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July – September 2012 Update

There has been a striking nip in the air the last several days. I am looking forward to fall and the upcoming hunting seasons. Hopefully the wetlands will catch some timely rains; with record production on the breeding grounds we just need water – could be some fantastic hunting opportunities this fall and should provide great habitat conditions for next spring’s migration. Thanks to the partners that have helped create these ideal habitat conditions.

Research and Monitoring

SDM project: The RWBJV partners continue to make progress on the SDM (structured decision making) project, with the end goal of providing land managers in the basins with a decision support tool that synthesizes the probability of a management outcome occurring, given the management action. Currently there is a collaborative effort underway between RWBJV partners (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Nature Conservancy, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, Ducks Unlimited) and a team of technicians to collect field data in order to assess outcomes from habitat management actions conducted in the basins during 2012. These management outcomes will be entered into a Geographic Information System and integrated into the analysis to help evaluate the effectiveness of management and the duration of these treatments’ benefits.

Landcover Accuracy Assessment Report: Roger Grosse and Christopher Jorgensen continue to make good progress in completing the RWBJV Landcover Accuracy Assessment Report. The report includes a series of accuracy assessments conducted by the Rainwater Basin Joint Venture and various partners including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Habitat and Population Evaluation Team, the Playa Lakes Joint Venture, and the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. The document includes three distinct analyses and assesses the performance of the RWBJV Landcover across multiple regions in the state.

Crane Habitat Analysis: The RWBJV GIS Shop and partners continue to make progress in modeling suitable habitat for Whooping Cranes and Sandhill Cranes along the Platte River. LiDAR (Light Detecting and Ranging) and color infrared imagery is being utilized to measure channel obstructions, channel width, and other variables that influence crane use.

Wetlands Reserve Enhancement Program Monitoring Project: Nebraska Game and Parks Commission received a Wetlands Reserve Enhancement Program grant to document current vegetation communities and develop habitat conditions on Natural Resources Conservation Service Wetlands Reserve Program easements. These data will be used to develop general management plans that will help NRCS staff work with producers to implement both short- and long-term management actions to optimize habitat conditions on these tracts.

This grant also provided funding to acquire aerial photography for the entire region. The imagery will be processed in conjunction with the WRP monitoring and SDM monitoring data (public lands) to develop a seamless vegetation map for all RWB wetlands. The dataset will allow us to compare habitat conditions from the 2004 assessment to the habitat conditions observed in 2012. This will provide the RWBJV partners insight into the progress and success of our conservation efforts. It will also allow the RWBJV partners a region-wide assessment to determine if the RWB has increased its carrying capacity to support the waterfowl that rely on this region.

Biological Planning & Conservation Design Activities
U.S. Forest Service and Nebraska Game and Parks Commission: The RWBJV recently added the U.S. Forest Service to the Technical Committee. This addition was completed to increase communication and collaboration. The ultimate goal is to leverage the resources of both the current RWBJV partners and the Forest Service to identify planning tools that could be used to guide conservation both on Forest Service lands and in the greater RWBJV landscape. The RWBJV Science Office met with the Jeff Abegglen (USFS) and Bill Vodehnal (NGPC) to discuss the opportunities to increase monitoring activities that could be used to refine several geospatial species models (Greater Prairie-chickens, Sharp-tailed Grouse, and Long-billed Curlews). There is a good nexus for this project as the Forest Service uses these species to guide both management planning and evaluation of conservation actions. If we are able to further refine these models the RWBJV can develop decision support tools to influence conservation delivery to landscapes that have the greatest potential to influence these species. Several potential strategies have been evaluated for increasing the monitoring activities to develop these models.

Communication and Outreach
Representative Adrian Smith’s Staff: Ken Rojas and Ashley Mick with Representative Smith’s office were able to tour several conservation projects throughout the RWB. The Congressman’s staffers were impressed with the variety of projects the RWBJV partners have developed to find the win-win in this highly agricultural landscape. The tour highlighted the Watershed Restoration Initiative, how conservation easements are being used to transition flood-prone cropland to highly productive grazing lands, and application of the Management Initiative to maximize the value of the wetlands in this landscape.

