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October – December 2015 Update

I hope everyone had a great holiday season. With the start of the New Year, the RWBJV Management Board will be meeting this month. The focus will be to review our past accomplishments and also chart a path forward for the next year. I look forward to the New Year and the new accomplishments we will achieve in 2016.

Biological Planning & Conservation Design

New Nebraska Landcover: The RWBJV Science Office is developing methods to incorporate the National Agriculture Statistics Service landuse layer and Farm Service Agency’s Common Land Unit Field Boundaries to accurately reflect contemporary land use. This new landcover will also contain the recently updated vegetation data for Rainwater Basin wetlands and current Conservation Reserve Program enrollments. Look for the dataset to be ready for review in April.

Platte River Image Library: The Platte River Image Library is finally live. The 1938, 1957, 1963, and 1969 historical data is now ready for download and can be imported directly into a GIS software package. It is amazing how the river has changed pre Interstate 80 and post construction. The GIS shop is currently uploading 20 other image datasets that have been collected by Joint Venture partners over the years, but were not publicly available for download. Links to the data will be available on the RWBJV website once all the data are uploaded. A complete set of imagery for the Rainwater Basin collected as part of the Annual Habitat Survey will also be available in the near future.

Highly Erodible Land Decision Support Tool: The RWBJV GIS staff has developed a Highly Erodible Land tool to assist with marketing the Conservation Reserve Program’s current sign-up. The tool identifies those fields in which 20 acres or 50% of the field has a potential erosion index of at least 8 tons/acre/year.

Blowouts through Time: The RWBJV shop is assisting U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staff at Niobrara and Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuges with an assessment of blowouts through time. Blowouts are a unique habitat found on these refuges and across the Sandhills. These unique landscape features provide habitat for the blowout penstemon, an endangered plant. Imagery from 1938, 1957, 1963, 1969, 1993, 2004, and 2010 is being analyzed to evaluate how these features change through time. The information will be used in the revision of the upcoming recovery plan for the plant and by refuge managers as they incorporate new management techniques to sustain the species on their refuges.

Whooping Crane Surveys: In October and November, RWBJV and partner staff conducted 23 aerial whooping crane surveys in the western basins. The survey period was extended well into November, as whooping cranes passed through Nebraska much later than in previous years. The monitoring surveys are just one part of a larger Cooperative Recovery Initiative project. Results of these efforts will be used to better inform future conservation actions for the benefit of whooping cranes. Spring surveys will begin sometime in March 2016.

Climate Change Study Published: Dan Uden (UNL Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit) recently published results of his graduate research in the journal Ecosphere. The article describes the potential impacts of climate change on the availability of playa wetland habitats in the Rainwater Basin region. Results of this study indicated that the amount of wetland stopover habitat will likely decline if current climate trends continue. Additionally, the predicted negative impacts of climate change were greater in cropped wetlands than in wetlands with adequate grass buffer area. Support for this project was provided by the Great Plains Landscape Conservation Cooperative, USGS, NGPC, and several other RWBJV partners.

Communication and Outreach

Conservation Reserve Program Mailing: The Pheasants Forever staff and Nebraska Game and Park’s Partners Section are busy promoting the Conservation Reserve Program sign-up. During this sign-up, eligible producers can submit applications at their local USDA Farm Service Agency offices. To assist with this promotion, the RWBJV worked with Pheasants Forever and Nebraska Game and Parks Staff to identify important landscape factors and geographies. Based on result of these criteria the RWBJV GIS staff identified over 43,280 priority landowners. A letter was sent to these producers highlighting the sign-up and rental rates. In addition to the letter, 56 informational meetings are being held across the state for interested producers. Great work by all the staff involved in this concerted marketing campaign to promote this great program.

Agriculture Conservation Easement Program Mailing: The RWBJV Private Lands Workgroup coordinated with the RWBJV GIS shop to identify producers who potentially would be interested in the Wetlands Reserve Easement option. These producers had 20 or more acres of hydric soils in their tracts, and these acres flooded at least 20% of the time during spring migration over the last 10 years. This analysis identified 2,500 landowners. Each landowner received a letter highlighting the program. A subset of producers with more than 30 frequently flooded acres also received a follow-up phone call. The landowners who received the mailing and follow-up phone calls have been very receptive, and there is great interest in the program this year. To date, there are 15 signed applications. This is nearly triple the number of applications we had last year. Special thanks to Niki Messmer (RWBJV Office Manager), Ele Nugent (RWBJV Habitat Specialist), and Nate Walker (NRCS WRE Team Leader) for getting this marketing campaign completed.

Article Highlighting RWBJV on the Migratory Bird Joint Ventures Website: The RWBJV was highlighted in a story on the Migratory Bird Joint Ventures website. The article provided a great overview of what the RWBJV partnership does, as well as the importance of the Nebraska Environmental Trust in delivering these conservation achievements. http://mbjv.org/improving-wetland-habitat-in-nebraskas-rainwater-basin/

The Nebraska Conservation Toolbox: The RWBJV Communication Workgroup has been working to develop a one-stop webpage to host information about different conservation programs and opportunities. The target audiences are private landowners and conservation delivery staff. The website is searchable by geography, partner, or habitat type. Joanna Pope will be unveiling the site at the upcoming RWBJV Informational Seminar, but here is a sneak peek at the beta version. http://conservationtoolbox.com/ If you have comments or ideas on how to make the site better, please let us know.

