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July – September 2013 Update

Duck season is here, and the timely rains have provided more water than we have had in several years.  As the birds arrive, they will find great habitat conditions.  It has been very rewarding watching the RWBJV partners implement the Habitat Management Initiative.  Based on an initial assessment, conditions have improved significantly.  It is estimated that public lands in the region can provide an additional 1.3 million duck use days, or foraging resources to feed an additional 1.3 million ducks for a day.  Here are a few more highlights from the RWBJV Partnership.  

 Biological Planning & Conservation Design Activities

Predicting the Availability of Ephemeral Waterfowl Habitat in an Intensive Agricultural Landscape:  Dan Uden (UNL Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit) continues to make good progress analyzing climate data and associated spring habitat conditions.  This work builds on the Annual Habitat Survey data collected by the RWBJV each spring.  Dan recently submitted a manuscript to Wetlands.  The paper is very insightful and highlights the climatic and landscape features that influence available habitat in the RWB during spring migration.  Good luck, Dan, with the review process. 

Landscape Conservation Design:  The RWBJV continues to engage the Great Plains Landscape Conservation Cooperative (GPLCC) to develop mutually beneficial products that can support conservation across the region for multiple taxa.  Currently the GPLCC Science Team is evaluating a Landscape Conservation Design (LCD) framework to guide grassland conservation.  Prairie grouse have been identified as a possible set of surrogate species to guide a portion of the Biological Planning and Conservation Design components of the LCD framework.  The data collected by the Integrated Prairie Grouse Monitoring Workgroup will be a great resource for this effort.  I will keep the partnership updated as this project continues to develop. 

Modeling Species Occurrence and Abundance with Breeding Bird Survey Data:  The RWBJV Science Office has completed analysis of the Breeding Bird Survey data.  Analysis of the data in a Geographic Information Systems environment has highlighted the habitat features and landscape configuration best suited for 14 priority species.  These spatially explicit species distribution models not only inform the conservation community about where to prioritize future management actions, but also are capable of predicting how species may respond to future land-use or policy changes through the use of scenario planning.  The RWBJV Science Office is currently developing a “Management Prospectus” for each species.  These four-page documents describe the species life history, habitat requirements, scale at which the species responded, and the local and landscape factors influencing probability of occurrence.  The prospectus also describes habitat delivery options that have the greatest potential to positively influence the species. 

Waterfowl and Sandhill Crane Habitat Selection along the North Platte River:  Although much effort has been directed towards identifying available habitat as well as the distribution of waterfowl and sandhill cranes along the Central Platte River, less is known about the species and their associated habitats along the North Platte River.  In a collaborative effort between Ducks Unlimited, USFWS Partners for Fish and Wildlife, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, GPLCC, and the RWBJV Science Office, the North Platte Waterfowl and Sandhill Crane Habitat Selection Project was initiated.  Preliminary wetland mapping in the North Platte River Valley, by the RWBJV Science Office, is currently underway.  Collectively the group will assess a 191-mile stretch of the North Platte River valley, from the Nebraska state line to the confluence of the North and South Platte Rivers.

Vegetation Management and Monitoring Workgroup:  The RWBJV partners continue to make progress on the Vegetation Management and Monitoring Structured Decision Making (SDM) project.  An initial draft of the Best Management Practices for Rainwater Basin Wetlands has been completed and will be reviewed by the workgroup.  The workgroup will be monitoring the 9,000 field points again this fall.  This will be fifth year we have monitored these points and the effort should give the RWBJV new insight into the duration of benefit for some of our more intense management treatments (disking, herbicide, and combinations of treatments) that have been implemented at a higher frequency as part of the RWBJV Habitat Management Initiative. 

Whooping Crane Cooperative Recovery Initiative:  The Private Lands Workgroup has been very active developing watershed restoration projects to enhance the 15 priority USFWS Waterfowl Production Areas that have a high probability of benefiting Whooping Cranes.  The RWBJV partners have deployed level-loggers in 18 western Rainwater Basin wetlands to help monitor and evaluate the impacts of these watershed restoration actions.  The level-loggers will measure ponding duration, water depth, water temperature, and ponding frequency over the course of the 4-year project.  In addition, aerial flights were conducted this past spring to document whooping crane habitat use in the basins, while aerial photography was collected to document available habitat.  An additional Inventory and Monitoring Grant was submitted and fully funded to continue these monitoring efforts through 2016.  These monitoring activities will allow the RWBJV a mechanism to evaluate our watershed restoration activities to benefit Whooping Cranes.  


