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May – September 2016

I don’t know what happened but summer is gone.  School has started, harvest is right around the corner, and fall hunting seasons have opened.  The wet spring slowed construction in the east, but it was full steam ahead with projects in the Western Rainwater Basin.  I hope everyone had a great summer and good luck with your fall endeavors.  Here is a summary of RWBJV partnership’s highlights and accomplishments.


Biological Planning & Conservation Design

Partners in Flight Landbird Conservation Plan Now Available:  The 2016 revision to the North American Landbird Conservation Plan was recently finalized. The Plan documents population declines for more than 400 bird species. Some of the steepest declines have occurred among grassland species.  The Plan contains information about extinction risk, stewardship responsibility, and regions of greatest importance during all parts of the annual cycle.  Specific actions to guide landbird conservation over the next 10 years are included.  Implementation of the Plan could help reverse long-term population declines and keep common birds from becoming imperiled.

The Plan also profiles each of the Migratory Bird Joint Ventures, describing for each region the importance to landbirds, an example of conservation activities, and a list of the continental Watch List species breeding, wintering, or residing there year-round. The profile for the RWBJV can be found on pages 66-67. The "Conservation in Action" section features the Prescribed Fire Training Exchange (TREX) program in the Central Loess Hills. Special thanks to Ben Wheeler (Pheasants Forever/NGPC) and Eric Zach (NGPC) who contributed content. The Plan can be downloaded from the Partners in Flight website.

You Are Invited to the Playa Wetland Ecology Symposium:  On Feb 7, 2017, Dana Varner (RWBJV), Mark Vrtiska (NGPC), and Lisa Webb (USGS/Missouri Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit) will host a Playa Wetland Ecology Symposium at the Midwest Fish and Wildlife Conference in Lincoln, NE. The session will include a full day of talks on recent playa research, followed by a facilitated discussion and reception.

This event is a follow up to the first Playa Wetlands Ecology Symposium held on March 17, 2011, in Grand Island, Nebraska, and hosted by the RWBJV and Playa Lakes Joint Venture. More than 80 people attended, representing 23 government agencies, conservation organizations, and universities from 11 states. Building on the success of the previous symposium, this event will again bring together a group of regional partners to share the most recent results and findings of playa research and conservation programs. More information can be found on the Midwest Fish and Wildlife Conference website.

Upcoming Seminar to Focus on Integrating Human Dimensions into Habitat Conservation:  UNL's School of Natural Resources will host a seminar titled "Incorporating Human Dimensions Objectives into Habitat Planning and Delivery" on November 16. Dr. Pat Devers, who is the Science Coordinator for the Black Duck Joint Venture, will present on this topic. The seminar will be held at 3:30 in Hardin Hall room 107. Click here for more information.


Communication and Outreach

Nebraska Association of Resources District Tour: Each year the Nebraska Association of Resources Districts (NARD) hosts NRD Staff and Board Members to tour one of Nebraska’s river basins.   This year the tour focused on the Blue River Basin.  Upper Big Blue and Little Blue Natural Resources Districts (NRDs) jointly hosted the tour.  As part of the tour the two NRDs wanted to highlight a RWBJV wetland restoration.  We were able to stop at the Marsh Wetland near Gilter.  This project was selected because it contains both wetland and irrigation upgrades that allow the wetland to be seamlessly integrated into the producers operation.  Project components included wetland restoration, construction of perimeter fence that included pivot bridges, livestock water, pivot modification to cross the wetland, zone control variable rate irrigation, soil moisture probes, and agronomic support to develop crop water budgets and precision irrigation prescriptions.  Numerous partners assisted with the project including Valmont, S & P Irrigation, Cropmetrics, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Nebraska Game and Parks Commission (NGPC), and Upper Big Blue NRD.  Special thanks to Ivan Marsh that attended the tour and gave his perspective as the landowner and operator.  There was great feedback from the 80 plus attendees on the tour.  As a result of this tour the project was highlighted in the Upper Big Blue NRD newsletter and the Center for Grassland Studies summer newsletter.

