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December 2014 – March 2015 Update

Spring Migration is right around the corner. We have great water and habitat conditions in the east basins this year. If you’re in the area, take some time to enjoy the world-renowned waterfowl and shorebird migration spectacle this spring. The following update highlights a variety of different RWBJV partnership activities.

Biological Planning & Conservation Design Activities

“Conservation Reserve Program Surge”: Greg Reisdorff, Conservation Program Specialist with the Nebraska Farm Service Agency, has worked closely with numerous conservation agencies, across the state, to develop tools to increase enrollment in the Conservation Reserve Program. The RWBJV Science Office has worked directly with the Farm Service Agency to develop and/or compile map layers highlighting eligible lands for the Platte/Republican Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, stream buffer programs, and the Highly Erodible Lands Initiative. Large-format maps (3’ x 3’) have been sent to each United States Department of Agriculture county office. These maps are being used by county office staff to inform producers of Conservation Reserve Program options for which they would be eligible. The RWBJV Science Office is also working with the Natural Resources Conservation Service and Farm Service Agency to develop tools for future direct mailings. This includes a cropping history layer and a grassland bird diversity layer.

North and South Platte River Waterfowl and Sandhill Crane Surveys: After the successful survey season last spring, the waterfowl and Sandhill Crane surveys are being conducted again this year. Both years of survey data will be compiled and analyzed in a Geographic Information System to better understand local and landscape-level features that influence habitat selection by these birds. Thanks to Heather Johnson with Nebraska Game and Parks for taking on the observer role again this year.

Conservation Effects Assessment Project:The RWBJV Science Office conducted an analysis of the 2004 and 2012 Rainwater Basin wetland vegetation maps to understand changes in carrying capacity for waterfowl and shorebirds. Both vegetation communities and accessible foraging resources were compared to determine how vegetation communities and forage availability have shifted over time. The changes were also assessed on conservation lands to determine how our conservation actions are affecting accessible forage for waterfowl and shorebirds. The findings of the analysis, along with a description of the recently completed 2012 vegetation map, are outlined in a Conservation Effect Assessment Project report. The document is currently in review by the authors. When the report is completed, the 2004 and 2012 vegetation maps and the report will be made available for public download from the RWBJV website.

Rainwater Basin Easement Prioritization Model: A draft easement prioritization tool has been generated by the RWBJV Science Office. The tool evaluates both local and landscape factors to identify potential easement priorities.

Criteria considered were:

  1. Historic wetland area
  2. Current functional wetland area
  3. Proximity to existing conservation areas
  4. Contemporary wetland density
  5. Number of different landowners within the same wetland basin
  6. Potential upland buffer area
  7. Potential for supplemental water
  8. Presence of transmission lines

9. Distance to/area away from disturbance features.

The preliminary model output will be reviewed by the RWBJV Acquisition Workgroup to refine the prioritization criteria and ensure the output can effectively guide our future marketing and outreach activities.

Interior Least Tern & Piping Plover Nesting Analysis: Geospatial analysis has been completed to delineate suitable nesting habitat for Least Terns and Piping Plovers along the central Platte River in 2013. The RWBJV Science Office is currently documenting results, which will be provided to the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program.

Best Management Practices for Rainwater Basin Wetlands: This document is being developed as an update to the original 1994 Best Management Practices document. The goal is to describe the wetland management methods used in the Rainwater Basin and provide a synthesis of the effectiveness of these methods based on field data collected from 2009 through 2012. The data has been analyzed in conjunction with management treatment data to estimate the probability that an area will transition from one vegetation state to another after the application of one or more management treatments. A cost-benefit analysis and an analysis of effects of treatments over multiple years are also currently in progress. This document will be reviewed by multiple RWBJV workgroups and should be finalized by the end of the calendar year. This will be a valuable resource for both public land managers and private lands biologists. Thanks to all of the partners that have contributed to the project and helped get it so close to the finish line.


