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July – September 2015 Update

Rainwater Basin Joint Venture Partnership Update

Fall is in the air; leaves changing colors, teal hunting in the basins, and epic marches across the Sandhills in pursuit of Greater Prairie-Chickens and Sharp Tailed Grouse. These are some of my favorite experiences in the Rainwater Basin Administrative Area at this time of year. The following is a summary of some of the great projects and achievements the Joint Venture partners have accomplished over the past quarter.

Biological Planning & Conservation Design

RWB Wetland Vegetation Map: The RWBJV Science Office completed the 2012 RWB wetland vegetation map. This shapefile maps the vegetation communities of all historical RWB wetlands, including those wetlands now cropped for agriculture, based on conditions in 2012. The map was created from vegetation surveys completed at 12,594 survey points in 2012, as well as 2012 spring color infrared, mid-summer true color, and late-summer color infrared aerial imagery. The final vegetation map shapefile is now available for download at https://www.sciencebase.gov/catalog/item/5604423de4b03bc34f544c4c. A report of the methods used to create the 2012 RWB wetland vegetation map was completed and will soon be available at http://rwbjv.org/rainwater-basin-joint-venture/gis-projects/

Conservation Effects Assessment Project Report: The RWBJV Science Office completed a Conservation Effects Assessment Project (CEAP) report. The report describes (1) the composition of RWB wetland vegetation based on the 2012 RWB wetland vegetation map, (2) the forage accessibility on RWB wetlands for waterfowl and shorebirds in 2012, (3) how vegetation composition and forage accessibility changed between 2004 and 2012, (4) the contributions of conservation lands to forage accessibility, and (5) management recommendations based on report results. The final 2015 CEAP report will soon be available for download at http://rwbjv.org/rainwater-basin-joint-venture/gis-projects/

Easement Decision Support Tool: The RWBJV science office has also completed the 2015 Easement Decision Support Tool. This tool looks at all parcels that contain historic wetlands but are not currently enrolled in long-term conservation programs, and evaluates them based on: current functional wetland area (according to Annual Habitat Surveys); restorable acres (historic soils – current functional acres); the percentage of historic wetland area; proximity to other long-term conservation areas; number of landowners; number of functional wetlands within 3 miles; disturbance factors; and opportunity to acquire at least a 75-meter upland buffer. Consideration is also given to the presence of concentration/irrigation pits, irrigation wells, and electric transmission lines. This tool will help partners identify high-quality sites and guide communication efforts aimed at providing landowners and farm operators with information about current conservation opportunities.

Environmental Quality Incentives Program Decision Support Tool: The RWBJV Science Office developed a Decision Support Tool (DST) that ranks all irrigation reuse pits in the watersheds of public or privately owned wetlands enrolled in conservation programs. The DST prioritizes irrigation reuse pits with large storage volume and in close proximity to the wetlands for removal. Filling abandoned irrigation reuse pits is an eligible practice in the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP).  The DST will be used to prioritize applications and thus maximize benefits from these EQIP projects. To ensure producers were aware of the opportunity, the RWBJV coordinated with NRCS to develop press releases for distribution to the 25 area newspapers that cover the Rainwater Basin Region as well as appropriate radio stations.

Wetlands Reserve Easement Model: The RWBJV GIS lab, working collectively with the Farm Service Agency and Natural Resources Conservation Service, has completed geospatial processing for the Wetlands Reserve Easement (WRE) model. The WRE Model evaluates all tracts with hydric soil to determine eligibility for WRE. This model uses the Nebraska Natural Resources Conservation Service’s program ranking criteria to evaluate the tracts. It evaluates wetland hydrology, vegetation, percentage of wetland area, size of area (acres), presence of threatened and endangered species, proximity to long-term protected wetlands, contribution to a wetland complex, carbon sequestration, floodwater attenuation, agreement length, land value, and environmental benefit. The partners are in the process of reviewing the model. Once verified, it will be used to develop a targeted mailing to those individuals with tracts that rank well for the programs, have extensive flood-prone cropland acres, and are in core waterfowl areas.

Communication and Outreach

RWBJV Informational Seminar: Planning is already underway for the upcoming Rainwater Basin Joint Venture Informational Seminar. This year’s seminar is scheduled for February 9th. The theme of this year’s seminar will be the expanded focus of the Rainwater Basin Joint Venture Partnership to support conservation throughout the administrative area. Once again the seminar will have a plenary session followed by several concurrent sessions. The concurrent sessions will focus on conservation projects and research, but will have a much larger geographic focus. Mark your calendars and stay tuned for the draft agenda and topics.

The Wildlife Society: The RWBJV was invited to present at a roundtable focused on private lands conservation in the Great Plains. This interactive presentation highlighted the importance of flexibility and the necessity to integrate conservation lands into working farm and ranch operations, especially in privately owned landscapes. The reserved grazing right and pivot crossing options that are now available in the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program were two of the options highlighted.

Husker Harvest Days: Husker Harvest Days is one of the largest farm expositions in the nation. Again this year, the RWBJV had a booth at the event. As always, this is a great venue to visit with landowners and agriculture industry leaders from across the RWBJV Administrative Area. With slumping commodity prices, producers were eager to discuss conservation programs and how they could incorporate these programs to integrate marginal acres more effectively into their operations.

