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March – June 2015 Update

I hope everyone had a safe and enjoyable 4th of July. This year the RWB went from the driest winter to one of the wettest springs. The wet conditions may have slowed construction projects, but the partners have remained busy. Here is an overview of some of the partnership highlights.

Biological Planning & Conservation Design

Central Loess Hills Planning: Ben Wheeler, Pheasants Forever Coordinating Wildlife Biologist, has been working closely with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission’s State Wildlife Action Plan implementation staff to develop a set of strategies and habitat benchmarks for the Central Loess Hills region. This planning process has engaged a diverse set of partners. Habitat objectives were established for playa wetlands, mixed-grass prairie, wet meadows, and for several rare plant species. Many of the habitat objectives outlined in the RWBJV Implementation Plan were adopted as part of this planning process. Both the Playa and Greater Prairie Chicken Decision Support Tools were used to help prioritize areas and establish habitat benchmarks.

Whooping Crane Habitat Selection Modeling Project: The RWBJV hosted a Whooping Crane modeling workshop to discuss opportunities to build upon modeling efforts in North and South Dakota. Partners included the USFWS (Habitat and Population Evaluation Team, Partners for Fish and Wildlife, Ecological Services, and Rainwater Basin Wetland Management District), Platte River Recovery and Implementation Program, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, and The Crane Trust. The goal of the meeting was to discuss opportunities to use the database of Whooping Crane sightings along with landcover variables to identify the local and landscape features that influence habitat selection. Location data from the telemetry birds would then be used to evaluate model performance. The workgroup embraced the idea and the RWBJV GIS staff is coordinating with USFWS Habitat and Population Evaluation Team biologists to begin crunching the appropriate landcover data for analysis.

Watershed Delineation and Revised Soil Loss Equation Modeling: Dr. Zhenghong Tang, University of Nebraska – Lincoln, was recently awarded a grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Refuge Division to revise the watershed delineations for all public wetlands (Nebraska Game and Parks Commission and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service). Dr. Tang is using a combination of automated and manual techniques to develop these watersheds from the Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) data. He will also be developing a one-foot contour dataset. In addition, Dr. Tang is using the LiDAR data to rerun the Revised Soil Loss Equation (RUSLE) for the entire RWB. This dataset will allow each wetland to be evaluated to determine where the greatest threat from sedimentation is within its respective watershed. This will be an invaluable tool to start delivering a buffer program to reduce sedimentation loads entering wetlands.

Sample Design to Evaluate Habitat Selection by Waterfowl: Dr. Aaron Pearse and Dr. Mike Anteau, both with United States Geological Survey Northern Prairie Research Center, were awarded funding from the USFWS Refuge Inventory and Monitoring program to work with the RWBJV partners to develop a sampling protocol to better understand local and landscape features that influence habitat selection by different guilds of waterfowl. To develop this sampling framework RWBJV GIS datasets will be evaluated to determine the best way to stratify the landscape. Sample wetlands will be identified from the different strata to make up the pool of sample wetlands. Once this framework is in place the RWBJV partners will be able to begin monitoring waterfowl use during spring migration. This is being designed to be a long-term project that, in the future, will provide new tools to guide conservation delivery.

Roundout Priority Decision Support Tool: The RWBJV science office has completed geospatial processing for the 2015 Roundout Prioritization Decision Support Tool. Acquisitions of roundouts, or the privately owned portion of wetlands that are in part publicly owned, is one of the key public land strategies in the RWBJV Implementation Plan. This tool provides a mechanism to evaluate all roundout parcels based on the amount of hydric soils present, overall wetland priority, number of roundouts to the public wetland, cropping history, and disturbance factors. The presence of buildings, confined animal feeding operations, irrigation wells, concentration/irrigation pits, and electrical transmission lines is also considered. The RWBJV science office is in the process of completing final documentation, creating a mapbook, and generating the metadata for review by the RWBJV Acquisition Workgroup.

Easement Decision Support Tool: The RWBJV science office has also completed geospatial processing of the 2015 Easement Acquisition Decision Support Tool. This tool evaluates all parcels that contain historic wetlands and are not currently enrolled in a conservation easement based on: current functional wetland area (based on 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 historic wetlands within 3 miles, disturbance factors, and opportunity to acquire at least a 50 meter upland buffer. Consideration is also given to the presence of irrigation wells and presence of electrical transmission lines. The science office is in the process of final documentation, mapbook development, and geospatial metadata creation for review by the RWBJV Acquisition Workgroup.

