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March – May 2014 Update

Spring migration has come and gone, but we made the most of this migration with numerous tours for agency staff, corporate sponsors, and several potential new partners who are interested in contributing to the RWBJV.  Thanks to all of the partners who helped make these tours a success.  Here is an update on a few of the RWBJV activities.

Biological Planning & Conservation Design Activities

Northeast Decision Support System: The RWBJV has developed a Decision Support System using a Geographic Information System (GIS) to help identify specific tracts best suited for grassland management and/or strategic delivery of grassland establishment programs, like the Conservation Reserve Program.  The geographic focus of this project was in Antelope, Brown, Boyd, Holt, Keya Paha, Knox, Peirce and Rock counties.  This Decision Support System incorporated soil erosion characteristics and species distribution models for American Burying Beetle, Greater Prairie-Chickens, Ring-necked Pheasants, and four grassland Passeriformes (Bobolink, Field Sparrow, Grasshopper Sparrow, and Western Meadowlark).  The output is a set of maps that highlight those grassland tracts that provide the greatest potential to contribute to these species, as well as those agricultural fields which, if restored to grassland, would provide the greatest benefit to these species.  This initial Decision Support System is currently under review by multiple natural resource management staff who work in this geographic area.  Once approved, the document and associated GIS data will be available on the RWBJV webpage.  I think this document will provide a unique tool for a Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) application to benefit Greater Prairie-Chickens in this region.  The RCPP is one of the new options in the Farm Bill.  This project was funded through a Nebraska Environmental Trust grant awarded to the Nebraska Bird Partnership.

Wetlands Reserve Enhancement Program Monitoring Project:  The RWBJV Science Office continues to make good progress on the 2013 vegetation map describing vegetation communities present in the 11,000 historic hydric soil footprints.  The RWBJV was recently awarded a $38,500 Conservation Effects Assessment Program grant by the Natural Resources Conservation Service to complete a waterfowl and shorebird carrying capacity assessment based on this vegetation assessment.  The output of this project will be a Conservation Insight Report for the Natural Resources Conservation Service.  The report will highlight the changes in waterfowl carrying capacity since 2003, as well as the contribution that different ownership and programs provide for migratory waterfowl and shorebirds during spring migration.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service National Wildlife Refuge System’s Land Acquisition Priority System (LAPS) Revision:  The RWBJV has partnered with Nebraska Game and Parks Commission (Joel Jorgensen), Idaho Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit (Courtney Conway), and the Nebraska Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research unit (T.J. Fontaine) to develop a set of species distribution models for several priority waterbirds. The goal of this project is to test a set of modeling approaches, including mixed-models and hierarchical Bayesian models, using the existing spatial data (North American Marsh Bird Monitoring (NAMBM) database).  These species distribution models will help to identify and extrapolate species-habitat relationships into spatially explicit predictions of population distribution for four marsh bird species: Black Rail (Laterallus jamaicensis), King Rail (Rallus elegans), Yellow Rail (Coturnicops noveboracensis), and Limpkin (Aramus guarauna). These species distribution models will provide insight into the wetland characteristics that affect habitat suitability for marsh birds and will be used to develop a decision support tool which can identify priority conservation areas for marsh birds.  It is expected that this tool will be integrated into the revised Land Acquisition Priority System (LAPS).  The LAPS is a scoring system that is used to identify acquisitions that will be funded through the Land and Water Conservation Fund.  The Decision Support Tool developed as part of this project will provide a standardized approach to evaluate different acquisitions based on their ability to provide habitat for marsh birds.  For more information on LAPS, please visit: http://www.fws.gov/refuges/realty/laps.html

Platte River Imagery Library:  The RWBJV Science Office has worked diligently with local partners from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Platte River Recovery and Implementation Program, Crane Trust, Central Platte Natural Resources District, The Nature Conservancy, and Platte Valley Weed Management Area to develop the Platte River Imagery Library.  All imagery has been georeferenced and contains associated metadata that meets or exceeds the Federal Geographic Data Committee standards.  There are a total of 14 datasets including the 1860 land surveys.  The Science Office is working closely with USGS to make the data available on the LC Map website.  Thanks to Rich Walters, The Nature Conservancy / Platte Valley Weed Management District, for funding initial development of the dataset.  The data storage framework developed for the Platte River Image Library will also be used to manage the Annual Habitat Survey imagery that has been collected in the Rainwater Basin since 2004.