Tour for Russian Contingent: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Rainwater Basin Wetland Management District hosted nearly 20 biologists from Russia. Despite the language barrier and thousands of miles, the wildlife professionals shared many of the same issues impacting conservation success. Thanks to Ronnie Sanchez, Brandon Jones and the whole Wetland Management District staff for hosting the tour.

Nebraska Game and Parks Commission Nebraska Natural Legacy Project Tour: Ducks Unlimited hosted a tour of the Rainwater Basin for participants attending the Nebraska Natural Legacy meeting. The tour included multiple tour sites that highlighted the working lands initiative, watershed restoration, and strategic acquisition of roundouts that can increase management opportunities for our public land managers. Thanks again to John Denton, Tim Horst, Matt Hough, and the Kansas – Nebraska Ducks Unlimited staff for leading the tour.

Gustafson Family Farms: Gustafson Family Farms were honored for their wetland stewardship. This wetland is located in the western basins, near Axtell, Nebraska. The Gustafson family owns a wetland which they enrolled in the Wetlands Reserve Program in 2012. The property was one of the first to utilize pivot modifications to reduce the impact of the pivot on the restored wetland. The family was patient through the entire enrollment process and while testing the different pivot modification solutions. Recently the family purchased an additional property with wetland acres that they have enrolled into the Wetlands Reserve Easement option with the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

RWBJV Communication Plan: The RWBJV partners are down to the final stages of the RWBJV Communication Plan. Ashley Dayer has been instrumental in leading us through this process and I am excited as we move into implementation. The strategies and tools presented to date will help to succinctly and strategically implement the plan.  Thanks to all of the RWBJV partners who have provided input in plan development.

RWBJV Website: The RWBJV website was hacked and we had to take the site down and transfer it to a different platform. We are trying to get all of the materials loaded. If you notice a bad link or cannot download a certain document please let Doreen know, and we will make sure to complete any repairs. Here is Doreen’s email doreen.pfost@rwbjv.org

Partners for Conservation: The Sandhills Task Force in conjunction with the Partners for Conservation hosted the 8th annual Private Lands Partners Days. It was a great event that highlighted private lands conservation across the country. There were many informative presentations that featured new and strategic opportunities to develop successful, economically viable conservation on private lands. Congratulations to Shelly Kelly (Sandhills Task Force) as well as Kenny Dinan, Kirk Schroeder, and Kyle Graham (USFWS Partners for Fish and Wildlife) on pulling together such a great event. You captured the essence and importance of partnership driven conservation in Nebraska though both your presentations and the tours.

Nebraska’s Conservation Toolbox: The RWBJV Communication Team is finalizing a new website that will provide conservation delivery staff, landowners, and farm operators a one-stop repository for materials that describe different conservation programs. The website will be organized so individuals can search by habitat, geography, or by offering organization or agency. We will be having a soft release for the core individuals who have been worked on the site. Once the core group has reviewed the site and made corrections we will put it out to the partnership for review. Thanks Joanna Pope with Natural Resources Conservation Service for your insight, review, and edits.

RWBJV Updates

RWBJV Habitat Specialist: The RWBJV Habitat Specialist position has been filled by Ele Nugent. Ele was a contractor for the RWBJV in the GIS laboratory for three years prior to accepting this position. Ele led the Conservation Effects Assessment Program that was funded by the Natural Resources Conservation Service. This project highlighted the changes in shorebird and waterfowl carrying capacity from the initial landscape assessment completed in 2003 until the present. Before coming to the RWBJV, Ele was a seasonal employee with The Nature Conservancy in Idaho. In this role, she monitored streams for water quality and implemented management actions to control invasive species. Ele was a Spartan (Michigan State) as an undergraduate, receiving a Bachelors of Science in Natural Resource Management. She completed her masters work at Oklahoma State, focusing on wetland and avian response to wetlands restored as part of NRCS’s Wetlands Reserve Program. Ele’s advisor was Craig Davis, who has also conducted significant research in the Rainwater Basin and Central Platte River. Ele hit the ground running in August and has worked closely with both public land managers and private lands biologists to implement 3,200 acres of active wetland management to control invasive species. Please welcome Ele; she can be reached via email at eleanor_nugent@fws.gov

Ronnie Sanchez accepts new position in Alaska: Congratulations to Ronnie Sanchez who recently accepted a new position with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska. In his new role Ronnie will oversee multiple refuges throughout Alaska. As Project Leader in the Rainwater Basin, Ronnie strove to find opportunities to work with partners to enhance habitat on Waterfowl Production Areas while also supporting conservation actions on private lands. Ronnie had a great working relationship with his neighbors and grazing tenants. He also worked to maintain open lines of communication with county commissioners, township boards, and area residents. Good luck, Ronnie, in your new endeavor.

