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April 2012 Update

As always migration was awe inspiring this spring.  Thanks to all of the partners that have worked so hard to ensure the RWB continues to provide the critical wetland habitat.

 

Projects

The RWBJV had its most successful year ever in FY 2011.  The partners leveraged $2,796,975.70 in project funds to positively influence 9,571.0 acres of wetlands and associated uplands in the RWB.  I think a lot of the success can be credited to the partnership’s commitment to the watershed restoration, management, and working lands initiatives.  Thanks to all of the partners that have contributed to these significant accomplishments.

 

Watershed Initiative

Hanson Waterfowl Production Area. With the dry winter and spring conditions, the restoration at Hanson Waterfowl Production Area is underway.  The project includes removing several surface drains and concentration pits and removal of a dike that divided the basin.  Several irrigation re-use pits in the watershed are also being filled as part of the project.

 

Father Hupp Wildlife Management Area. Restoration of Father Hupp WMA will be a two-phase project.  In March, Phase I was completed, which included removing sediment and elevated berms that were within the hydric soil footprint.  Excavated material was used to fill adjacent pits on private lands to increase watershed function.  Phase I of the project also includes tree removal and construction of perimeter fence to facilitate grazing as a management tool.  Phase II of the project will be designed once the topographic survey is completed.

 

Working Lands Initiative:  We continue to make great strides on the Working Lands Initiative.  The RWBJV partners completed the first of three projects associated with our Working Lands Initiative.  These projects provided grazing infrastructure on 204 acres of wetlands and associated acres.  The partners leveraged $60,770 to complete these projects.  These projects will allow us to close out a State Wildlife Grant that was awarded to the RWBJV.  The RWBJV was awarded a NET grant to continue these projects in the future.  The partnership’s goal over the next three years is to develop grazing infrastructure on 1,600 acres of idled wetlands and associated uplands.

A full list of active projects is provided as an attachment.

 

Research and Monitoring

A Structured Decision Making Approach to Evaluate Management Success:  The SDM team continues to make great strides analyzing the management and monitoring data that was collected on public lands over the last three years.  All of the data have been integrated into a database which allows management actions to be evaluated with the click of a button.  The database is being customized so that it can populate the probability tables that will describe impacts of management on different vegetation communities.  At the upcoming meetings the team will be working to define grazing treatments (timing, duration, and intensity) and evaluate the impacts of these treatments on different vegetation communities.  The team has also started drafting a revised Best Management Plan of Rainwater Basin Wetlands.  This plan will help distill the results from the monitoring data and provide land managers and private lands biologists a resource to help guide future management of Rainwater Basin Wetlands.  Members of the SDM team are Jeff Drahota (USFWS), Rich Walters (TNC), Heidi Hillhouse (eTech Consulting), Rick Souerdyke and Jeff Hoffman (Nebraska Game and Parks Commission).

 

Annual Habitat Survey:  The 2012 Annual Habitat Survey data was collected in late February and is being processed and analyzed.  This marks the ninth year that data have been collected.  This baseline dataset is being analyzed in conjunction with climate data to tease out variables that contribute to spring habitat.  The data are also being incorporated into RWBJV Decision Support Tools to prioritize marketing and outreach about conservation programs to those producers with flood-prone cropland.

 

Biological Planning & Conservation Design Activities

Focus on Pheasants:  The RWBJV GIS office is working with Nebraska Game and Parks Commission to develop landscape inventories, develop pheasant habitat model, and develop Decision Support Tools to help prioritize conservation delivery in the future.  Another goal of this project is to evaluate habitat needs for other grassland species and determine how to maximize habitat for both pheasants and other priority grassland nesting birds.

 

Evaluation of Conservation Reserve Program Acres:  The RWBJV GIS office just started a project with Nebraska Game and Parks Commission to evaluate the impact of CRP Conservation Practice 33 acres on landscape capacity to support bobwhite quail.  In addition, the Joint Venture will also coordinate with state biologists to evaluate the impact of State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement on the landscape’s capacity to support Greater Prairie-Chicken.  This analysis will allow the state to demonstrate success of the program and hopefully provide critical information to justify future acre requests.  Thanks to Jake Holt, John Laux, and Justin Haahrr for helping move this project forward.

 

Nebraska Wind and Wildlife Working Group Meeting Summary:  The Joint Venture continues to coordinate with the Wind and Wildlife Working group.  The Joint Venture GIS shop and Nebraska Game and Parks Commission are just finishing the Western Governors Association project to develop the Critical Habitat Assessment Tool.  This tool will be used to identify potential conflicts between wind development and sensitive species.  The next phase of the project will involve RWBJV and Nebraska Game and Parks Commission coordinating with private lands biologists and species experts to review the species habitat models and develop a web-based viewer.