Platte River and Rainwater Basin Image Library – The RWBJV GIS lab has added 6 additional image datasets to the Platte River Image Library. The imagery ranged from 1957-1988. The library now contains over 30 different geo-rectified image datasets from the 1860s to present day. Processing of images for the RWB Image Library has also begun. This image library will have over 25 image datasets from the 1990s to present day including all of the imagery acquired for the Annual Habitat Surveys. The GIS lab is currently shopping for a web based repository to house the image libraries so partners can easily access the information.

Blowout Mapping: Tricia Dudley, with the RWBJV GIS shop, has just finished mapping blowouts in Blaine, Cherry, and Thomas Counties in Nebraska’s Sandhills. This project was carried out to assist the U.S. Forest Service with resource inventory and planning as they implement their Range Allotment Management Plan within the Bessey and McKelvie National Forests and Grasslands.

Communication and Outreach

Nebraska Wind Tour: Caroline Jezierski, Nebraska Wind Energy and Wildlife Project Coordinator, hosted a tour of the Central Platte River and RWB for wind energy developers. Although all of the RWB sites were completely frozen the birds provided a great show along the Platte River. Thanks to Caroline for organizing the tour as well as Dana Varner, RWBJV Science Coordinator, and Mark Vrtiska, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission Waterfowl Program Manager, for providing presentations to the developers about the importance of these landscapes and the potential for conflict if development occurs.

Partners in Flight Steering Committee Meeting: The RWBJV hosted the Partners in Flight Steering Committee for their spring meeting. This committee oversees implementation of the North American Landbird Conservation Plan. A presentation was made highlighting the RWBJV Landbird Plan objectives and Decision Support Tools developed from the BBS data. During their meeting there was significant discussion about how the PIF Steering and Science Committees can work more closely with Joint Ventures to integrate PIF population objectives into Joint Venture Implementation Plans and support the on-the-ground conservation activities the Joint Venture partners deliver.

Wings Across the Americas Award: The RWBJV and Playa Lakes Joint Venture staff were jointly awarded the 2015 U.S. Forest Service’s Wings across the Americas award for Habitat Management and Partnerships. Both Joint Ventures were recognized for their innovative approaches to developing conservation programs that “fit” within privately owned working lands. The science used to target these programs was also highlighted.

Center for Grassland Studies: The RWBJV partners were able to feature one of our Working Lands Initiative sites as part of this tour. Tim Horst, Ducks Unlimited, spoke about the Hinz tract, a parcel that has remained in private ownership. He explained that, through grazing, the tract is both an economic asset for the landowner and provides desired habitat conditions. Transition of this flood-prone cropland to grassland also provided a unique tool for the local Natural Resources District to achieve groundwater management objectives. Also on the tour, Damon Taylor and Mike Assenmacher, USFWS Rainwater Basin Wetland Management District, discussed the USFWS’s approach to management and the importance of local cooperators and grazing to achieve their habitat objectives. Bob Meduna and Gerry Steinauer provided an overview of Nebraska Game and Parks Commission’s approach to management at Sacramento Wilcox Wildlife Management Area. Thanks to all the partners who made this an educational event for area producers, researchers, and corporate partners interested in grassland management. Thanks as well to Pam Murray and the Center for Grassland Studies for the opportunity to showcase RWB wetlands.

Nebraska Grazing Lands Coalition: The Nebraska Grazing Lands Coalition Board of Directors also hosted their annual tour in south central Nebraska. There were multiple tour stops including Jensen Waterfowl Production Area. Damon Taylor and Mike Assenmacher, USFWS Rainwater Basin Wetland Management District, provided tour participants with an overview of the importance of RWB Wetlands for wetland-dependent migratory birds and explained how grazing is a key management tool. Damon and Mike also discussed the ways different stocking rates could be used to promote desired wetland vegetation communities and to manage against undesired invasive species. Thanks to Ron Bolz and Mike Wallace, Nebraska Grazing Lands Coalition, for coordinating the tour and including a RWB site.

Tour with Representative Adrian Smith’s Staff: Matt Hough and Tom Peterson hosted Ansley Mick and Matt Reynolds on a tour of conservation projects along the Central Platte River and throughout the RWB. It was perfectly timed with the peak of spring migration. We were also able to get Ansley and Matt into a crane blind at Audubon’s Rowe Sanctuary. They were both very impressed with the show the sandhill cranes and waterfowl put on. Thanks to Bill Taddicken and Audubon’s Rowe Sanctuary for providing the crane blind.

