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April – June 2013 Update

I hope everyone had an enjoyable 4th of July.  With the wet spring wetland restoration projects were slowed, but it appears we are going to have a hot dry summer.  This should allow the RWBJV partners to resume what could be one of the busiest habitat restoration and management seasons ever.  Here is a sampling of the Rainwater Basin Joint Venture Partnership’s current activities.  Hope everyone has a great summer.

Biological Planning & Conservation Design Activities

Integrated Monitoring for Prairie Grouse Working Group:  The Integrated Prairie Grouse Monitoring Workgroup was recently established to facilitate communication between agencies and staff completing prairie grouse monitoring.  The workgroup’s initial objective was to create a standardized listening survey protocol for prairie grouse in Nebraska.  This standardized protocol will increase collaboration among partners who are monitoring sharp-tailed grouse and greater prairie-chickens.  These efforts will assist in establishing a long-term monitoring dataset for Nebraska and allow managers to quantify lek density trends over time.  In addition, the data collected by various agencies will contribute to a larger project, development of predictive species distribution models.  These models will allow RWBJV partners to understand current habitat availability, but also available habitat under different climate and landscape/habitat scenarios.  The RWBJV Science Office is in the process of building a database that will house all listening survey results for the state and begin to further refine our current prairie grouse species distribution models.

Modeling Species Occurrence and Abundance with Breeding Bird Survey Data:  In collaboration with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Habitat and Population Evaluation Team (HAPET), Great Plains Landscape Conservation Cooperative, and Nebraska Game and Parks Commission the RWBJV Science Office is using Breeding Bird Survey data to create spatially explicit species distribution models for 15 priority bird species identified in the RWBJV Landbird Plan.  These models are particularly useful in identifying those landscapes in Nebraska that are suitable for priority species.  While local habitat characteristics are important drivers in nest site selection, it is increasingly apparent that for many species the landscape configuration and composition strongly influence species presence or absence, as well as abundance.  By identifying what factors in the landscape are important in explaining species distribution, spatially explicit models not only inform the conservation community as to where to prioritize future management actions, but also are capable of predicting how species may respond to future land-use or policy changes through the use of scenario planning.  Recently, the RWBJV Science Office finished compiling over 300 climatic, land-use and topographic GIS layers which will be used in their modeling efforts.  The RWBJV Science Office has extracted these values for each stop along the different BBS routes.  Statistical analysis and species distribution modeling is currently underway.  The RWBJV’s modeling efforts for Nebraska are a localized effort of a regional modeling project in partnership with HAPET.  The larger effort will produce regional species distribution models across Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Kansas, significantly contributing to one of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Mountain Prairie Region’s priorities.

Least Tern, Piping Plover, and Whooping Crane Decision Support Tool: The RWBJV Science Office has collaborated with the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program (PRRIP) to document high-quality least tern and piping plover habitat along the Central Platte River annually since 2007.  To complete this analysis the RWBJV Science Office, utilized PRRIP criteria, to develop a series of GIS filters to “mask out” non-suitable habitat for terns and plovers.  Thus far, Austin Barenberg, a GIS Analyst for the RWBJV, has completed the 2007-2012 assessment for both the off-channel and in-channel filters along the Central Platte.  The results were recently submitted to the PRRIP for review prior to the final documentation of methods, accuracy assessment, and results.  Moreover, Barenberg is working on a similar project, outlining suitable roosting habitat for whooping cranes along the Central Platte.  Barenberg is utilizing Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) data to identify potential in-channel obstructions (e.g. woody cover > 1.5 meters in height) that reduce the available habitat for whooping cranes.  Prior to completion, the RWBJV Science Office will continue to assess and identify annual suitable habitats for whooping cranes during the 2007-2012 migration seasons.

