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October-November 2012 Update

Happy Holidays to all the RWBJV Partners. This year marks one of our most successful years for the partnership, despite record commodity and land prices. This year the RWBJV leveraged 4.1 million dollars in federal and nonfederal funds to impact 6,310 acres in the 21 counties associated with the Rainwater Basin Wetland Complex.  Although we are suffering though a historic drought, the partners have seized the opportunity.  Construction and management activities have continued well past the traditional window. It is a pleasure to work with the dedicated and innovative partners who strive for success despite the climatic, political, or social impediments that have traditionally impeded wetland conservation.



A full list of active projects is provided as an attachment to the RWBJV Update. The accomplishments are amazing considering land sales, cash rent, and commodity prices are all exponentially higher than just five years ago. These projects exemplify the Rainwater Basin Joint Venture partners’ commitment to finding those “win-win” opportunities that integrate conservation into farm and ranch operations. Many of these projects are exceptional examples of outside-the-box thinking to find economically viable practices that make wetlands an asset for producers. As part of this update I’d like to highlight two of these types of projects.

 Macon Lakes Waterfowl Production Area Watershed Restoration: Following up from the successful on-site restoration, the RWBJV partners have entered into phase II of this project: watershed restoration. Laurel Badura, of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, has developed agreements with 12 landowners to close 13 irrigation re-use pits in the watershed. The projects associated with these agreements will significantly increase runoff into the wetland and provide reliable habitat for waterfowl as well as Whooping Cranes, which have been documented using this wetland in the past. The producers benefit through increased cropland acres and removal of an impediment from their crop field.

Opportunities to integrate Rainwater Basin Wetlands into the Platte River Recovery Program:  The interconnection between the Rainwater Basin Wetlands and the Central Platte River is recognized. The RWBJV partners recently had a meeting to discuss the opportunities to integrate RWB wetlands into the aquifer recharge and habitat objectives outlined in the Platte River Recovery Program through flooding Rainwater Basin wetlands in the fall with canal water. The meeting was attended by representatives of Tri-Basin Natural Resources District, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Ecological Services and Refuges), Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, Central Public Power and Irrigation District, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Headwaters Corporation, and RWBJV Management Board and staff.  The meeting was very successful and all of the attendees committed to the project in concept. Everyone went away from the meeting with a set of tasks that their organizations/agencies would be responsible for addressing.

A task for the RWBJV staff was to develop a tool that could identify the historic wetland footprints, still under private ownership, that could provide reliable whooping crane habitat within close proximity to the existing canal network. This analysis identified 72 historic wetland footprints. In a follow-up meeting, opportunities were explored and one landowner has been contacted to determine if he is interested in hosting a demonstration site. It is gratifying to see Rainwater Basin wetlands being recognized not just for their habitat values, but also for the groundwater recharge and other ecosystem services they provide.


Research and Monitoring

SDM project: As part of the SDM (Structured Decision Making) project, over 9,000 points were sampled this year on public wetlands to quantify and describe the vegetation communities. In addition, all management data have been recorded on Nebraska Game and Parks Commission Wildlife Management Areas, while the U.S. Fish and Wildlife continues to compile management activities on Waterfowl Production Areas. The Core Team hopes to have all data entered into the database by the first of the year. This year’s dataset is the fourth consecutive year of data collection, providing the RWBJV an invaluable opportunity to evaluate success of different management treatments and duration of benefit. The Core Team has drafted an outline to revise the “Best Management of Rainwater Basin Wetlands” document and will include results of this analysis. We are scheduled to have a draft document pulled together by next summer.

Wetlands Reserve Enhancement Program Monitoring Project:  Nebraska Game and Parks Commission received a Wetlands Reserve Enhancement Program grant to document current vegetation communities and develop management plans for all Natural Resources Conservation Service Wetlands Reserve Program easements. This grant provided funding for acquisition of aerial photography (Summer 2012) for the entire Rainwater Basin Wetland Complex. Funding was also provided to fund technicians to collect vegetation composition data at 3,000 points on the 100 tracts enrolled in the Wetlands Reserve Program. The data will be used in conjunction with the vegetation sampling data collected as part of the SDM project to create a seamless vegetation map for all of the historic 11,000 wetland footprints. This dataset will allow the RWBJV staff, Bio-engineering Teams, and NRCS staff to develop site-specific management plans for all Wetlands Reserve Program tracts. In addition, the dataset will allow the RWBJV to compare changes in habitat conditions since the last region-wide vegetation assessment completed in 2004. The new assessment will allow the RWBJV partners a region-wide overview of waterfowl carrying capacity and will hopefully highlight the successes of our Management Initiative.