Conservation Reserve Program Birthday Party: The RWBJV assisted Farm Service Agency (FSA), NGPC, and Pheasants Forever in hosting a 30th Birthday Party for the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP).  Bobbie Kriz Wickham (FSA) and Eric Zach (NGPC) did an amazing job pulling the event together.  Special thanks to Bobbie for getting FSA Administrator Val Dolcini to the event.  As part of the event Mr. Dolcini was able to visit fields enrolled in the State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE) option under CRP.  The success of the Nebraska CRP delivery machine and accolades from the landowners resonated with Mr. Dolcini.  Hopefully this will result in an additional allocation of SAFE acres to Nebraska for next year’s sign-up along with approval of the Migratory Bird SAFE that is proposed for playa wetland conservation.

Nebraska Grazing Lands Coalition and Center for Grassland Studies Presentations:  The 2015 Leopold Conservation Award Winner, Brian Shaw, was invited to speak at the Nebraska Grazing Lands Coalition’s Grazing and Birding Tour and at the Center for Grassland Studies’ Nebraska Grazing Conference.  Brian’s presentation highlighted how their operation has expanded as a result of grazing Rainwater Basin (RWB) wetlands.  The Nebraska Grazing Lands Coalition presentation was in Halsey and primarily to ranchers and ranch managers in from the sandhills while the Nebraska Grazing Conference presentation was in Kearney with representation from producers, UNL researchers, and UNL extension specialists from across the state.  As always, Brian did an outstanding job talking about the value of the wetlands to migratory birds and other wetland dependent wildlife, how conservation easements allowed their operation to grow and expand, and how they have changed their herd and grazing regimes to optimize wetland forage and promote desired habitat conditions.  Thanks Brian for being an agriculture ambassador for the RWBJV.

Nebraska Land Trust Presentation:  The RWBJV was invited to give a presentation to the Nebraska Land Trust Board about the RWBJV Conservation Business Model and future collaboration opportunities.  The Nebraska Land Trust holds the most Agriculture Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) Agriculture Land Easements (ALE) in Nebraska.  Recognizing that the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) grant has a goal of five ALE easements we wanted to begin the dialogue about how we could work together and have Nebraska Land Trust assist RWBJV partners with development for the first ALEs in the RWB.  For background, tracts enrolled in the ALE would have the wetland restored to the extent possible then an easement would be placed on the tract.  The easement would preclude draining the wetland and construction of permanent structures.  The landowner would retain the right to crop the tract with conventional farming practices or could transition the tract to grasslands for forage production.  There would be no restrictions on grazing and haying could be completed after July 15th.

Upper Big Blue and Little Blue Natural Resources District Presentations:  The RWBJV provided presentations to the Projects Committees with these two NRDs.  The presentation highlighted the conservation opportunities currently available through the RWBJV partnership.  We also highlighted the new opportunities that would be available through the proposed RCPP.  There was great support from the NRDs to continue to move forward and expand the opportunities to collaborate.

Congressional Coordination Meeting:  The RWBJV hosted a congressional coordination meeting on August 3rd.  Congressional Staffers from Nebraska’s congressional delegation attended along with representatives from all of the NGPC and USFWS divisions.  The half day meeting highlighted conservation successes and potential emerging issues.  The meeting was well attended and the congressional delegation was very interested in opportunities to continue successful delivery of conservation projects on private lands.  There was a lot of discussion about funding and potential revisions to the upcoming USDA Farm Bill.  Thanks to the Crane Trust for hosting the meeting and Ducks Unlimited for arranging the social that followed the meeting.  This was a great venue and the social provided a nice venue to meet the congressional staffers and discuss topics that did not get covered in the meeting.
As a follow-up to this meeting Ducks Unlimited was able to host Jessica Clowser, with Senator Fisher’s Office, on a tour of projects in the RWB.  Mel Taylor and Brian Shaw were able to meet Jessica at their projects and highlight how the conservation practices were economically viable and effectively integrated flood-prone cropland back into their operations.