Communication and Outreach

Innovations on the Landscape Tour:  The RWBJV sponsored a tour as part of The Sand County Foundation’s Innovations on the Landscape Symposium.  We had two motor coach buses with 85 participants on the tour.  The tour highlighted our Working Lands Initiative.  Tour stops included NGPC’s Kissinger Wildlife Management Area, USFWS’s Green Acres Waterfowl Production Area, Ducks Unlimited’ s Verona Complex, and a private wetland.  Thanks to George Cargill (NGPC), Ronnie Sanchez (USFWS), Brandon Jones (USFWS), Tim Horst (Ducks Unlimited), and Steve Shaw (Local Producer) for presenting during the tour.  The public land managers did a great job talking about their management goals and how they have built successful partnerships with local producers to achieve these objectives.  Steve Shaw is one of these local producers; he highlighted how the public lands fit into his operation and how he has expanded his operation to include wetlands and grasslands restored by the RWBJV partners. 

Nebraska Environmental Trust Tour:  The summer Nebraska Environmental Trust Board meeting was held in Holdrege, Nebraska.  John Thorburn (Tri-Basin Natural Resources District) and I hosted a tour for the Nebraska Environmental Trust Board and staff as well as several state senators from the Natural Resources and Agriculture Committees (Senators Harr, Dubas, & Carlson).  During the tour we were able to highlight 11 different RWBJV partner projects, on both public and private lands.  Sites included examples of the Working Lands Initiative, Wetlands Reserve Program, and Watershed Restoration Initiative, as well as the Lake Seldom and Mosaic projects, which provide recreation opportunities for local residents.  Thanks to Natural Resources Conservation Service, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Tri-Basin staff for presenting the details about the projects to the senators as well as Nebraska Environmental Trust Board Members and staff.

Playa Wetland Listening Session:  The RWBJV and Playa Lakes Joint Ventures were awarded a GPLCC grant to support 14 listening sessions from the panhandle of Texas to the Central Table Playas in Nebraska.  Thanks to assistance from the NRCS staff and Pheasants Forever Farm Bill Biologists to identify willing participants.  The Broken Bow session had 12 participants, while the York Session had 13 participants.  Each session was facilitated a private firm, D.J. Case and Associates.  The facilitator asked each landowner to provide their assessment of playas, available conservation programs and economics of farming playas, and to describe economic and programmatic solutions that could be used to increase playa conservation.  A report will be forthcoming, which will describe the discussions, observations, and results from these meetings.  I plan on making the report available to each of the participants as well to the RWBJV Management Board, Private Lands Workgroup, and Technical Committee.  The report will also be available on the webpage for any other interested party. 

 Articles in Nebraska Farmer:  In the September 2013 issue of the Nebraska Farmer Magazine there were two articles that highlighted conservation actions implemented by the RWBJV partnership.  The first article highlights Clay County producers Steve and Brian Shaw.  In the article, the Shaws describe their diverse operation and the importance of grazing public lands to sustain their current cattle herd.  The article also highlighted the RWBJV Working Lands Initiative and how the Shaws were able to use these programs to restore wetlands and grasslands on a flood-prone parcel of cropland.  The restoration provided an economical alternative for this tract and complemented their current operation.  The article also highlighted RWBJV partner, Little Blue Natural Resources District, and the portable corral that is available to landowners to move livestock between wetland pastures. 

 In the second article, Fillmore County producer Jerry Stevens was highlighted.  Jerry recently enrolled in the Natural Resources Conservation Service Wetlands Reserve Enhancement Program.  This contract allows his pivot irrigation system to cross the restored wetland and uplands.  Jerry highlighted the value of program flexibility and how this option allowed him to restore the wetland and associated upland buffer for wildlife habitat as well as more effectively cultivate and irrigate the adjacent cropland acres.