Waterfowl and Sandhill Crane Habitat Selection along the North Platte River:  In the past, much effort was directed towards identifying available habitat and the distribution of waterfowl and sandhill cranes along the Central Platte River, however much less is known about these species and their associated habitats along the North Platte River Valley.  In a collaborative effort between Ducks Unlimited, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission and the RWBJV, the North Platte Waterfowl and Sandhill Crane Habitat Selection Project was initiated.  The goal of this project is to increase our understanding of species habitat use and their distribution throughout the North Platte River Valley.  Preliminary wetland mapping in the North Platte River Valley by the RWBJV Science Office is currently underway.  Collectively the group will assess a 191-mile stretch of the North Platte River Valley, from the Nebraska State Line to the confluence of the North and South Platte Rivers.

Vegetation Management and Monitoring Workgroup:  The RWBJV partners continue to make progress on the Structured Decision Making (SDM) project, with the end goal of providing land managers in the RWB with a Best Management Practices document that synthesizes the probability of a change in vegetation community depending on the different management actions implemented.  The workgroup is composed of partners from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, The Nature Conservancy, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, Ducks Unlimited and the University of Nebraska –Lincoln.  The workgroup is completing the process of error-checking the four-year database.  The RWBJV Science Office, in conjunction with the partners has conducted a final review of all management actions performed on state and federal wetlands within the Rainwater Basin Wetland Complex.  Preliminary analysis of the vegetation community response to prescribed management using data collected from 2009-2012 is currently underway.  The SDM workgroup will meet this month to discuss final analysis methods, evaluate preliminary results, and outline the Best Management Practices document.

Whooping Crane Cooperative Recovery Initiative:  The Whooping Crane Cooperative Recovery Initiative was initiated earlier this year by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Refuge, Migratory Birds, and Refuge Divisions to complete watershed restoration activities for high-priority Waterfowl Production Areas to benefit whooping cranes.  In collaborative efforts between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife, the Rainwater Basin Wetland Management District, and the Crane Trust, the RWBJV partners distributed level-loggers in 18 Western Rainwater Basin wetlands to help monitor and evaluate the influence of our restoration actions on wetland hydrology.  The level-loggers will measure ponding duration, water depth, water temperature, and ponding frequency over the course of the 4-year project.  In addition, aerial flights were conducted this past spring to document whooping crane habitat use in the basins, while aerial photography was collected to document available habitat.  An additional Inventory and Monitoring Grant has been submitted to continue these monitoring efforts through 2016.  These monitoring activities will provide the RWBJV a mechanism to evaluate the pit fills and other restoration activities associated with the watershed restoration initiative.

2012 Revised Vegetation Map for the Rainwater Basin Wetland Complex:  As part of a 2011 Nebraska Game and Parks Commission Wetlands Reserve Enhancement Grant, the RWBJV Science Office continues to make progress on a vegetation inventory of all 11,000 historic wetland footprints.  This dataset will provide the RWBJV an opportunity to compare contemporary waterfowl carrying capacity to the conditions documented 10 years ago when the RWBJV completed the initial wetland vegetation inventory.  This will provide the partnership insight into the success of the RWBJV Management Initiative.  The dataset will also be used to develop management plans for the over 100 USDA (Natural Resources Conservation Service) Wetland Reserve Program tracts in the RWB.  The RWBJV also plans to complete another Conservation Effects Assessment Project Report for Natural Resources Conservation Service.  This report will highlight the changes in landscape carrying capacity as well as the contribution that USDA programs (Conservation Reserve Program and Wetlands Reserve Program) make to landscape-level waterfowl carrying capacity.  Ele Nugent with the RWBJV Science Office has done a fantastic job coordinating this project.

Communication and Outreach

 Nebraska Game and Parks Commission Tour:  Tim Smith, RWBJV Habitat Specialist, led a tour with Scott Taylor and Alicia Harden (Nebraska Game and Parks Commission) to highlight some of the Management and Working Lands Initiative projects in York and Seward Counties.  Tim has been very successful in coordinating these projects.  Based on a recent assessment, the RWBJV Management Initiative has treated 10,000 acres with herbicide and/or disking treatments, while the Working Lands Initiative has developed grazing infrastructure on 790 acres of privately owned wetlands.  Habitat conditions are changing for the good across the landscape thanks to these actions.  Thanks to the USFWS Partners Program, Ducks Unlimited, all of the private lands biologists, and public land managers that have collaborated with Tim to get these projects implemented.

