The Pintail Wildlife Management Area (WMA) is owned by the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission (NGPC) and is located five miles south and 2 miles east of Aurora in Hamilton County. Pintail WMA contains approximately 360 acres of playa wetland and 118 acres of upland habitat. The 478 acres of land that make up the Pintail WMA was acquired over a 16 year period through four separate land acquisitions. The first tract was acquired in 1978 and the last parcel was purchased in 1993. Pintail WMA is open for public uses such as hunting, trapping, bird watching, and hiking. It is primarily managed for waterfowl and upland game and is one of 36 WMAs owned and managed by the NGPC in the Rainwater Basin (RWB) region in south-central Nebraska. These 36 WMAs are scattered through 11 counties and contain a combined total of 8,953 acres of upland and wetland habitat.
The RWB wetland complex covers 6,100 square miles of land throughout 21 counties. Historically, this landscape contained over 11,000 shallow playa wetlands covering over 204,000 acres, or approximately 5% of the landscape. Playas are primarily wind formed, isolated wetlands that are not connected to natural drainages. They are “perched” as much as 300 feet above the underlying aquifer and often function as groundwater recharge sites. Each wetland has a unique watershed that channels runoff from precipitation and snowmelt to the wetland. Water levels of RWB wetlands are very dynamic and fluctuate on both annual and yearly cycles. Levels can range from entirely dry to deeply flooded to everything in between. Before agricultural development, the uplands surrounding these wetlands were tall and mixed-grass prairie. Today, the RWB landscape is dominated by row-crop agriculture. Nearly 65% of the RWB landscape is cultivated for agricultural production while 19% remains in upland grasslands. RWB wetlands make up less than 1% of the landscape. Loss from various conversion activities has resulted in only 20% (40,000 acres) of the historic playa wetlands remaining in the RWB region.
The watershed of Pintail WMA is 4,058 acres and supplies runoff to the 360 acres of wetland habitat. Most of the wetland is semi-permanent but it also contains areas of both seasonal and temporary wetland as well. As is the case with most RWB wetlands purchased by the NGPC, the wetland on the Pintail WMA had various hydrology modifications put in place by previous landowners, usually in an attempt to shrink the size of the wetland and increase the amount of farmland. These modifications were mostly water concentration pits, berms, ditches and fill. In addition, sediment that washed into the wetland from surrounding crop fields over a long period of time affected hydrology and, where it accumulated, made the wetland shallower. Once an area is acquired, NGPC strives to remove these hydrology modifications and attempts to restore the wetland to a more naturally functioning historic condition.
Over the past 23 years, since the last parcel was purchased, the NGPC has completed several wetland restoration/enhancement projects on Pintail WMA. The first project was completed in 1995. An existing low level berm, built by the previous landowner to isolate 45 acre area from the main wetland, was repaired and a water control structure placed in it. A water concentration pit near the berm was also filled back to grade using excavated sediment to create additional shallow water habitat. A groundwater well on the east boundary of the WMA is now used to pump water into this moist soil management unit during dry periods. The lone well does not have enough capacity to inundate the entire 360 acre wetland, but the smaller unit can be pumped so that at least some wetland habitat can be flooded for migratory birds during dry periods.
In 2001, in conjunction with the RWBJV, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and Ducks Unlimited, NGPC initiated a restoration project on the south end of the wetland to fill 2 large water concentration pits back to original grade and create shallow water habitat in place of the deep water pits. Water formally held in the deep pits is now able to spread throughout the wetland. An S-shaped swale was also constructed to help move water from the county road ditch onto the WMA. Spoil for the pit fills was generated by removing sediment and fill from other parts of the wetland. This project was completed in the winter and unfortunately, large chunks of ice were buried in the pits. As a result, when these blocks of ice melted, the spoil in the pits settled and the two pits still held water 3-4 feet deep. So in 2009, utilizing the 10-Year Restoration Only option under the NRCS Wetland Reserve Program (WRP), a second project was initiated to finish filling the pits. More sediment was excavated from the wetland and used as the fill. In 2011, slight modifications were made to the WRP project to ensure runoff was able to reach the central portion of the wetland. A small sediment removal project in 2015 generated spoil that was used to fill an abandoned irrigation reuse pit in the watershed and in 2016 a project to remove trees growing in the wetland and a large sediment delta on the north boundary was completed. The spoil that was generated by this project was used to fill four more abandoned irrigation reuse pits on private lands in the watershed.
Through programs administered by the Rainwater Basin Joint Venture (RWBJV) and partner agencies, private land biologists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and NGPC work with landowners in the watersheds of public areas to remove features, chiefly abandoned irrigation reuse pits that are no longer needed, that short stop water from reaching the wetland. Seven irrigation reuse pits have been filled in the watershed of Pintail WMA, resulting in 19.7 acre-feet of additional water entering the wetland. These projects were completed in 2012, 2015 and 2016. Watershed projects are usually done in conjunction with projects on the WMA to remove sediment and fill such as the 2015 and 2016 projects described above.
Due to the fertility of the soil and the long growing season, Rainwater Basin wetlands require vegetation management on a yearly basis to maintain habitat in a healthy condition that is preferred by migratory waterfowl and shorebirds. NGPC land managers employ various techniques to control aggressive and invasive vegetation such as river bulrush, cattail and reed canary grass, or to maintain the vegetative community in an existing preferred state. Depending on what vegetative species are present and what condition the habitat is in, the area manager will employ various management techniques to achieve their goals.
Since the first acquisition, land managers for Pintail WMA have been actively managing both the wetland and upland habitat. The main portion of the wetland is split in half by temporary fencing and rotational grazing is implemented on each half during alternating years. Aerial spraying of glyphosate on grazed portions of the wetland has also been used to try and control the bulrush and cattail. If conditions are right and mudflats are present, managers have also used an ATV and broadcast seeder to sow Japanese Millet for waterfowl use. On the uplands, prescribed fire, grazing and glyphosate spraying have been used to maintain early successional habitat. Invasive trees such as red cedar, Siberian elm, silver maple and green ash have been removed from both the upland and wetland portions of the area. Pintail WMA is an area that is managed equally for waterfowl and upland birds.
NGPC monitors and evaluates Pintail WMA every year to determine if more enhancement work is needed in the wetland. Also, the area manager will continue to apply adaptive management annually to maintain the habitat in the best condition possible for both migratory and resident wildlife species.
By Randy Stutheit, Wetland Biologist, NE Game & Parks Commission