North and South Platte River Waterfowl and Sandhill Crane Surveys: The partners had a successful spring survey season documenting waterfowl and Sandhill Cranes along the North and South Platte River.  There were a few survey protocol kinks that had to be addressed, but now we have a solid protocol for the next two years of data collection.  The RWBJV Science Office is already processing the landcover data and developing new habitat indices, like channel width, for the habitat suitability modeling efforts.  Special thanks to Mark Vrtiska and Heather Johnson, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, for agreeing to assist with the surveys.  Also thanks to Emily Munter, Kirk Schroeder, and Rob Spangler, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who have made the project a success.

Communication and Outreach

American Birding Association webpage:  Jennie Duberstein with the Sonoran Desert Joint Venture recently completed a detail with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Region 6 Migratory Bird Program.  During her detail she wrote an article on the watershed restoration activities associated with the Cooperative Recovery Initiative.  The article highlights the value of the western Rainwater Basin wetlands to Whooping Cranes and the RWBJV partners efforts to restore the watersheds of these wetlands.  The article was picked up by the American Birding Association.  http://blog.aba.org/2014/04/wetlands-watersheds-and-whooping-cranes-wetland-habitat-restoration-in-the-rainwater-basin-of-nebraska-2.html

Sand County Foundation Tour:  The Rainwater Basin was able to arrange a special tour for Sand County Foundation’s President Brent Haglund and project consultant Alex Echols.  Nancy DeLong, DuPont Pioneer Director of Sustainable Agriculture Systems, also attended the tour.  During the tour we highlighted numerous projects in the Rainwater Basin and along the Central Platte River.  The waterfowl and Sandhill Cranes put on a magnificent show for everyone.

Wetlands America Trust Tour:  Ducks Unlimited was able to bring the Wetlands America Trust Board to the Rainwater Basin this spring.  There were some pretty big names on the tour, including the CEO of Ducks Unlimited Dale Hall.  The tour was amazing as we hit the peak of migration.  Smith and Hansen Waterfowl Production Areas were loaded with Pintails, Mallards, and Green-winged Teal, and the Snow Geese were trading back and forth between the wetlands and adjacent cornfields.

Congressional Tour:  With the recent change in congressional staffers working on agriculture issues, the RWBJV hosted a spring migration tour.  We had a beautiful day and stopped at multiple public and private wetland sites.  There were numerous compliments about the RWBJV, specifically about our innovative approaches to integrate wetlands into local farm operations.

Cooperative Recovery Initiative Tour:  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hosted staff from the Regional Office to highlight the success of the Cooperative Recovery Initiative.  This initiative was established to restore watershed hydrology to multiple western Rainwater Basins to benefit Whooping Cranes.  Like the initiative itself, the tour was a tremendous success, highlighting wetlands that have received watershed restoration, as well as the targeting tools the RWBJV has used to identify and prioritize projects.

Forest Service Coordination Meeting Tour:  The RWBJV hosted the annual coordination meeting between the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission and the U.S. Forest Service.  This meeting is annually attended by multiple regional Forest Service Staff and the Division Administrators from the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.  The RWBJV and Playa Lakes Joint Venture gave a presentation about our partnerships and also highlighted the biological planning, conservation design, and implementation resources that joint ventures could provide to the U.S. Forest Service and Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.  The meeting was a great success, unfortunately the weather was not the best and the Sandhill Crane viewing occurred in a snow storm.

RWBJV Updates

Migratory Bird SAFE:  The RWBJV and Playa Lakes Joint Venture are working together to develop a State Acres For wildlife Enhancement (SAFE) Conservation Reserve Program option.  As proposed, this Conservation Reserve Program would be available to landowners with playa wetlands.  The goal is to provide average county irrigated rental rates for the enrolled acres.  Enrolled playas would have to be restored to the fullest extent possible and develop at least a 120-foot buffer (short- and mixed-grass species) around the wetland.  Contracts would be ten to fifteen years in duration, with grazing being the preferred management option.   The goal is to have 25,000 acres available in both Kansas and Nebraska.  When available, this program will fit a unique niche that we currently cannot offer producers as part of our conservation toolbox.