Leopold Conservation Award Booth:  The RWBJV, Nebraska Cattlemen, and Sand County Foundation jointly hosted a Leopold Conservation Award listening session at the Nebraska State Fair.  The session took place in the conversation pit in the Rising Nebraska Building.  Past Leopold Conservation Award winners Homer Buell, Tim Kalkowski, and Nancy Peterson interacted with fair attendees to discuss their operations and highlight how working lands are critically important to conservation of Nebraska’s wildlife.  Steve and Brian Shaw’s video highlighting their operation was broadcast on the information kiosks found throughout the building.  There was great interest in what these private lands conservationists had to say.


RWBJV Updates

John Laux Named NGPC’s Upland Habitat and Access Program Manager:  Congratulations to John Laux for being named the NGPC’s Upland Habitat and Access Program Manager.  John has been with the NGPC Partners Section for nine years.  During his tenure he has been a great asset for private land owners in the western RWB.  Good luck John in your new position.  I am sure there will be some great opportunities for continued collaboration.


Grant Updates

National Wetlands Inventory Grant:  The RWBJV was awarded $120,000 from the USFWS to Region 6 National Wetlands Inventory (NWI) program to support remapping wetland resources in Nebraska’s Sandhills.  This funding is being leveraged with $125,000 that was provided by the USFWS National NWI office, $37,500 from the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), and $100,000 that is being provided by NGPC over the next two years.  Since the Sandhills were recognized as a high priority waterfowl landscape it was one of the first landscapes to be mapped.  Unfortunately much of the required ancillary data, like soils and timely color infrared imagery, was not available.  As a result, many of the ephemeral and temporary wetlands were not delineated.  This remapping effort will allow us to accurately delineate wetland resources in the Sandhills.  The RWBJV has now secured 85% of the funding necessary to complete the project.  Additional partners including NRCS, National Park Service, and Nebraska Department of Natural Resources, and Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality are being approached to leverage the remaining funding.

Regional Conservation Partnership Program:  NRCS has requested a full RCPP proposal from Upper Big Blue NRD.  Several modifications were made from the pre-proposal.  Now this grant is a $1.8 million dollar proposal that will enroll ten tracts into NRCS’s ACEP.  If funded, this grant would provide funding for five ALE and five Wetland Reserve Easement (WRE) enrollments.  The ALE 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.  This could be a great non-development easement option for those tracts adjacent to public wetlands that continue to see “Conservation Development Pressure” or individuals building houses right next to public wetlands. The ALEs would be held by the local NRDs or by the Nebraska Land Trust.  Since the ALE tracts could continue to be farmed the ALE tracts 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 that provide optimal habitat for migrating waterfowl, but more limited habitat for shorebirds.  On the WRE tracts the wetlands will be restored and the upland buffers will be seeded to grass.   Grazing infrastructure would be installed to incorporate grazing as a management tool, promoting persistent wetland vegetation and habitat for migrating waterfowl.  At all of the enrolled tracts (ALE and WRE) the pivot irrigation systems would be upgraded with Variable Rate Irrigation (VRI) technology to maximize irrigation efficiency.  The three major pivot manufactures (Lindsay, Reinke, and Valmont) and Cropmetrics, a precision agronomy company,  have committed financial and technical assistance to support this project.  It is exciting to see the partnership expanding and recognition that our projects address habitat and water quality/quantity issues.

North American Wetland Conservation Act Grant:  Ducks Unlimited was just awarded a North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA) grant to support the restoration activities outlined in Upper Big Blue NRD’s RCPP grant, along with enhancement activities to maximize habitat on public lands and private lands enrolled in conservation programs.  This grant, “Rainwater Basin Working Lands”, was awarded for $1,000,000.  Congratulations John Denton and Matt Hough for continuing your string of successful NAWCA applications.