Conservation Reserve Program Promotion:  In 2011, the RWBJV received USDA Farm Bill Section 1619 Conservation Cooperator Status.  This recognition allowed the USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) clearance to provide the RWBJV geospatial field boundaries and the associated owner and operator information to identify landowners and farm operators eligible for different conservation programs.  In collaboration with Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, Natural Resources Conservation Service, and Farm Service Agency, the RWBJV Science Office integrated multiple Geographical Information Systems (GIS) datasets including Highly Erodible Soils, Grassland Bird Areas, and land use data to develop a 5,000 name mailing list of landowners and farm operators with environmentally sensitive cropland.  These tracts were identified because if they were enrolled would significantly improve landscape capacity to support grassland birds and address programmatic soil/water conservation objectives.  Each of these land owners and farm operators received a direct mailing that highlighted the options available through the USDA programs.  This same approach, albeit with different GIS variables, was used to generate a 3,000 name mailing list for Nebraska Game and Parks Commission to promote their tall wheat stubble initiative.

Little Blue Natural Resources District Board of Directors Tour:  Mike Onnen, Little Blue Natural Resources District General Manager, organized a tour to highlight several RWBJV projects in the district.  Tour stops featured Working Lands Initiative projects, Watershed Restoration Initiative projects, and restoration/management projects completed on both public and private lands.  These tour stops highlighted multiple “win-win” projects that exist in the RWB on both public and private lands.

Nebraska Association of Natural Resources Districts:  The RWBJV presented to all of the Natural Resources District managers at the recent meeting of the Nebraska Association of Resources Districts (NARD).  The presentation highlighted the RWBJV’s approach to conservation: “Economically viable conservation actions that allow wetlands and wildlife habitat to be integrated into farm operations”.  The presentation also highlighted our work with the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program, Tri-Basin Natural Resources District, and Central Platte Natural Resources District.  These collaborative projects developed wildlife habitat and provided new tools for ground and surface water management.

I would like to use this opportunity to wish Pat O’Brien good luck in his new endeavor as General Manager of Upper-Niobrara White Natural Resources District.  Pat has supported the RWBJV in numerous capacities during his tenure with the NARD.  Pat has facilitated grant applications with the NARD to benefit RWB wetlands.  He took the lead, and submitted Wetlands Reserve Enhancement Program grants to both the Natural Resources Conservation Service and Nebraska Environmental Trust.  Pat has also served on the RWBJV Nebraska Trust Species and Habitat Workgroup.  I will miss the opportunity to work with Pat in his current capacity, but am pleased to welcome Jennifer Swanson, the new NARD Liaison.  I have full confidence that Jennifer and the NARD will continue their support for the RWBJV.   

Wetlands Reserve Program Bio-engineering Tour:  Special thanks to Jeremy Jirak and John Meyers (USDA; Natural Resources Conservation Service) for hosting a tour of some of the recently completed Wetlands Reserve Program projects.  Jeremy has been instrumental in marketing this program to eligible producers.  Since Jeremy came on board, we have been able to develop the pivot crossing option and have seen program enrollment double.  John has done some great engineering to ensure that these wetland restorations provide desired habitat conditions and complement the producer’s operation.

Natural Resources Conservation Service Chief Jason Weller Visits RWB:  Chief Weller visited the RWB to evaluate projects associated with the Ogallala Aquifer Initiative.  Nebraska has been a leader in implementation of this initiative.  Chief Weller visited numerous projects that highlighted the water savings practices (conversion to pivot irrigation, subsurface drip, pivot nozzle conversion) implemented as part of this initiative.  These water savings measures will significantly reduce consumption, but I hope we can also start to focus on protection, restoration, and enhancement of playa wetlands that are one of the key recharge points to the aquifer.  A resilient aquifer capable of providing water for agriculture, municipal use, and wildlife will require both reducing consumption and increasing recharge.