 

Communication and Outreach

Region 6 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Tour:  In March, the Region 6 Directorate came to the Rainwater Basin and Platte River for a regional planning meeting.  While here, directorate members were able to view the sandhill cranes at Rowe Sanctuary and visit several Platte River restorations.  In the Basins the directorate saw firsthand the watershed restorations at Clark and Prairie Dog Waterfowl Production Areas, and stopped at the Hultquist Working Lands project.  Thanks to Ronnie Sanchez, Kirk Schroeder, and Kenny Dinan (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service), Charlie Brooks (Tri-Basin Natural Resources District), Ted LaGrange (Nebraska Game and Parks Commission) and Steve Donovan Ducks Unlimited) for helping coordinating the tours and field visits.

 

Washington D.C. Association of Joint Venture Management Boards:  The annual trip to Washington was a great success.  At the Association of Joint Venture Management Boards there was good discussion about strategic growth and assessment of funding needs to complete all-bird conservation.  The association has also been a vocal advocate for the Joint Venture Legislation that would make the Joint Venture an authorized program.

 

During the trip Ardell Epp and I, along with Playa Lakes Joint Venture staff, met with national program representatives from Natural Resources Conservation Service and Farm Service Agency to discuss opportunities to leverage existing U.S. Department of Agriculture programs for playa conservation.  As a result of these meetings the RWBJV partners are working to develop a Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) that will offer irrigated rental rates for Conservation Reserve Program acres in the RWB.  We also received funding for Phase II of the Wetlands Reserve Enhancement Program that will allow pivots to cross acres under easement.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack Listening Session on Conservation Reserve Program:  In March, the Secretary of Agriculture had a listening session in conjunction with the National Farmers Union Convention.  The focus of the session was to gain insight into ways to make USDA conservation programs work more effectively in highly agriculture landscapes.  Several RWBJV Management Board members were able to attend and highlighted the importance of flexible farm programs in the upcoming Farm Bill.

 

State Legislative and Nebraska Environmental Trust Tour

State Senator Gloor, from Grand Island, sponsored a RWB tour to highlight conservation activities occurring throughout the basins.  During the tour we visited several Wetlands Reserve Program sites, public lands that have been managed through the RWBJV management initiative, and Heron Waterfowl Production Area to highlight a planned restoration that will include on-site restoration as well as watershed restoration activities.

 

National Fish and Wildlife Foundation Tour

The RWBJV partners were fortunate to have Jeff Trandahl, Executive Director for the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and several of his staff out to the Platte River and Rainwater Basins during migration.  The sandhill cranes cooperated perfectly and we were able to view the birds coming into and leaving roosts.  We were also able to make several tour stops in the RWB.  Tour stops included recent acquisitions at Troester Basin Waterfowl Production Area, management actions at Hultine Waterfowl Production Area, and the tile drain and restoration potential at Nelson Waterfowl Production Area.  The tour provided a great forum for us to discuss conservation issues in Nebraska and the importance of this region from a flyway perspective.

Leopold Conservation Award:  The RWBJV was a partner with a variety of conservation groups and the Sand County Foundation to support the Leopold Conservation Award.  The Buell Family from near Bassett was recognized as this year’s award winners.  This event provides a great opportunity for those individuals and families that demonstrate a conservation ethic to be recognized.

 

RWBJV Updates

Science Coordinator

I would like to introduce and welcome Chris Jorgensen as the new RWBJV Science Coordinator.  Chris will start May 14, and will be spending a significant portion of his first month with partners to gain an understanding of partner needs and key uncertainties that may be inhibiting conservation success.  I will be coordinating with Chris to arrange meetings with the partners.  If you would like to schedule a time to visit with Chris please call the office and we will get you on Chris’s calendar.

 

Farm Service Agency Meeting: FSA 1619 Conservation Cooperator Status:

The RWBJV office has been officially approved as a section 1619 Conservation Cooperator.  As part of our request the RWBJV GIS shop will have access to the Common Land Unit field boundaries as well as owner and operator information.  Our Agreement will not allow us to share this information, but we can analyze the data to develop strategic marketing and outreach mailings.  The JV GIS shop will be able to integrate this data into Decision Support Tools that will identify eligible owners and operators whose lands, if enrolled, would provide the greatest return for the investment.  From these queries the JV office will be able to coordinate with partners to develop directed mailing that market available programs to eligible producers.

 

Central Basins Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program:

The RWBJV partners will be assisting NGPC and FSA in drafting an amendment to the Central Basins Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CB CREP).  For planning purposes the Private Lands Workgroup set a goal of 1,000 acres to be enrolled over the next five years.  The Private Lands Workgroup has worked with Eric Zach (Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, Agriculture Program Manager) to develop a potential slate of incentives to make this program economically viable for playa conservation.  Some of the proposed incentives would be irrigated rental rates, and 100% restoration costs, provided that full hydrologic restoration can be completed on-site.  With the Section 1619 Conservation Cooperator Status, the RWBJV GIS shop will be able to integrate current Decision Support Tools to effectively market CREP to eligible landowners in high priority wetland complexes.

