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January – April 2016

Spring migration has come and gone, and now the crops are being put in the ground. So is the cycle of events in the Rainwater Basin. With the dry conditions, the RWBJV partners have been able to continue with construction on numerous public and private land projects. Here is a summary of partnership accomplishments.

Biological Planning & Conservation Design

Rainwater Basin Survey Design: The RWBJV Science Office hosted a meeting of partner staff and U.S. Geological Survey landscape ecologists to develop sampling strata to evaluate local and landscape factors influencing waterfowl habitat selection.  The RWBJV Science Office is working to combine the revised National Wetlands Inventory and updated hydric soils layer to describe potential contemporary wetlands.  This dataset will be used to select sample wetlands.  Funding for the design portion of the project came from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service National Wildlife Refuge System Inventory and Monitoring Program.  An additional $50,000 has been committed from the Great Plains Landscape Conservation Cooperative towards the project.  These Great Plains Landscape Conservation Cooperative funds will be used to hire technicians next spring to complete the initial year of data collection.

North Platte River Surveys: This spring was the third and final year for the Waterfowl and Sandhill Crane surveys along the North and South Platte Rivers from the City of North Platte to the Colorado and Wyoming state lines.  The results are being compiled and the geospatial analysis will begin this summer.  Preliminary analysis identified “Core Roosting Sites” for waterfowl and sandhill cranes.  These results were presented at the North American Duck Symposium.  Special thanks to Emily Munter (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) for coordinating logistics, Heather Johnson (Nebraska Game and Parks) and Rob Spangler (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) for conducting the aerial surveys, and Aaron Pearse (U.S. Geological Survey) and Dana Varner (RWBJV) for working on the analysis and putting together the presentation.   The results of these efforts will be used to better inform future conservation actions for waterfowl and sandhill cranes along the North and South Platte River.

RWBJV Network Analysis:  The RWBJV hosted Dr. Dave Haukos and Dr. Gene Albanese for a meeting to discuss expanding their network analysis into the Rainwater Basin Wetland Complex.  Their analysis would provide insights into which individual wetlands are best situated in the landscape to support movement of different species.  They were excited about the multi-year Annual Habitat Survey data available for the Rainwater Basin.  It will be interesting to see how networks shift as a result of variations in ponded water on the landscape.


Communication and Outreach

Agricultural Conservation Easement Program Mailing: The RWBJV Private Lands Workgroup coordinated with the RWBJV GIS shop to identify producers that potentially would be interested in the Wetland Reserve Easement option available in the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program.  These producers had 20 acres or greater of hydric soils in individual tracts that flooded at least 20% of the time during spring migration over the last 10 years.  This analysis identified 2,500 landowners.  Each of these landowners received a letter highlighting the program.  A subset of producers with more than 30 frequently flooded acres also received a follow-up phone call.  With sluggish commodity prices and new Geographic Area Rate Cap easement payments, there has been significant interest.  In total, 24 producers signed applications.  If all these applications go through we will deliver all 425 acres and spend all $1.7 million in Wetland Reserve Easement Program funds that were awarded to the RWBJV last year.  This would push us two years ahead of schedule.  Special thanks to the entire Private Lands Workgroup and Wetland Reserve Easement Bioengineering Team for making this enrollment a success.

RWBJV Informational Seminar: The RWBJV Informational Seminar Planning Committee did an outstanding job pulling together another great seminar.  We had 175 attendees this year, with a significant increase in the number of landowners in attendance (35).  To help boost landowner interest, all of the participants that received the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program mailing also received an invitation to the RWBJV Informational Seminar.  We had several landowner panels and pivot company panels discussing pivot flotation options and Variable Rate Irrigation solutions.  We had great comments in the evaluation forms from landowners about these presentations.  Thanks again to the entire planning committee pulling together such a successful seminar.

Nebraska Game and Parks Commission Partners Section: The RWBJV was able to present about our current focus on conservation delivery in the Rainwater Basin as well as our expanded support role in the RWBJV Administrative Area.  In the Rainwater Basin the pivot crossing initiative was highlighted.  In the RWBJV Administrative Area the North Platte River surveys, Loess Hills Prescribed Fire Exchange, and the development of Grassland Bird Conservation Areas was highlighted.