RWBJV Updates

The Great Plains Landscape Conservation Cooperative Data Steward: Roger Grosse, a GIS Analyst for the RWBJV, has recently expanded his duties to include Data Steward for the Great Plains Landscape Conservation Cooperative (GPLCC).  This will be a shared position between the GPLCC and RWBJV.  This position will continue to be housed in Grand Island, Nebraska.  The RWBJV partnership is excited about this new relationship with the GPLCC and look forward to working with researchers across the entire Great Plains region.

Winter Wheat Initiative for the Rainwater Basin:  RWBJV Management Board member Bob Bettger is always thinking outside of the box, and challenging the RWB partners to find ways to develop economically viable options for producers to develop wildlife habitat.  At a recent meeting with Pioneer Seed, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, and Nebraska Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, we discussed integrating winter wheat into seed corn operations.  Winter wheat has been documented as a good nitrogen scavenger (possible cover crop in a corn/seed corn rotation) and provides good nesting cover for pheasants and other grassland species.  A workgroup comprised of local Natural Resources District staff and University of Nebraska, Lincoln personnel has been developed to quantify the effectiveness of winter wheat as a nitrogen scavenger.  Next steps will include determining economic incentives needed to integrate winter wheat into current seed corn rotations, prioritizing Groundwater Management Areas with high nitrate levels, and identifying the landscapes where winter wheat could significantly increase pheasant production.

Nebraska Trust Species and Habitat Fund:  The first project has been funded through the Nebraska Trust Species and Habitat Fund.  A $7,500 contribution from the Nebraska Trust Species and Habitat Fund will be made to the Nebraska Land Trust to support the easement defense fund for the Boekircher Conservation Easement.  This project, in Lincoln County, will add to a protected block of habitat that includes the 1,900 acre Wildlife Management Area (Wapiti WMA), as well as Nine Penny and Dunse Ranches, which have similar conservation easements.  An easement on the Boerkicher Ranch will protect this large block of habitat from future development and contribute to the goals and objectives in the Nebraska Legacy Plan for conservation of both grassland birds and the federally endangered American Burying Beetle.

Rainwater Basin Joint Venture Implementation Plan Update:  The Waterfowl Plan, Shorebird Plan, and Waterbird Plan have been finalized.  I would like to thank Joel Jorgensen (Nebraska Game and Parks Commission) for overseeing the final drafting of the Shorebird Plan and Aaron Pearse (USGS; Northern Prairies Research Station) for finalizing the Waterbird Plan.  The Landbird Plan is currently being reviewed by the workgroups.  I have received multiple comments from RWBJV partners and favorable reviews from the National Landbird Coordinator and Division of Migratory Birds (USFWS).  Thanks to Chris Jorgensen and Melissa Panella for agreeing to oversee the final revision process.  All four of the bird plans will be presented to the RWBJV Management Board and Technical Committee August 1st for review.  A meeting is scheduled August 22 to discuss these plans and develop a strategy to finalize the overarching RWBJV Implementation Plan that will synthesize the RWBJV framework and integrate the conservation targets/strategies outlined in the four RWBJV bird plans.

WRP Contract Specialist:  The RWBJV finalized the interagency agreement to support this position.  With the sequestration and hiring freeze, the RWBJV was not be able to hire this position as a USFWS employee.  The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission is going to hold the position.  The job announcement is available at (http://outdoornebraska.ne.gov/admin/jobs/pdf/pos03305073.pdf).  This position will provide critical support to ensure the backlog of Natural Resources Conservation Service Wetlands Reserve Program restoration and management actions can be completed.  Special thanks to Alicia Harden for making this position a reality.

