the property is called “Island Ranch.” A small mound of freshly mown grass supporting an old farmhouse barely rises above the waterline of the snowmelt-fed wetland complex that hosts hundreds—if not thousands—of migratory birds and waterfowl on a late-April day. At a low point in the Sierra Valley, the 280-acre ranch is a watery oasis for species ranging from speckle-belly (Greater Whitefront) geese to Western Kingbirds.
This is no accidental oasis. Although the flood-irrigated wet meadows of the Sierra Valley are a critically important stopover site for the migratory birds of the Pacific Flyway, the Island Ranch’s spectacular habitat value for these birds is a direct result of one man’s sweat equity and passion for wildlife. Dean Cook, who passed away in October of 2021, had an unparalleled drive and passion for taking care of the wetlands that defined his family’s property.
“He loved when the water came in,” said Sharon Cook, Dean’s wife of 40 years. “He’d go out on the levy and go ‘wouldn’t you want to land there if you were a bird?’ He just loved the beauty of the wetlands and the sounds. He just loved it more than anything.”
Dean’s love is evident everywhere on the Island Ranch. Although the Cooks bought the property in 2000, a full decade of work went into the house and the wetlands before they moved into the old farmhouse in 2010. A keystone part of that process was securing an 266.55-acre Wetland Reserve Easement (WRE) with California Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. These easements are one part of a program that provides technical and financial assistance to private landowners and tribes to restore, protect, and enhance wetlands. Often, WREs are undertaken by working farms or ranches as a way to earn money by retiring marginal land from agriculture. Sometimes, however, landowners enroll in WRE purely out of a desire to keep the wetlands on their property intact, as was the case with the Cooks.
Dean grew up hunting waterfowl in Humboldt County with his grandfather, brothers, and close friends. Sharon said he learned his love for wetlands, as well as a strong ethic of respect for the land from his grandfather on those hunting excursions.
This ethic is exactly what played into the Cooks pursuing a WRE. It was, Sharon said, a way to give back to the land and to the waterfowl that Dean loved. Nate Key, the WRE Team Leader for California NRCS who works closely with the Cooks in implementing and taking care of the Island Ranch WRE, said that Dean’s love for wildlife, especially waterfowl, was a huge goal of the easement.
“Dean definitely loved waterfowl, but he also loved everything that came with the marsh and wetlands,” he said. “He wanted to take care of it.”
As far as participating landowners go, Key said Dean was an ideal person to work with when it came to providing technical assistance. He was always curious about what he could do better and was always tinkering with ways to improve the easement. This involved everything from increasing the amount of nesting habitat on the property and trying to improve plant diversity to dealing with erosion issues and keeping the fences intact. Most of this work was something Dean undertook himself, sometimes with the help of Sharon or their ranch hand.
“Every time I drove by here, if it was daylight hours, you would see Dean outside working on something,” Key said. “Dean was always very enthusiastic to take you on a tour and to show you everything he’d been working on.”
1) Sharon Cook on the Island Ranch. 2) Nate Key examines fencing on a Wetland Reserve Easement in the Sierra Valley.
Dean was also able to enjoy the fruits of his hard work, too, by observing the vitality of the wetlands surrounding their house. Called “Dr. Doolittle” by friends and family after his affinity for animals, Dean was always keeping tabs on the life around his property. Sharon said he kept an especially close eye on the nesting platforms within binocular view of the house each spring, logging the days and calculating when the eggs would hatch. Before dawn on spring mornings, the goose honks emanating from a nest would have Dean giddy with anticipation.
“He understood what they were saying—he just knew the eggs were hatching,” Sharon said. “Sure enough, the goslings would jump out of the nest later that day.”
It isn’t just birds that are drawn to the wetlands of the Island Ranch. Sharon said the family has observed multiple species of wildlife use their property, from the nuisance voles in the front yard to elk wandering into the valley from the higher elevations of the Sierra Nevada. The value that Island Ranch brings to the area, both for wildlife and the people who enjoy it, is something that Sharon said would not be possible without the WRE. The permanent protection provided by the easement will enable the Cook family—and the Sierra Valley community—to continue enjoying the wetlands far into the future.
“I love this property just the way it is, so that’s the way it will stay,” she said.
Dean’s legacy, sown by his passion and his decades of hard work, will live on in the symphony of calling birds heard at the Island Ranch and throughout the Pacific Flyway.
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Nate Key, WRE Team Leader, California
Natural Resources Conservation Service
Yuba City Field Office, California