 

Nebraska Trust Species and Habitat Fund

We continue to make good progress on the Nebraska Trust Species and Habitat Fund (formally Legacy Project Workgroup).  The RWBJV has worked closely with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, and Nebraska Community Foundation to clarify the fund management and roles.  Based on the last teleconference, the role of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is to work with project proponents in developing offsets to mitigate impacts.  At times these offsets will be a monetary contribution to the Nebraska Community Foundation.  The RWBJV partnership, through the Nebraska Trust Species and Habitat workgroup, will engage partners and facilitate project delivery based on the recommendations of ad-hoc species workgroups when necessary.

 

Wetlands Reserve Enhancement Program Applications:  The RWBJV partnership was awarded two Wetlands Reserve Enhancement Program (WREP) applications in the latest application period.  The first application is a continuance of the pivot crossing WREP.  This proposal is requesting $2.8 million over the next three years to protect, restore, and enhance 750 acres of wetlands and associated uplands.  This proposal provides a unique opportunity for producers to develop wetland projects through the Wetlands Reserve Program without jeopardizing the functionality of their pivot irrigation systems.  These projects represent a “win-win” for producers and for the wetland resources in the RWB.  The Nebraska Association of Natural Resources Districts was the project sponsor for this proposal.  Special thanks to Dean Edson and Pat O’Brien with Nebraska Association of Natural Resources Districts for submitting this proposal on behalf of the RWBJV partnership.

 

The second WREP application provides financial assistance to complete a landscape-scale assessment of habitat conditions in the RWB and site-level monitoring to document habitat conditions at the nearly 100 WRP tracts.  This project will fund region-wide acquisition of fall and spring color infrared aerial photography.  The imagery will be analyzed in conjunction with the monitoring data collected at U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Waterfowl Production Areas, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission Wildlife Management Areas and at the Wetlands Reserve Program tracts to develop a geospatial vegetation map of habitat conditions in 2012.  This 2012 assessment will allow the RWBJV partnership to compare contemporary habitat conditions to those documented in 2004.  The assessment will allow the partners to quantify the loss/gain of desired vegetation communities, evaluate project success, and reevaluate conservation objectives.  Thanks to Ted LaGrange and Nebraska Game and Parks for submitting this proposal for the RWBJV partnership.

 

Habitat and Population Evaluation Team:  The RWBJV GIS staff met representatives from the Habitat and Population and Evaluation team, Rainwater Basin Wetland Management District, and Refuge staff from the Regional Office to discuss potential collaboration and partnership opportunities to ensure we are not duplicating GIS and planning efforts.  I think there are a number of opportunities, and look forward to increasing our communication and interaction with the Habitat and Population and Evaluation Team as well as with the Refuge Inventory and Monitoring Program.

 

National Bird Plans:  As part of the revised Implementation Plan we have drafted RWBJV-specific plans for each of the national bird conservation plans.  This includes chapters for shorebirds, landbirds, waterbirds, and waterfowl.  The Implementation Plan and these bird plans will be available for review by the core writing team by the middle of June and for workgroups by July.

 

 

Working Lands Initiative:  The Private Lands Workgroup continues to move forward in developing the vision, programmatic options, and expanded partnerships that will be necessary to integrate wetlands and grazing back into farm operations in the basins.  The Technical Committee met with Kristen Hassebrook of the Nebraska Cattlemen to discuss vision and the next steps to develop the right messaging about programmatic options and goals of the initiative.  These discussions have challenged us as a partnership and as a result I think we are going to be successful in implementing this initiative.  Some initial ideas include:

  1. A whitepaper that describes the objectives of grazing wetlands
  2. Sample grazing plans that highlight objectives stocking rates, and give producers an idea of what to expect.
  3. How grazing is completed on public lands, private lands under easement, and other lands.
  4. Developing a schedule and a streamlined process to receive Compatible Use Authorization for grazing WRP tracts.  This will allow producers more time to line up tenants or adjust their current grazing operations.
  5. A forage production page hosted by the Department of Agriculture and the Nebraska Cattlemen that can be used to link up owners of wetlands with producers who would like to lease grazing lands.
  6. Project write-ups that describe recently completed projects and the producers, with testimonies.
  7. Facilitated meetings between biologists and landowners with recently completed projects, to discuss the projects and identify the elements that went well and those that could be improved.
  8. Coordinate with University Extension to highlight forage production and ratios for different operations (yearlings, cow-calf, back grounding) grazing in wetlands to help producers know what to expect when grazing wetlands.

Thanks to Ritch Nelson (NRCS), Laurel Badura (USFWS), and Scott Luedtke (NGPC) for their thoughts and input on how we can move this from a project-driven initiative to a culturally accepted, economically viable activity on the landscape.

 

Grants Update

The RWBJV received final approval for the Working Lands Initiative from the Nebraska Environmental Trust.  This grant will provide $250,000 in NET funds that will be matched with $250,000 in partner (including landowner) contributions.