Leopold Conservation Award: Brian and Steve Shaw (RWBJV Management Board member) were first runners up for the 2014 Leopold Conservation Award.  Based on feedback from the evaluation committee, it was a very difficult decision and could have gone either way.  Brian and Steve are automatically entered into next year’s competition.

Ducks Unlimited Staff’s Northward Migration:  The Northward Migration is not just for waterfowl.  Congratulations to Steve Donovan who was named Manager of Conservation Programs in South Dakota and Jonas Davis who was named Manager of Conservation Programs in North Dakota.  Steve and Jonas have been amazingly successful in their pursuit of NAWCA grants and development of projects in the Rainwater Basin and along the Platte River.  Good luck, gentlemen, in your new pursuits.

County Step Down Document Revision:  The Private Lands workgroup has just revised the County Step Down document that helps describe the conservation objectives on a county by county basis.  This planning document also provides a cost estimate to inform the RWBJV Management Board about the financial resources that will be required to achieve our conservation objectives by 2030.

Washington DC Meetings:  RWBJV Management Board members Tim McCoy and Bob Bettger attended the Association of Joint Ventures meeting in Washington D.C.  In addition to the association meeting, Bob and Tim had meetings with the Nebraska Congressional Delegation, Office of Management and Budget, United States Department of Agriculture undersecretary, and program administrators within Natural Resources Conservation Service and Farm Service Agency.  I think the meetings were a tremendous success and were a springboard for the Migratory Bird State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement proposal that is currently being developed.

Communication Plan:  The RWBJV Communication Workgroup is currently working with a consultant to revise our current Communication Plan.  This plan will build on our existing plan.  One of the major changes will be clearly identifying who our audiences are, what the messages need to be to these audiences, and explicitly defining the tools that will be used to effectively deliver these messages.

RWBJV and USFWS Move to Crane Trust:  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Ecological Services and the RWBJV Science Office will be moving the Nebraska Nature and Visitor Center.  Having the RWBJV Science Office located with the Whooping Crane Trust should increase collaboration and support for conservation actions on Platte River.

Grants Update

Natural Resources Conservation Service’s National Conservation Innovation Grant:  The RWBJV collaborated with The Sand County Foundation to submit a national Conservation Innovation Grant.  This project has three demonstration sites (Texas, Nebraska, and South Dakota) related to the Sand County Foundations’ Water as a Crop Initiative.  The Nebraska site is a net farm income study within the Rainwater Basin.  This project is a paired evaluation comparing net farm income on a field with a restored wetland and GPS-enabled variable rate irrigation to a field with similar soils that contains a farmed wetland and conventional pivot irrigation system.  In drafting the grant, I was able to discuss the project with several of the pivot dealers.  All were very excited to work with us and several even provided letters of support.  Tri-Basin Natural Resources District was also a major partner on this grant, contributing both financial and in-kind resources to the proposed project.  This will be a three-year evaluation that will allow projections to be made on the economics of farming Rainwater Basin wetlands compared to restoring wetlands.  We will be working with agriculture economists from both the University of Nebraska - Lincoln and - Omaha.

Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Nebraska Conservation Innovation Grant:  The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission has agreed to submit a Nebraska (State) Conservation Innovation Grant on behalf of the RWBJV.  This grant has three components; 1) Continuation of the forage production estimates that were initiated several years ago as part of a RWBJV State Wildlife Grant, 2) Evaluate the impacts of grazing on soil health, and 3) Conduct four tours where landowners, farm operators, and natural resource professionals can visit grazed public and private lands as well as idled sites to learn about the economic opportunities available through wetland grazing as well as the impacts of grazing on soil health.  To complete this project, RWBJV partners will be working with area producers, professors from University of Nebraska-Lincoln School of Natural Resources, Nebraska Extension, and Ward Laboratories.  Special thanks to Ted LaGrange for taking the lead on the proposal.