Washington D.C. Meetings: In conjunction with the Association of Joint Venture Management Board meetings in Washington D.C., Tim McCoy and I were able to schedule visits with our congressional delegation to highlight the RWBJV partnership and our successes. As a result of these meetings the staff had several requests for additional information. One request was from Senator Fischer’s office regarding the North American Wetland Conservation Act (NAWCA). Several RWB and Platte River project fact sheets were developed, highlighting how partners have leveraged NAWCA funds for conservation delivery. This was timely, as Senator Fischer is currently a Vice-Chair on the Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus that is pursuing reauthorization of NAWCA.

We also met with Chief Weller with Natural Resources Conservation Service, Robert Bonnie, Deputy Undersecretary U.S. Department of Agriculture, and numerous program staff. We gained valuable insights from staff on ways to improve our State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement (Farm Service Agency) and Regional Conservation Partnership Program (Natural Resources Conservation Service) applications.

Leopold Conservation Award: Shaw Family Farms were named the 2015 Leopold Conservation Award winners. Steve and Brian Shaw have a diversified row crop and cattle operation near Fairfield and have integrated several restored RWB wetlands into their operation. Steve and Brian are also grazing cooperators for several Nebraska Game and Parks Commission and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service public land managers. In addition, Steve has been an outstanding RWBJV Management Board member providing direction and support for the RWBJV Working Lands Initiative. Congratulations to Steve and Brian; you are very deserving of this award.

RWBJV Updates

Winter Wheat Initiative: The newest initiative for the RWBJV is a Winter Wheat Initiative. The focus of this initiative is to integrate winter wheat into area producers’ crop rotations. Target areas for the initiative are locales in Upper Big Blue and Little Blue Natural Resources Districts with high nitrates and public and/or private conservation lands in close proximity. Increasing winter wheat both scavenges excess nitrogen and provides additional nesting habitat. In the 1960s nearly 90% of the pheasant chicks produced in the RWB were raised in road ditches or winter wheat. The RWBJV GIS shop developed a Decision Support Tool that identifies the hotspots on the landscape where both of the objectives can be best achieved.

RWBJV Habitat Specialist: The job announcement for the RWBJV Habitat Specialist is closed and we are in the process of hiring an individual for the position. I hope to have that individual on by August so we can be ready for the fall herbicide treatment window.

Research, Inventory, and Monitoring Plan: The updated RWBJV Research, Inventory, and Monitoring Plan has been approved by the Conservation Planning Workgroup and revised by the Technical Committee. Endorsement of the plan by the Technical Committee will be requested at the next meeting. This plan identifies the key uncertainties in the Implementation Plan and associated RWBJV Bird Plans and describes the research, monitoring, and/or inventory tasks that are needed to resolve these issues. This plan does not represent a to-do list, but rather a tool to inform partners about the different research questions that have been identified. The plan also provides a mechanism to get additional research questions answered when researchers want to study the RWB or other geographic focus areas in the RWBJV Administrative Area. We hope to have the plan approved at the next RWBJV Management Board Meeting.

Grant Updates

National Fish and Wildlife Foundation: The RWBJV pre-proposal “Evaluating, Implementing, and Communicating the Opportunities to use Grazing as a Management tool to Maximize Habitat for Wetland and Grassland Dependent Birds in Nebraska’s Rainwater Basin” was selected for a full proposal by National Fish and Wildlife Foundation reviewers for their Conservation Partners Program grant. This grant is financially supported by Natural Resources Conservation Service with a priority placed on those projects that can assist with more efficient delivery of Farm Bill programs. This proposal builds on the RWBJV Working Lands Initiative and is multifaceted, with development of grazing infrastructure on private working lands, evaluation of forage production by common wetland plant communities, and development of information pamphlets by the University of Nebraska Extension to help inform landowners and farm operators about the opportunities to integrate wetlands into their operation. The information collected as part of this project will also be used to update the ecological site descriptions and state transition models in the Nebraska Field Office Technical Guide. This updated information will assist Natural Resources Conservation Service Staff as they develop grazing and management plans for the >100 Wetlands Reserve Program sites in the RWB.