Nebraska Environmental Trust Grants: The RWBJV partners submitted two Nebraska Environmental Trust (NET) grants for the 2017 cycle.  The Nebraska Community Foundation on behalf of the RWBJV submitted a grant titled “Wetland Reserve Enhancement Partnership Special Initiative”.  This grant is for $475,650 and will assist with development of grazing infrastructure, pivot modification, restoration activities, and other project costs associated with delivery of wetlands and associated upland buffers enrolled in the WRE option of ACEP.   If awarded, this grant will ensure seamless integration of RWB wetlands into producers operations and that these properties are economically viable and provide optimal habitat conditions for wetland dependent migratory birds and that rely on RWB wetlands.

Tri-Basin Natural Resources District submitted a grant titled “Rainwater Basin Watershed Restoration Initiative” on behalf of the RWBJV.  The primary objective of this grant is to fill at least 36 abandoned irrigation reuse pits in watersheds of priority public wetlands and/or private wetlands enrolled conservation programs.  In 1975, Nebraska passed the first law regulating groundwater discharge.  This law required producers to manage groundwater in a manner that does not impact neighboring properties.  As a result over 10,000 irrigation reuse pits were excavated.  Today many of the fields with these irrigation resuse pits have been converted to pivot irrigation systems and the irrigation reuse pits are not needed; unfortunately these abandoned irrigation reuse pits fill with water before runoff from precipitation events can reach the wetlands.  Filling abandoned irrigation reuse pits with compacted soil provides a “win-win” for producers and wildlife.  When an irrigation reuse pit is filled the producer eliminates an obstacle in the field and acquires additional farmable acres.  Removing the pit also restores wetland hydrology and watershed function by facilitating runoff to the wetland on a regular basis.  To maximize effectiveness, emphasis will be on irrigation reuse pits closest to the wetlands with large storage capacities.  Since RWB wetlands are major recharge sites to the underlying Ogallala Aquifer, grant activities will also benefit local residents and area producers by supporting a sustainable aquifer.

Threatened and Endangered Birds Grant:  The USFWS RWB Wetland Management District (RWB WMD) was recently awarded a Threatened and Endangered Birds Grant to benefit Whooping Cranes.  The goal of this proposal is to enhance supplemental water deliveries at three Waterfowl Production Areas.  These include Clark, Funk, and Johnson.  The grant was awarded for $152,500 and will be matched with $100,000 of NAWCA and NET grants to complete the restoration and enhancement activities.  A combination of pipelines and water control structures will be constructed at these properties positively impacting 1,985 wetland acres.

Working Lands for Wildlife Initiative:  Nebraska Cattlemen sponsored a Working Lands for Wildlife proposal titled “A Leveraged Approach for Beef, Birds, and Beetles in Nebraska’s Sandhills” to NRCS.  The proposal outlines a partnership approach to maximize habitat for grassland nesting birds and
American Burying Beetle while increasing sustainability and profitability of enrolled ranches.  The proposal outlines the opportunities to leverage $500,000 in NRCS Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) conservation practices and partner funds from the NGPC, USFWS Partners for Fish and Wildlife, and Sandhills Task Force (STF) to impact 20,000 acres.

National Fish and Wildlife Foundation Grant:  The USFS and STF have submitted another National Fish and Wildlife Foundation grant titled “Nebraska Sandhills Landscape Conservation: A Public Private Partnership”.  This unique proposal will support development of a Flagship Prescribed Fire Partnership that will support 11,000 acres of prescribed fire on the forest service lands along with 4,000 acres of prescribed burns on the adjacent private lands.  The USFS provided $175,000 in matching funds that includes equipment and staff that will complete the burns of USFS lands and assist with the prescribed fires on the adjacent private lands.  As part of the $149,000 grant $65,000 is dedicated to work on private lands that includes mechanically removing eastern red cedar and installation of necessary grazing infrastructure to manage against re-infestation.