Washington, D.C. Hill Visits: RWBJV Management Board Members Bob Bettger and Tim McCoy attended the Association of Joint Venture Management Boards meeting in Washington, D.C.  They were able to maximize their time with visits to Nebraska’s Congressional Delegation as well as with administrators/staff from the United States Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Farm Service Agency, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Office of Management and Budget.  There is a lot of interest in the upcoming Farm Bill.  In multiple meetings it was requested of the RWBJV to highlight Farm Bill success with both wildlife and ecosystem service examples.

RWBJV Webpage Revision and eNewsletter: You should all soon be receiving the RWBJV eNewsletter.  Our goal is to have three editions of the eNewsletter annually.  These are scheduled to come out just prior to the RWBJV Management Board.  Each edition will highlight four stories.  Generally, one story will highlight on-the-ground conservation; one will highlight a research, inventory, or monitoring project; one will spotlight work on public lands; and one will highlight a significant partner achievement that is contributing to the goals and objectives outlined in the RWBJV Implementation Plan.  Each of these stories will drive readers to the RWBJV Webpage so we are in the process of updating and organizing the webpage so it can more effectively provide information.  Please contact the RWBJV Office if you have eNewsletter stories or ideas.  The RWBJV Partnership Update will continue as a direct line of communication between the RWBJV Coordinator and Management Board, Technical Committee, and associated workgroups.  If there are others that would like to remain on the RWBJV Partnership Update please have them contact me at andy_bishop@fws.gov.

Wetland Conservation Program Presentation to Reinke Pivot Dealers:  This seminar had landowners, agronomists, and pivot dealers from Tri-Basin, Central Platte, Little Blue, and Upper Big Blue Natural Resources Districts.  The presentation highlighted the RWBJV, playa wetlands, as well as the wildlife habitat and ecosystem services provided by these wetlands.  The presentation also highlighted opportunities for landowners and area producers 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, two Reinke dealers have referred customers to the RWBJV for more information on conservation opportunities.

Great Plains Landscape Conservation Cooperative Tour of the Rainwater Basin:  The RWBJV hosted the Great Plains Landscape Conservation Cooperative staff for a tour of the RWB.  As part of the tour we were able to see one of the large scale burns Pheasants Forever is coordinating as part of the Prescribed Fire Training Exchange.  The prescribed fire occurred near Ord and burned over 2,000 acres of grasslands in the Central Loess Hills.  This is an impressive operation with numerous agencies and landowners collaborating to get fire back on the landscape.  Thanks to Ben Wheeler for helping line up the tour.  We were also able to visit several wetland and upland projects in the Rainwater Basin and along the Central Platte River.  The sandhill cranes and waterfowl cooperated, providing some great viewing opportunities.

Gustafson Family Farms LCC Recognized:  Gustafson Family Farms LCC, comprised of Millard (Gus) Gustafson, Verla Lee Brodine, and Nancy Ann Matzner were recognized for their dedication to wetland stewardship.  Gustafson Family Farms LLC owns a large portion of the wetland north of Axtell.  The Gustafson Family Farms LLC enrolled their entire wetland and associated upland buffer into the Wetland Reserve Enhancement Partnership.  In addition to program enrollment, the Gustafson Family Farms LLC has worked with NRCS and other RWBJV partners to establish grazing infrastructure so the tract can be grazed to promote desired habitat conditions.  This property is also one of the reference sites for a University of Nebraska Lincoln study to evaluate adoption of wetland conservation programs on net-farm income.  Special thanks to Gustafson Family Farms LLC for always being willing to work with the RWBJV partners to achieve wetland conservation.