State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement for Migratory Birds, Butterflies, and Pollinators: Playa Lakes and RWBJV have jointly submitted a revised SAFE proposal. This Conservation Reserve Program would be available to landowners with playa wetlands. Enrollment criteria would include:

  • Minimum enrollment 2 acres, maximum enrollment 160 acres.
  • Minimum 120ft. buffer, with a maximum of 4:1 upland to wetland buffer.
  • The buffers would be seeded to native short- and mixed-grass prairie species with a diversity of forbs including milkweed to provide sufficient habitat for pollinators and monarch butterflies.
  • Rental rates would be established using a reverse auction, where the producer would establish the rental rate. This offer would be compared to a reference price for the geography. Only 75% of the offers would be accepted for each geographic focus area per sign-up. Sign-up would be continuous, but cutoffs would be set for offer selection.
  • Contracts would be 10 or 15 years in duration, with grazing being the preferred management option.

If this program is funded, it will fit a unique niche the partnership currently cannot address.

Regional Conservation Partnership Program: The RWBJV has submitted a pre-proposal for the Regional Conservation Partnership Program. This $3.2 million dollar proposal will work to establish 10 sites within Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Agriculture Conservation Easement Program. If funded this grant would provide funding for 8 Agriculture Land Easements and 2 Wetlands 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 both habitat and water-quality/quantity issues.

North American Wetlands Conservation Act Grant: Matt Hough, Ducks Unlimited, submitted a North American Wetlands Conservation Act grant to support the Agriculture Land Easements activities outlined in the Regional Conservation Partnership Program grant. This grant, “Rainwater Basin Working Lands”, is for $813,000. The Agriculture Land Easements described in the RCPP will be held by the local Natural Resources District 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.

Sand County Foundation and DuPont Pioneer: The RWBJV was recently awarded a $5,000 grant to interseed milkweed into an established Natural Resources Conservation Service Wetlands Reserve Program easement. During the initial restoration milkweeds and other forbs were not part of the seeding mix. As part of this project there will be both a fall and spring planting of three different milkweed species. The plantings will be monitored over the next three years to determine which of the planting approaches was most successful. 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 grazing management plan. With the new focus on monarch butterflies, this information will help the RWBJV partners integrate milkweeds into our plantings and demonstrate how grazing can be used as an effective management tool to promote habitat for migratory waterfowl as well as migration and breeding habitat for this declining butterfly. The RWBJV partners are looking forward to working with Prairie Plains Resource Institute as we develop this project.

State Wildlife Grant: The University of Nebraska - Lincoln Agriculture Economics Department, in collaboration with the RWBJV, was awarded a $50,000 grant to evaluate adoption of wetland conservation and variable rate irrigation technology on net farm income. This grant will provide financial resources to establish grazing infrastructure and integrate variable rate irrigation technology at one of our restored wetlands and to hire a graduate student to evaluate reference sites that are conventionally farmed. To identify the reference sites, the RWBJV GIS data will be used to identify similar neighboring sites with farmed wetlands. Working with the local producers, Natural Resources Districts, and Natural Resources Conservation Service, net farm income will be evaluated at the field level for the different sites. This will be a three-year study that should help encompass the variability associated with different growing seasons.

The RWBJV partners also put in a grant with Central Public Power and Irrigation District to enhance water deliveries to Funk Waterfowl Production Area. This grant, if funded, will provide financial resources to upgrade water delivery capacity from Central’s canal system into Funk Waterfowl Production Area. The upgrades will double delivery capacity to the wetland.

Culvert Inventory: The USFWS Rainwater Basin Wetland Management District put in a grant to inventory road culverts in a ten-county area. Once collected, the data will be used to develop a hydro-corrected Digital Elevation Model (DEM) from the Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) dataset. This dataset will allow us to develop watersheds for all of the historic wetland footprints in the RWB. Delineation of these watersheds will help focus conservation efforts to those wetlands that have larger watersheds and the fewest modifications. The dataset will also help us prioritize watershed restoration of private wetlands already enrolled in conservation programs. Partners included Nebraska Game and Parks Commission and Natural Resources Conservation Service.

White-fronted Goose Telemetry project: Dr. Aaron Pearse (United States Geological Survey), Dr. Lisa Webb (Missouri Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit), and Dr. Dana Varner (RWBJV Science Coordinator) collaborated with Dave Olsen (USFWS Migratory Birds) to develop a White-fronted Goose telemetry protect. The team will work with collaborators along the Texas Gulf Coast, Louisiana, and Arkansas to collar approximately 60 birds with GPS transmitters. These birds will be tracked over subsequent migrations to better understand contemporary migration routes, energetics requirements, and how public and private lands contribute as migration stopover sites. This proposal was submitted to the USFWS Science Support Program.