RWBJV Updates

The Great Plains Landscape Conservation Cooperative Data Steward: Roger Grosse, RWBJV GIS Analyst and GPLCC Data Steward, has developed the first set of Manager Insights.  These documents summarize the research projects that have been funded by the GPLCC.  The end product is a two-page document describing project design, results, and application of the findings.  The goal of these documents is to provide resource managers a quick reference to effectively integrate these results into day-to-day conservation actions.

Rainwater Basin Joint Venture Implementation Plan Update:  The Waterfowl Plan, Shorebird Plan, Waterbird Plan, and Landbird Plans have all been finalized and will be a key topic for the RWBJV Management Board in November.  One overarching RWBJV Implementation Plan has also been drafted for the Management Board.  This document stitches together the conservation targets and strategies developed in each of the bird plans to describe a blueprint for conservation success in the RWB and RWBJV Administrative Area.  Thanks to everyone that has spent time with the revision and editing process.

WRP Contract Specialist:  I’m excited to announce that Nate Walker accepted the Nebraska Game and Parks Wetlands Reserve Program Biologist II position.  There were over 40 applicants for this position.  Nate will be a great asset for the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the local Bio-engineering teams implementing the Wetlands Reserve Program in Nebraska.  Zach Rigg (Nebraska NRCS Easement Coordinator) has a unique vision for this position and the Wetlands Reserve Program, with an emphasis in developing adaptive management plans that will maximize the habitat values and programmatic objectives.  Welcome, Nate; we look forward to working with you and the bio-engineering teams to implement this outstanding private lands program.  Thanks to Ted LaGrange for overseeing the hiring process and continuing to move this position forward. 

Cooperative Recovery Initiative Grant:  The RWBJV partners have received preliminary approval for a USFWS Inventory and Monitoring Grant to evaluate the success of our Cooperative Recovery Initiative grant to support Watershed Restoration actions.  This $208,000 grant will allow data to be collected in restored and reference wetlands.  The data, in conjunction with other datasets, will allow the RWBJV to evaluate the success of our restoration actions on wetland hydrology.  This funding will also allow us to monitor western RWB wetlands in the spring and fall for Whooping Crane use, and to continue RWBJV spring Annual Habitat Surveys through 2016. 

Great Plains Landscape Conservation Cooperative Grants:  The RWBJV will be able to address several key uncertainties in our planning framework through five projects funded by the GPLCC.  LaGrange et al. will evaluate shorebird habitat selection and foraging resources available to shorebirds and waterfowl in wetlands under different ownership and management regimes.  Tang et al. will utilize Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) to run the RUSLE (Revised Universal Soil Loss Equation) to develop a spatially explicit model identifying areas around RWB wetlands most susceptible to sedimentation and wetland degradation.  Skagen et al. will be evaluating the potential impacts of climate change on shorebird habitat and ultimately shorebird migration.  Davis et al. will evaluate habitat selection and habitat use by waterfowl and Sandhill Cranes along the North Platte River.  The RWBJV and PLJV collectively submitted a human dimensions grant to conduct a series of 14 listening sessions to better understand landowner and farm operator perceptions of playas and the existing conservation programs available for conservation of these unique wetland resources.

North American Wetlands Conservation Act Grant:  Ducks Unlimited recently submitted a North American Wetlands Conservation Act grant on behalf of the RWBJV partners.  The goal of this grant is to impact 6,100 acres of wetland and associated uplands.  The grant has a combination of wetland acquisition and easement projects, as well as funding for the RWBJV Management and Watershed Restoration initiatives.  Thanks to the Ducks Unlimited crew and RWBJV partners that worked to develop this slate of projects and the well-written proposal. 

 Integrating RWB Wetlands for Groundwater Recharge and Habitat:  The RWBJV partners continue to meet with the Platte River Recovery and Implementation Program (PRRIP) and the USFWS Rainwater Basin Wetland Management District to determine the opportunities to use canal water to fill Funk Waterfowl Production Area.  These actions will provide numerous benefits for the PRRIP, Tri-Basin Natural Resources District, and habitat for migratory waterfowl and shorebirds.