RWBJV Informational Seminar: The 21st RWBJV Informational Seminar will be held February 9th at Midtown Holiday Inn in Grand Island. This year’s seminar focuses on the role of the RWBJV in supporting partners and other partnerships across the RWBJV Administrative Area. Speakers will be highlighting activities in Nebraska’s Sandhills, North Platte River Valley, and in the Central Loess Hills. There will also be sessions related to playa wetland restoration occurring in the Rainwater Basin. Thanks to the planning committee for pulling together another great seminar.

Lindsay Presentation: Lindsay Corporation, the maker of Zimmatic pivots, requested a presentation on the RWBJV partnerships’ work at their regional sales seminar. This seminar had pivot dealers from eight states with numerous dealers from Nebraska. The presentation highlighted Joint Ventures and playa wetlands, as well as the wildlife habitat and ecosystem services provided by these wetlands. The presentation also highlighted opportunities for Lindsay customers to take advantage of cost-share programs available from the RWBJV for pivot modifications if the customer enrolls in playa wetland conservation programs. As a result of the presentation, several Lindsay dealers have referred customers to the RWBJV for more information on RWBJV conservation opportunities.

RWBJV Updates

RWBJV Presentation to the North American Waterfowl Management Plan Committee: The RWBJV presented an update to the North American Waterfowl Management Plan Committee about our status and contributions to the North American Waterfowl Management Plan. Our presentation highlighted our recently adopted Implementation Plan and the linkages between our habitat objectives and the population objectives outlined in the North American Waterfowl Management Plan. The presentation also highlighted the broadening of our partnership to include the agriculture industry. We look forward to the feedback from the Plan Committee on how the RWBJV can continue to support continental waterfowl populations.

Grant Updates

Wetlands Reserve Easement Partnership: The Nebraska Community Foundation, on behalf of the RWBJV partners, was awarded $1.7 million dollars in Wetlands Reserve Easement Partnership (WREP) funds to support wetland protection, restoration, and enhancement on approximately 435 acres in the Central Table Playa and Rainwater Basin Wetland Complexes. WREP funds will be matched with RWBJV partner funds to complete wetland restoration activities, establish grazing infrastructure, and modify pivots to minimize their impact as they cross restored wetlands.

Regional Directors Deferred Grant: The RWBJV submitted a $75,000 request to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Region 6 to facilitate a National Wetlands Inventory remap of the Nebraska Sandhills. The Headquarters Office in the USFWS is also pursuing $125,000 in funds to support this project. In addition to USFWS funds, there is interest in the project by RWBJV partners including Natural Resources Conservation Service, Nebraska Department of Natural Resources, Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, and the USFWS Refuge Inventory and Monitoring Program. Considering that the initial mapping missed 50% of the wetland basins and 46% of the wetland area, this will be an important dataset to revise. This is especially true with the wind development pressure that Nebraska’s Sandhills are expected to experience once the new power transmission lines are constructed across the region.

National Fish and Wildlife Foundation: The RWBJV proposal “Evaluating, Implementing, and Communicating the Opportunities to use Grazing as a Management tool to Maximize Habitat for Wetland and Grassland Dependent Birds in Nebraska’s Rainwater Basin” was selected for a funding. This grant will provide $185,000 to evaluate forage production available from common wetland plant communities. The information will be compiled and analyzed by the University of Nebraska Extension and the data will be used to develop a UNL Extension factsheet for landowners, highlighting the opportunities to integrate wetlands into local operations for grazing. This information will also be used to update the ecological site descriptions and state transition models in the Nebraska Natural Resources Conservation Service Field Office Technical Guide. The updated information will assist Natural Resources Conservation Service staff as they develop grazing and management plans for the >125 Wetland Reserve Easement/Program sites in the RWB. This proposal also has funding for development of grazing infrastructure on private lands and to host landowner tours where participants can highlight how they have integrated wetlands into their operations.

Nebraska Environmental Trust Grants: The RWBJV partners are tentatively slated for funding of three Nebraska Environmental Trust grants submitted in the 2015 – 2016 cycle. These include the Little Blue Natural Resources District grant titled “Puddles under the Pivots”. This $625,000 grant will provide matching funds to the recently awarded WREP grant described above. Funding associated with this grant will be leveraged with RWBJV partner funds to complete wetland restoration activities, modify pivots, and establish grazing infrastructure to ensure the wetlands can be managed for wetland-dependent migratory birds and also integrated into local agriculture operations.

The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission was awarded a $225,000 grant to continue the Rainwater Basin Joint Venture Management Initiative. Over the past five years the RWBJV partners have treated over 15,000 acres of invasive species (trees, reed canary grass, river bulrush, and hybrid cattail). These plants significantly reduce habitat values for waterfowl and other wetland-dependent species; thus, managing them helps the RWBJV partners maximize habitat on existing wetlands. The grant will ensure that RWBJV partners can keep on top of invasives.

The other grant that received funding was the RWBJV “General” grant. This grant has four funding categories including communication (10%), research/inventory/monitoring (15%), public lands (35%), and private lands (35%). The general grant provides funding for the unique conservation programs the RWBJV offers, such as the Seasonal Habitat Incentives Program, Restoration and Management Program, and much of the restoration that occurs on public lands.