RWBJV Updates

Brad Krohn named Rainwater Basin Wetland Management District Project Leader:  Congratulations to Brad Krohn, who has just been named Project Leader for the Rainwater Basin Wetland Management District.  Brad has strong connections to the Rainwater Basin.  Brad began his career as a Bio-tech and eventually as a Refuge Operations Specialist at Rainwater Basin Wetland Management District.  From the Rainwater Basin, Brad transitioned into a leadership program and most recently was Project Leader at Kirwin National Wildlife Refuge in Kansas.  Brad has a strong commitment to partnerships and I look forward to working with him and the staff at the Rainwater Basin Wetland Management District to implement conservation actions that achieve both the Wetland Management District’s Comprehensive Conservation Plan and RWBJV Implementation Plan.

James Huntwork named NRCS Assistant State Conservationist – Central Region:  James Huntwork will be the new Natural Resources Conservation Service representative to the RWBJV Management Board, replacing Britt Weiser.  Britt recently transitioned to the State Resource Conservationist and will be stationed in Lincoln.  Prior to accepting this position James was the District Conservationist for the Central Platte Natural Resources District.  James has a long history with the Joint Venture.  James was instrumental in getting a full time Resource Conservationist to serve as the Wetland Reserve Program Team 5 Leader.  I look forward to a continued strong relationship with James and NRCS into the future.


Grant Updates

National Wetlands Inventory Grant:  The RWBJV was awarded $125,000 from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to remap the wetland resources in Nebraska’s Sandhills.  Since the Sandhills were recognized as a high priority for waterfowl conservation it was one of the first landscapes in the United States to be mapped.  Unfortunately much of the required ancillary data, like soils and timely color infrared imagery, was not available.  As a result, many of the ephemeral and temporary wetlands were not delineated.  This remapping effort will allow us to accurately delineate wetland resources in the Sandhills.  The RWBJV is continuing to work with other partners to try to leverage the remaining $215,000 that will be needed to complete the entire mapping project.  Partners that have been contacted include the National Park Service, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Forest Service, as well as Nebraska Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Quality.

Regional Conservation Partnership Program:  The Upper Big Blue Natural Resources District submitted a pre-proposal for the Regional Conservation Partnership Program.  This $1.2 million dollar proposal will work to establish 10 sites within the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Agriculture Conservation Easement Program.  If funded, this grant would provide funding for five Agriculture Land Easements and five Wetland Reserve Easements.  The Agriculture Land Easements would restore the wetland to the extent possible within the tract and the easement would preclude wetland drainage or construction of permanent structures on the tract.  In addition, the pivot irrigation system would be upgraded with Variable Rate Irrigation technology to maximize irrigation efficiency.  Three of the major pivot manufacturing companies and a precision irrigation agronomics company have signed on as corporate partners, providing both financial and technical assistance.  It is exciting to see the partnership expanding and the ability of our projects to address habitat and water quality/quantity issues.

North American Wetland Conservation Act Grant:  Ducks Unlimited submitted a North American Wetlands Conservation Act grant to support activities outlined in Upper Big Blue’s Regional Conservation Partnership Program.  This grant, “Rainwater Basin Working Lands”, is for $1,000,000.  The Agricultural Land Easements described in the RCPP will be held by the local Natural Resources Districts where the site is located or by the Nebraska Land Trust.  As described above, these easements will preclude wetland drainage or construction of new permanent structures on the sites, but will allow the producers to continue farming the site with conventional farming practices.  These projects could significantly increase shorebird carrying capacity in the RWB as farmed wetlands provide a majority of the open water mudflats found in the region.  This is important since shorebird carrying capacity has decreased 1% - 6% depending on foraging guild since 2004.  This loss has largely been due to enrollment of farmed wetland acres into traditional conservation programs that promote persistent wetland vegetation communities.

Nebraska Environmental Trust Grants: The RWBJV partners were awarded three Nebraska Environmental Trust grants submitted in the 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 both be managed for wetland-dependent migratory birds and 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 species significantly reduce habitat values for waterfowl and other wetland-dependent species; therefore this approach helps the RWBJV partners maximize habitat on existing wetlands. This grant will ensure the RWBJV partners can keep on top of invasive species like reed canary grass, cattails, bulrush, and volunteer trees.

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.