Prairie Grouse and Curlew Monitoring:  Each December the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and RWBJV have a coordination meeting to discuss opportunities to collaborate on different projects. One item on the agenda is an expanded monitoring effort to increase routes and monitoring of three species (Sharp-tailed Grouse, Greater Prairie-Chicken, and Long-billed Curlew). This increased monitoring effort will help refine some of the current species habitat models and provide a better understanding of the species-habitat relationships of these species across their ranges. Collectively, as agencies, we will be working together to identify where additional routes should be placed, as well as developing opportunities to integrate citizen science and thus increase capacity to complete these monitoring efforts.

Shorebird Research in the Rainwater Basin Wetland Complex:  The RWBJV was able to leverage funds from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Division of Migratory Birds, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the UNL Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, to support a graduate student to address key uncertainties associated with shorebird use in the Rainwater Basin Wetland Complex. Study design and research hypotheses have not been developed, but upcoming meetings with the Conservation Planning Workgroup, Technical Committee, and key partners will provide critical insight and direction for the project.

ANNOUNCEMENT!!!: The Nebraska Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit is looking for volunteers to assist in an amphibian study to conduct aural surveys throughout much of the Rainwater Basin. Amphibian surveys will be conducted along roadsides 3-5 times during the spring.  All surveys will begin after sunset and end roughly 3 hours after sunset.

Volunteers must be able to drive their own vehicles and work alone in the evening.  Survey training will be provided to all volunteers. Interested individuals should contact Nick Smeenk at <nicholas.a.smeenk@huskers.unl.edu>.


Biological Planning & Conservation Design Activities

Western Governors’ Association Projects: The Western Governors’ Association is an independent, nonprofit organization representing the Governors of 19 states throughout the Great Plains and western states. Currently the Western Governors’ Association is in the process of creating various tools to assist states in identifying and conserving critical wildlife habitat throughout the region. In conjunction with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, the RWBJV Science Office finalized a series of species distribution models and habitat suitability indices as part of the collaborative effort among state and federal agencies involved with the Western Governors’ Association. Our modeling efforts focused on several tier-1 and tier-2 species in Nebraska, including the Burrowing Owl, Greater Prairie-Chicken, Long-billed Curlew, Golden Eagle and Ferruginous Hawk.  For information or geospatial data developed for the project, contact Rachel Simpson (Rachel.simpson@nebraska.gov).

Northeast Nebraska Decision Support System:  The RWBJV will be working with Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, Nebraska Coop Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, University of Nebraska at Lincoln and Kearney, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to develop a set of decision support tools to help guide grassland conservation efforts for Greater Prairie-Chicken, American Burying Beetle, and Ring-necked Pheasants. Models will be developed for the entire Northeast portion of Nebraska. Priority counties include Antelope, Brown, Boyd, Holt, Keya Paha, Knox, Pierce and Rock counties. These tools will provide a great asset for conservation delivery in several key Biological Unique Landscapes outlined in the Nebraska Natural Legacy Plan (Nebraska’s State Wildlife Action Plan), including the Elkhorn Confluence, Keya Paha, Lower Niobrara, Middle Niobrara, Verdigre-Bazile, and Willow Creek Prairies.

Nebraska Playa Wetland Decision Support Tool:  The RWBJV has partnered with Playa Lakes Joint Venture to develop a statewide Playa Wetland Prioritization Tool. One of the overarching goals of this tool is to provide USDA with a tool to help focus resources to conserve 250,000 acres of playa wetlands as outlined in the Ogallala Aquifer Initiative. This tool integrates dominant land use, disturbance factors, wetland size, landscape juxtaposition (connectivity), and the Whooping Crane Migration Corridor. The workgroup will be finalizing this tool with a webinar and teleconference December 17. Look forward to seeing the final product and ultimately project implementation.

Platte River Imagery Library:  The unique aerial photography partnership RWBJV partners have developed has resulted in a significant amount of imagery collected for the Rainwater Basin Wetland Complex and Central Platte River. The Rainwater Basin data haves been collected and maintained in a central location; however the Platte River data are stored on multiple servers. The RWBJV is currently working with Central Platte Natural Resources District, Platte River Recovery Program, and the Crane Trust to develop a central repository for all geo-referenced digital aerial photography. The RWBJV, along with Nebraska Audubon’s Rowe Sanctuary, is exploring funding options to support a technician to complete this integration. The imagery library will be beneficial for numerous partners.  For example, the Crane Trust is analyzing the data in conjunction with groundwater monitoring wells and flow gauges to evaluate wet-meadow function.  This work is being overseen by Dr. Mary Harner of the Crane Trust. Dr. Harner and Greg Wright have also committed to working with RWBJV staff to complete a National Wetlands Inventory Status and Trends Report based on the 2008 National Wetlands Inventory re-map.