Nebraska Environmental Trust Grants:  The RWBJV recently closed two grants from the Nebraska Environmental Trust.  The first was a Watershed Restoration Initiative grant that was awarded to the Friends of the Rainwater Basin.  As part of this grant, 53 abandoned irrigation reuse pits were filled to increase hydrologic function of 20 Rainwater Basin wetlands.  In total, 11 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Waterfowl Production Areas, eight Nebraska Game and Parks Commission Wildlife Management Areas, and a private wetland enrolled in Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Wetlands Reserve Program were positively impacted. Based on the Rainwater Basin HGM, these actions positively impacted 1,162 wetland acres by eliminating 165 acre/feet of storage from the irrigation reuse pits located in the watersheds.  This total represents a single storage volume; however, pits often fill with runoff multiple times in a single year so there is probably a greater positive impact than predicted by the model.  To complete these activities, the RWBJV partners leveraged $517,435 in matching funds to the $334,925 of funds provided by the Nebraska Environmental Trust.

The other Nebraska Environmental Trust grant that we closed was our 2011 Wetland Habitat Restoration, Protection, and Enhancement Grant.  This was a two-year grant that provided $320,000 to complete conservation projects on private and public lands and to support evaluation and communication activities.  As part of this grant, the partners leveraged $1.97 million dollars in federal and non-federal matching funds, representing nearly a 6:1 leverage.  The grant allowed RWBJV partners to impact 4,563 acres.  This included 2,790 acres on public lands and 1,773 acres on private lands.  On public lands two large-scale restorations were completed at Prairie Dog and Miller’s Pond Waterfowl Production Areas.  In addition, over 80,000 feet of perimeter fence was constructed on eleven properties.  This will allow public land managers to more effectively use grazing to manage their areas.  On private lands a variety of projects were completed.  Some of the more novel projects were those to retrofit pivot irrigation systems as part of the Wetlands Reserve Enhancement Program.  The partners helped three landowners retrofit their pivot irrigation systems to allow the pivots to more effectively cross restored wetlands.  Who thought buying a pivot corner system would be a conservation activity?  As part of the evaluation component, the RWBJV Science office collected summer aerial photography and has mapped the vegetation communities within all of the historic hydric-soil footprints.  This dataset will provide a valuable tool to evaluate conservation success over the last 10 years, as we will be able to compare to a 2003 dataset that was developed using the same methods.  The major communication accomplishment was sponsorship of a Savory Holistic Land Management Workshop series.  This four-part workshop series included: 1) Introduction to Holistic Management Whole Farm Ranch Planning, 2) Holistic Financial Planning, 3) Holistic Grazing Planning, and 4) Holistic Biological Monitoring: Boots on the Land.  There was a diverse mix of landowners and natural resource management professionals that attended the class.   These workshops provided a unique opportunity for landowners and conservation delivery staff to learn from each other about habitat objectives and farm economics.  The insights gained at these workshops have allowed the RWBJV partners to more effectively promote the Working Lands Initiative.

National Fish and Wildlife Foundation Grant:  The RWBJV is coordinating with the Forest Service, Sand Hills Task Force, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to develop a National Fish and Wildlife Foundation grant to support grassland and wetland restoration, enhancement, and management within the Sandhills.  This would be a multi-faceted project to remove eastern red cedars, develop grazing infrastructure, and restore wetland features.  Projects would be developed both on Forest Service lands and private lands.  Thanks to Jeff Abegglen for keeping the grant proposal moving forward.

North American Wetlands Conservation Act Grant:  Ducks Unlimited was successful in the recent North American Wetlands Conservation Act round.  This is a one-million dollar grant that contains projects in both Kansas and Nebraska.  Within the Rainwater Basin this grant will fund a roundout acquisition adjacent to County Line Waterfowl Production Area, a conservation easement in Phelps County, filling irrigation reuse pits in several public wetland watersheds, and 600 acres of wetland enhancement through establishment of grazing infrastructure as well as chemical and mechanical treatments of undesired vegetation communities.