Rainwater Basin Science Office Brown Bag Lunch: The RWBJV, along with the Nebraska Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, will be hosting a monthly informal gathering to discuss current research and monitoring activities, status of RWBJV projects, and opportunities to collaborate to support future research and monitoring projects. The goal of these forums is to allow researchers and managers the opportunity to discuss the research needs and develop research and monitoring projects that will address the key uncertainties underlying the revised Implementation Plan. The first meeting will be October 12, in Lincoln at Hardin Hall. Details will be provided by Chris Jorgensen closer to the meeting.

Ecology and Conservation of North American Waterfowl Conference: The RWBJV submitted an abstract to present at the Ecology and Conservation of North American Waterfowl Conference in Memphis, Tennessee in January 2013. The abstract was officially accepted into the Wetlands-Waterfowl Special Session. This presentation will highlight changes in waterfowl carrying capacity of the Rainwater Basin region from the 1900s, 1980, and our current landscape conditions. This presentation will help highlight the importance of the RWBJV as a conservation delivery partnership and the significant changes that have occurred across this landscape.

RWBJV Website: The RWBJV website will go live this week as soon as we get the domain management completed. Doreen Pfost has done a great job overseeing this transition. Doreen and I would like input to improve the webpage. I am sure that in its current format we have omitted key points and factsheets/ Information important to the partnership. Please send comments to Doreen or me so we can continue to improve the RWBJVs central communication portal.

Migratory Bird/Joint Venture and Great Plains Landscape Conservation Cooperative Webinar : In July, Roger Grosse and Christopher Jorgensen presented during the Migratory Bird-Joint Venture GIS Webinar. Roger presented on the collection of data, methods, and uses of the Annual Habitat Survey (AHS) data which quantifies the number wetlands ponding water in the Rainwater Basins and the acres pooled on an annual basis. In collaboration with Dan Uden and Craig Allen from the Nebraska Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, Chris presented on the climatic and landscape factors influencing playa occurrence. The results presented by Chris during the webinar were obtained from Dan Uden’s thesis, and then integrated into a decision support tool in an effort to create a spatially explicit model to predict probability of wetland occurrence. Both Roger and Chris also presented the same material during the Great Plains LCC Webinar which was held in August.

Husker Harvest Days: Several members of the Private Lands Workgroup staffed the RWBJV booth at Husker Harvest Days. The group made numerous contacts and has leads on a few projects. General feedback from the group was that there was less interest in conservation projects this year with the higher commodity prices. Thanks to Tim Smith, Laurel Badura, Jeremy Jirak, and Matt Hough for working the booth.

Playa Country Radio: The RWBJV in partnership with Playa Lakes Joint Venture has developed several radio spots called Playa Country Radio. These radio spots were presented on the major agriculture radio stations from Texas to Nebraska, including KRVN. The radio spots highlighted the value of prescribed fire, grassland management, playa conservation opportunities, the value of playas in supporting the biodiversity of the Great Plains, and groundwater recharge benefits of playa wetlands.

RWBJV Updates
Acquisition Workgroup: The acquisition workgroup continues to make good progress in redefining the vision, goals, and objectives of the workgroup. The habitat objectives outlined in the revised Implementation Plan describe a diverse mix of both acquisition and easements. This will require an active and effective Acquisition Workgroup to develop the appropriate set of tools to achieve the RWBJV’s conservation goals in this highly agricultural landscape.

NSST and TriST meetings: Christopher Jorgensen will represent the Rainwater Basin Joint Venture at the NSST (North American Waterfowl Management Plan Science Support Team) and TriST (Tri-initiative Science Team) meetings held at the Yellowstone Ecological Research Center in Bozeman, MT in mid-September. These are national science teams made up of JV science coordinators and representatives from other bird initiatives throughout North America.

WRP Contract Specialist: The RWBJV continues to work with NCRS to finalize an Interagency Agreement. This agreement will provide funding for the RWBJV to hire a contract specialist to support implementation of both restoration and management practices on Wetlands Reserve Program easements. This additional capacity should eliminate some of the bottlenecks that have limited timely execution of Wetlands Reserve Program restorations in the RWB. This will be important since the Natural Resources Conservation Service recently acquired their 100th WRP easement. These projects comprise nearly 10,000 acres and provide for the NRCS to collaboratively work with landowners to manage approximately 20% of the remaining RWB wetlands.

Nebraska Trust Species and Habitat Fund: Over $60,000 in contributions have been made to the Nebraska Trust Species and Habitat Fund (NTSHF). All of these funds are tied to conservation of the American Burying Beetle in Northeast Nebraska. This is still a great example of how the partners have developed an effective infrastructure to increase conservation for both migratory birds and species of concern.