Grant Updates

Wetlands Reserve Enhancement Program: The Nebraska Community Foundation, on behalf of the RWBJV partners, submitted a $4.6 million dollar Wetlands Reserve Enhancement Program (WREP) application to the Natural Resources Conservation Service. At goal this WREP would impact 1,200 acres of playa wetlands in the Central Table Playa and Rainwater Basin Wetland Complexes. WREP funds would be matched with partner funds to complete wetland restoration activities, establish grazing infrastructure, and modify pivots to minimize their impact as they cross restored wetland acres.

Regional Conservation Partnership Program: The RWBJV was not asked to submit a full Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) grant this cycle. We are looking forward to feedback from the national office in order to reevaluate our options. We still plan to pursue the activities outlined in the proposal, just through the normal application process associated with the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and Agricultural Conservation Easement Program.

North American Wetlands Conservation Act Grant: Ducks Unlimited received preliminary approval for “Eastern Nebraska Wetlands”. This is a unique grant, with wetland restoration projects in three Bird Conservation Regions including Prairie Pothole (11), Mixed-grass Prairie (19), and Eastern Tallgrass Prairie (22). Grant activities will impact a total of 2,214 acres along the Elkhorn, Missouri, and Niobrara Rivers, including lacustrine, palustrine, and riverine wetlands. All of the conservation actions will occur on publicly owned and managed properties (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge/Hasemann Waterfowl Production Area and Nebraska Game and Park Commission’s Wood Duck, Elk Point Bend, and Memphis Lake Wildlife Management Areas).

The grant “Rainwater Basin Working Lands” was not approved. This grant would have provided funding to pursue Agriculture Land Easements held by local Natural Resources Districts or the Nebraska Land Trust. These easements would preclude wetland drainage or construction of new permanent structures on the sites, but would allow the producers to continue farming the site with conventional farming practices. We received good feedback on the grant have developed some strategies to improve its ranking in the next grant cycle.

Monarch Mania: The RWBJV was recently awarded a $5,000 grant from Monsanto - Pioneer to introduce milkweeds into an established Natural Resources Conservation Service Wetlands Reserve Program easement. In September, 940 milkweeds were cluster planted along four transects. These transects, crossed the site, and four different species of milkweed were planted along the hydrological gradient and in different soil types. We are planning a spring planting with an additional 800 plants. The plantings will be monitored over the next three years to determine which of the planting times were most successful and which species had the greatest survival across the hydrological gradient and in different soil types. Since this site is actively managed through a Natural Resources Conservation Service grazing plan, we will also be able to evaluate the persistence of the different milkweed species under the prescribed grazing plan. With the new focus on monarch butterflies this information will help the RWBJV partners integrate milkweeds into our plantings and use grazing to maximize a diversity of forbs and provide desired habitat conditions for butterflies and wetland-dependent species.

State Wildlife Grant: The RWBJV partners have identified five potential Wetlands Reserve Program sites that will be part of a study developed by the University of Nebraska - Lincoln Agriculture Economics Department. These sites will have the pivot irrigation systems modified to incorporate Variable Rate Irrigation (VRI) technology along with grazing infrastructure. VRI technology incorporates a Global Positioning System (GPS) and nozzle and pump packages to precisely apply irrigation inputs across the field, including the wetland acres. The restored wetlands and associated upland buffers in these fields will be grazed following an approved Natural Resources Conservation Service grazing plan. The study design will compare the restored sites with VRI upgrades to fields with cropped wetlands of similar size.  This design will allow for an evaluation of the adoption of these conservation measures on net farm income.

Nebraska Environmental Trust Grants: The RWBJV partners submitted five Nebraska Environmental Trust grants that are directly in line with goals and objectives outlined in the partnership’s Implementation Plan. The first grant was a $1.3 million dollar grant to maximize management of invasive species and restoration of wetland habitat along the Platte River from the state line to the confluence with the Loup River. This grant was submitted by the Nebraska Association of Natural Resources Districts. The grant has numerous partners including the Crane Trust, Ducks Unlimited, The Nature Conservancy, five Natural Resources Districts, two Weed Management Areas, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Little Blue Natural Resources District submitted “Puddles under the Pivots”. This is a $625,000 grant that would provide a portion of the matching funds to the recently submitted Wetlands Reserve Enhancement Program grant. This grant would be leveraged with RWBJV partners to complete wetland restoration activities, modify pivots to get through the restored wetlands, and establish grazing infrastructure to ensure the wetlands could be both managed for wetland-dependent migratory birds and integrated into local agriculture operations.

The Tri-Basin Natural Resources District submitted a watershed restoration grant that will be leveraged with partner funds to fill abandoned irrigation reuse pits in the watersheds of priority public wetlands and private wetlands enrolled in long-term conservation programs. The goal of the grant is to match $475,000 in Nebraska Environmental Trust funds with an equal amount of partner funds to fill at least 36 abandoned irrigation reuse pits. It is estimated that removal of these pits would result in an additional 300 acres of flooded habitat under average climate conditions.

The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission submitted a $225,000 grant to continue the Rainwater Basin 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. The RWBJV partners continue to make great strides in vegetation management and are scheduled to treat an additional 3,200 acres this year. If awarded, the funds from this grant will ensure continued success of this initiative.

The RWBJV office submitted a grant for our “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.