Communication and Outreach

Conservation Program Panel: The Farm Service Agency, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, RWBJV staff, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service were all panel participants at the Nebraska Association of Resources Districts annual Legislative Conference. The panel was well attended and provided all of the partners an opportunity to highlight their focus areas, different programs offered, types of agreements used to implement the programs, and points of contact. To follow up on this event, the RWBJV Private Lands Workgroup will be updating the Nebraska Conservation Toolbox fact sheet. The one-page fact sheet will highlight different programs that are that are available and points of contact. A complementary fact sheet will be developed for the Rainwater Basin Wetland Complex highlighting the additional options available in this landscape.

Natural Resources Conservation Service Conservation Webinar: The RWBJV and U.S. Geological Survey were asked to present on the importance of working lands in south-central Nebraska for migratory birds. Aaron Pearse (USGS) and Ele Nugent (RWBJV) did a great job highlighting the importance of waste grain and wetland habitats found in both the Rainwater Basin Wetland Complex and along the Central Platte River. The webinar can be viewed at the following link: http://www.conservationwebinars.net/webinars/connecting-migratory-waterbirds-and-working-lands-in-south-central-nebraska

Communication Plan: The RWBJV Communications Workgroup continues to make good progress working with communication specialist Ashley Dayer to develop the revised RWBJV Communication Plan. Now that target audiences have been identified by the partners, Ashley is moving into the information gathering phase. During this phase, Ashley will be conducting interviews with individuals from a cross section of the target audiences. Some of the audiences include RWBJV workgroups, agriculture industry, local media, agriculture producers, and farm managers. This assessment will ensure that the RWBJV Communication Plan identifies the messages that resonate with these audiences and the tools that should be employed to successfully reach out to these different audiences.

Rainwater Basin Joint Venture 20th Annual Informational Seminar: The 20th annual RWBJV Informational Seminar was a great success. The planning team again did a great job identifying presenters, organizing the venue, and creating a great atmosphere. This year there were 170 attendees; there was great feedback on the plenary speakers as well as the concurrent presenters. Thanks again to Niki Messmer and the Communications Workgroup for putting together another great event.

Sand County Foundation Tour: The RWBJV was able to arrange a special tour for the Sand County Foundation’s Water As A Crop program director Craig Ficenec. During the tour we visited several RWBJV projects and discussed the opportunities to integrate the Sand County Foundation’s Water As A Crop program into the Rainwater Basin Wetland Complex in the future. The practices outlined in the Divots in the Pivots Regional Conservation Partnership Program could be a great fit.

Nebraska Game and Parks Commission Partners Section Meeting: The Reverse Auction concept, being proposed in the Rainwater Basin and Playa Lakes Migratory Bird State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE), was the focus of this presentation. There was great feedback from the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission’s Partners Section on ways to improve and streamline delivery of SAFE contracts. Based on the feedback, we established acreage targets for each of the playa complexes (Rainwater Basin – 20,000 acres, Central Table Playas – 2,000 acres, Southwest Playas – 3,000 acres), developed reference prices for each of the playa complexes, and established restoration costs thought to be reflective of the enrollment ratios (wetland to upland) in the three wetland complexes.


RWBJV Updates

Memorandum of Understanding with Farm Service Agency: With passage of the new Food Security Act and associated Farm Bill, the RWBJV had to develop a new Memorandum of Understanding with the Farm Service Agency for data sharing. We have successfully executed the agreement, and now the RWBJV Science Office has access to the Common Land Unit and Conservation Reserve Program geospatial datasets. These datasets continue to become more robust and now have owner and operator information associated with each field boundary. We plan to work with the Farm Service Agency to utilize this information to develop targeted mailings to producers. This type of Geographic Information System analysis will allow mailings to be customized to describe the programs for which each recipient would be eligible.

New Tri-Basin Natural Resources District Board Member: The Tri-Basin Natural Resources District Board has named Director Joe Bilka as their alternate to the RWBJV Management Board. Joe lives and farms in the Holdrege area and has a strong interest in conservation and water management. In January, Joe, RWBJV Board Member Gloria Erickson, and I toured multiple projects on public and private lands in the western basins. Tour stops highlighted restoration on public lands, watershed restorations to improve hydrology to public and private lands, and Working Lands Initiative projects.