Rainwater Basin Land Protection Plan: The Rainwater Basin Wetland Management District Land Protection Plan was recently approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Approval of this plan authorizes the USFWS to acquire 9,177 additional acres in fee title and 5,000 acres of conservation easements to achieve Migratory Bird objectives in the RWB. Acquisition acres will be targeted to high-priority roundouts to increase management options on current Waterfowl Production Areas, while easement acres will focus on smaller temporary and seasonal wetlands that will develop wetland complexes and provide complementary habitat to existing public lands. Congratulations to the USFWS Rainwater Basin Wetland Management District.

Working Lands Initiative: The RWBJV and NE Cattlemen continue to move the Working Lands Initiative forward. This collaborative effort is planning a December 5, 2012 rollout at the NE Cattlemen’s mid-year conference. Kristen Hassebrook and Laurel Badura have worked together to bring interested parties together, identify new opportunities, and flesh out the strategies and tools that will be necessary to successfully integrate grazing back into the RWB region.

New RWBJV Office Manager: There were over 70 applicants for the RWBJV Office Manager position. Niki Messmer was selected for the position and will start October 9. Niki is currently a paralegal in Grand Island, overseeing estate planning. Niki’s financial management experience and attention to detail will be a tremendous asset for the RWBJV.

Nebraska Environmental Trust Grants: The RWBJV submitted a general grant that will be leveraged with partner funds to complete projects on public and private lands and also to support our communication and monitoring efforts. The RWBJV also submitted a grant to continue the management initiative to support the disking and herbicide applications that have been so successful over the last five years.

Little Blue Natural Resources District put in a Nebraska Environmental Trust grant to continue the Watershed Restoration Initiative. The goal of this grant is to remove 60 high-priority irrigation re-use pits from the watersheds of public or perpetually protected wetland s in private ownership. Little Blue Natural Resources District was supportive of this grants since these projects will increase groundwater recharge and provide increased habitat for the millions of waterfowl that rely on this region.

The Nebraska Association of Natural Resources Districts submitted a grant to support the Wetlands Reserve Enhancement Program administered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service. This grant complements the Wetlands Reserve Enhancement Program grant that was awarded to the Nebraska Association of Natural Resources Districts last fall by Natural Resources Conservation Service. This Wetlands Reserve Enhancement Program provides to the program flexibility to allow local producers to enroll lands into the Wetlands Reserve Program and continue to pass an irrigation pivot over the easement.

Great Plains Landscape Conservation Cooperative: Bob Bettger and I attended a joint meeting between the Great Plains Landscape Conservation Cooperative Steering and Science Committee. The focus of the meeting was to identify playa wetlands and the research and monitoring needs identified by the conservation community. The GPLCC Steering Committee prioritized an assessment of conservation programs and policies that can be more effectively implemented to conserve playa wetlands. Interest areas included conservation program impacts to support migratory birds, assessment of conservation programs on groundwater recharge, ecosystem services provided by playa conservation programs, and economics of playa conservation programs compared to other landuse activities.

Ogallala Aquifer Initiative: The RWBJV and Playa Lakes Joint Venture continue to work with USDA’s Farm Service Agency and Natural Resources Conservation Services to develop a decision support tool to identify high priority playas (wetland function, migratory bird use, and ecological function) for protection, restoration, and enhancement. The goal of this tool is to help the Natural Resources Conservation Service identify high priority playas and deliver the Farm Bill programs to protect, restore, and enhance function of these unique wetlands. The playa wetland component of this initiative represents a significant commitment by the Natural Resources Conservation Service to conserve playas for both wildlife and the ecosystem services (groundwater recharge, groundwater quantity, and water quality) provided by these wetlands. The Natural Resources Conservation Service has identified a conservation benchmark of 250,000 acres of playa conservation throughout the Ogallala Aquifer as part of this initiative. State Conservationist Craig Derickson and Assistant State Conservationist Brad Soncksen were instrumental in development of this initiative.

Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program: Eric Zach, Agriculture Program Manager with Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, has been instrumental in trying to modify and refine the current Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) to increase conservation opportunities for playas and native grasslands. Eric has continued to pursue irrigated rental rates as part of the CP 23A (Conservation Reserve Program for playa wetlands) practice. Thanks Eric for your assistance in developing and refining a program that will fit this landscape and add a new tool necessary to achieve the RWBJV partnership objectives.