Cooperative Recovery Initiative Grant:  The RWBJV partners have received preliminary approval for a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Inventory and Monitoring Grant to evaluate the success of our Cooperative Recovery Initiative grant to support Watershed Restoration actions.  This $208,000 grant will provide funding to collection and analysis of data collected in restored and reference wetlands.  This data in conjunction with other datasets will allow the RWBJV to evaluate the success of our restoration actions on wetland hydrology. It will also allow us to monitor western Rainwater Basin wetlands in the spring and fall for whooping crane use, and to continue RWBJV spring Annual Habitat Surveys through 2016.

Great Plains Landscape Conservation Cooperative Grants:  The RWBJV will be able to address several key uncertainties in our planning framework through five projects funded by the Great Plains Landscape Conservation Cooperative.  LaGrange et al. will evaluate shorebird habitat selection and foraging resources available to shorebirds and waterfowl in wetlands under different ownership and management regimes.  Tang et al. will utilize Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) to run the RUSLE (Revised Universal Soil Loss Equation) to develop a spatially explicit model identifying areas around RWB wetlands most susceptible to sedimentation and wetland degradation.  Skagen et al. will be evaluating the potential impacts of climate change on shorebird habitat and ultimately shorebird migration.  Davis et al. will evaluate habitat selection and habitat use by waterfowl and sandhill cranes along the North Platte River.  The RWBJV and PLJV collectively submitted a human dimensions grant to conduct a series of 15 listening sessions to better understand landowner and farm operator perceptions of playas and the existing conservation programs available for conservation of these unique wetland resources.

Landscape Conservation Design Grant:  The RWBJV and PLJV collectively submitted a Landscape Design Grant for National Landscape Conservation Cooperative funding.  The project, if funded, would result in a robust set of planning tools that could be used to guide playa wetland conservation necessary to support shorebirds and other wetland-dependent species that rely on the geography of the Great Plains Landscape Conservation Cooperative during their annual life cycle.  It is envisioned that these tools could be seamlessly integrated into Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Ogallala Aquifer Initiative, which calls for conservation of 250,000 acres of playa wetlands to sustain recharge to the aquifer.

Nebraska Wind and Wildlife Workgroup Mitigation Subcommittee:  The RWBJV presented to the Nebraska Wind and Wildlife Workgroup Mitigation Subcommittee.  The presentation focused on the Nebraska Trust Species and Habitat Fund and options available through the fund.  Feedback was very positive.  As a result of the meeting, the RWBJV will continue to be engaged with the subcommittee and larger workgroup to provide geospatial data and possibly management of mitigation funds as part of the Nebraska Trust Species and Habitat Fund.  Thanks to Caroline Jezierski for the opportunity to present and engage the group.

Ogallala Aquifer Initiative:  The RWBJV and PLJV have had several meetings with the Natural Resources Conservation Service to discuss strategies to implement the 250,000 acre playa wetland goal that is part of this initiative.  The statewide Playa Wetland Prioritization Tool created in partnership between the two Joint Ventures will be an important foundation.  The listening sessions with local producers, supported through the Great Plains Landscape Conservation Cooperative, should provide some new insight into the current set of conservation programs and incentives that will be necessary to achieve these playa wetland habitat goals.  The ability of the RWBJV to complete directed mailings will also be an important tool for marketing the programs to eligible producers.

Integrating RWB Wetlands for Groundwater Recharge:  The RWBJV partners continue to meet with Central Public Power and Irrigation District and the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program (PRRIP) to determine the opportunities to use canal water to fill western RWB wetlands to achieve groundwater recharge, water storage, and in stream flow targets.  These actions will provide numerous benefits for the PRRIP, Tri-Basin Natural Resources District, habitat on state and federal lands adjacent to the canal system, and private wetlands adjacent to the surface water system.  Several private landowners with RWB wetlands adjacent to the canal have expressed interest in being involved in the program.  The USFWS and NGPC are completing cost assessments, evaluating management concerns, and evaluating when additional water could be integrated into their properties without negatively impacting management plans.