RWBJV Water Workgroup: The goal of this newly established ad-hoc workgroup is to revise the original plan developed by the RWBJV partners in 1993. In the recently revised Implementation Plan the RWBJV partners’ stated goal is 45% ponded habitat on all project lands under average climate conditions. Wetland and watershed restoration, as well as supplemental water deliveries were identified as strategies to achieve this goal. The ultimate goal for the RWBJV Water Management Plan is to define and articulate funding necessary to achieve our 45% ponding frequency objective.

Evaluation Plan: The RWBJV Science Coordinator, Dana Varner (University of Nebraska – Lincoln/Nebraska Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit), has an initial draft of the RWBJV Evaluation Plan complete. This plan identifies the key uncertainties in the Implementation Plan and associated RWBJV Bird Plans. There was good discussion at the RWBJV Technical Committee that this plan does not represent a to-do list, but rather a tool to inform partners about the different research questions that have been identified. The plan also provides a mechanism to get additional research questions answered when researchers want to study the Rainwater Basin Wetland Complex or other geographic focus areas in the RWBJV Administrative Area. The draft will receive additional reviews by the Conservation Planning Workgroup before it will be finalized at the RWBJV July 2015 Management Board Meeting.

Grants Updates

Migratory Bird State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement: As described above, the RWBJV and Playa Lakes Joint Venture are again working together to develop a SAFE Conservation Reserve Program option in Kansas and Nebraska. This Conservation Reserve Program would be available to landowners with playa wetlands. Enrollment criteria would include:

  1. At least 15% of the offered acres are playa wetlands.
  2. Within the offered acres, up to a 4:1 upland to wetland buffer would be accepted.
  3. Rental rates would be established using a reverse auction, where the producer would establish the rental rate. This offer would be compared to a reference price for the geography. Only 75% of the offers would be accepted for each geographic focus area per sign-up. Sign-up would be continuous, but sign-up deadlines would be set.
  4. Enrolled playas would be restored to the fullest extent possible and at least a 120-foot buffer (short- and mixed-grass species) around the wetland..
  5. Contracts would be 10 or 15 years in duration, with grazing being the preferred management option.

If this program comes to fruition, it will fit a unique niche the partnership currently cannot offer producers as part of our conservation toolbox.

Cooperative Recovery Initiative Grant: The RWBJV was awarded a $223,925 Cooperative Recovery Initiative grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to support restoration of Ritterbush Waterfowl Production Area and the adjacent Freda Wild tract to benefit Whooping Cranes. The addition of the 120-acre Freda Wild tract to Ritterbush Waterfowl Production Area will allow the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to own and manage approximately 90% of this wetland basin. As part of this project, the RWBJV partners will work together to complete a full hydrologic restoration to the extent possible. Slated restoration activities include filling five irrigation reuse pits in the southern portion of the watershed, filling two small dugouts within the wetland footprint, and establishing perimeter fence and livestock watering facilities to maximize effectiveness of grazing as a management tool. Preliminary concept plans have been developed and hopefully we can start construction this summer.

North American Wetlands Conservation Act Grant: Matt Hough, Ducks Unlimited, will be submitting another North American Wetlands Conservation Act grant this cycle. This $820,000 grant, “Central Flyway Migration Corridor Phase II,” contains a variety of projects in both Kansas and Nebraska. In the Rainwater Basin, restoration activities are slated at Shypoke and Sacramento-Wilcox Wildlife Management Areas. Whiskey Flats and several other private lands projects are slated for restoration. The grant also covers enhancement activities to maximize habitat conditions on both public and private lands. Thanks to all of the partners who identified projects and committed match.

Nebraska Environmental Trust Grants: The RWBJV partners recently received preliminary approval for two grants. The Nebraska Association of Resources Districts received preliminary approval for a $500,000 grant to support the conservation actions outlined in the Regional Conservation Partnership Program grant “Divots in the Pivots”. These activities include wetland restoration, wetland protection, and development of precision irrigation systems on tracts with restored wetlands. The RWBJV is also slated to receive a new Working Lands Initiative grant. This grant will continue the activities that were initiated in our initial grant, including perimeter fence, cross fence, livestock wells, and communication and outreach to area producers about the opportunities to graze Rainwater Basin wetlands.