HABS Update:  The Rainwater Basin Joint Venture Science Office continues to make progress on updating the Hierarchical All Birds System Database 2.0 (HABS).  Early in December, Christopher Jorgensen from the RWBJV and Melissa Panella from the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission met with scientists from the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory to get an overview of their Avian Data Center online database. The database will be used to help update bird density estimates for Nebraska. In addition, the Rainwater Basin Joint Venture is looking to hire an Access database designer to reformat and update the current database layout. Any interested parties or references should contact Christopher Jorgensen at <christopher_jorgensen@fws.gov>.

Communication and Outreach

Rainwater Basin Science Office Brown Bag Lunch:  The RWBJV in conjunction with the Nebraska Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, has hosted two informal gatherings/Webinars to discuss current research and monitoring activities, status of RWBJV projects, and opportunities to collaborate and support future research and monitoring projects. I think these forums have provided a valuable opportunity for local and regional partners to remain engaged and discuss research needs as well as develop research/monitoring projects to address key uncertainties. With the holidays, the next Brown Bag Lunch will be in January. Please contact Chris Jorgensen, RWBJV Science Coordinator, regarding topics or desire to present.  Christopher_jorgensen@fws.gov

RWBJV Informational Seminar:  Planning for the RWBJV Informational Seminar (February 6 at the Hastings Hotel and Convention Center) is in full swing. Michael Forsberg has committed to the plenary speaker session. Additionally, the RWBJV Informational Seminar Planning team has arranged a fantastic lineup of local and regional partners to highlight their insights into playa conservation and ecosystems services provided by these wetlands.

Article in Ducks Unlimited Magazine:  The Rainwater Basin and Central Platte River will be highlighted in an upcoming article in the national Ducks Unlimited magazine. This article will discuss spring migration and staging behavior of waterfowl and the importance of spring staging habitats, with an emphasis on the midcontinent region.

Nebraska Cattlemen’s Meeting:  A fact sheet highlighting the RWBJV and the Working Lands Initiative was distributed to all attendees at the Cattlemen’s College and to all members of the Nebraska Cattlemen’s Natural Resource Committee. Kristen Hassebrook of NE Cattlemen gave a short presentation on the working relationship between the RWBJV and the NE Cattlemen. The presentation highlighted the mutual overlap of habitat managers and cattle producers, funding available for infrastructure to support grazing wetlands in the Rainwater Basin wetlands, and the resources available on the NE Cattlemen’s web page. The NE Cattlemen’s webpage will also provide a clearing house to help link landowners with grazing opportunities and cattle producers.

 Nebraska Legacy Conference:  The RWBJV presented at the Nebraska Legacy Conference held October 24-25, in North Platte, NE. The presentation was titled “The land managers ArcGIS toolbox: Decision support tools and species distribution models for conservation planning.” The presentation highlighted how GIS tools can be integrated into conservation delivery.


RWBJV Updates

Accomplishment Reporting:  The RWBJV partners had another successful year. The partners impacted 6,310 acres of wetlands and associated uplands. Accomplishments included 1,885 acres protected and restored through acquisition or easement (USFWS and NRCS WRP), 1,540 acres of restored wetlands, and 2,885 enhanced acres through the RWBJV Management Initiative. The partners leveraged just over 4.1 million dollars to complete these activities, with over 86% of the funds used to implement conservation delivery.

Cooperative Conservation Initiative Grant:  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Partners for Fish and Wildlife took the lead on drafting a one- million dollar grant to complete watershed restoration activities for high-priority Waterfowl Production Areas. The RWBJV Whooping Crane Model was used to identify the priority wetlands, while key watershed restoration activities were identified using the RWBJV Watershed Restoration Decision Support Tool. In total, 140 pits were identified for removal. As part of this grant the RWBJV also requested $80,000 to support research and monitoring activities to evaluate and document our watershed restoration activities.

Great Plains Landscape Conservation Cooperative Data Steward:  The RWBJV continues to collaborate with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Great Plains LCC to develop a shared position to support data management. The position would be co-located in the RWBJV Science Office. Primary duties would include compiling results from recent research projects and ensure the report and associated information was made available through the LCC map portal. The RWBJV will also benefit from by having access to a data portal to store our large GIS datasets and associated reports.

Rainwater Basin Joint Venture Office Manager:  Niki Messmer started in October as the new Office Manager. Niki’s background is as a paralegal, managing probates and estate administration. Niki has had no problem adjusting to the RWBJV and has completely integrated all of the financial management and grant tracking activities into a database format. Niki was also elected to chair the Information Seminar Planning Workgroup. Welcome aboard, Niki. Niki’s email is niki.messmer@rwbjv.org.

Rainwater Basin Joint Venture Shorebird Plan:  The core writing team is completing the initial review of the Shorebird Plan. This plan is the first assessment of the shorebird habitat needs throughout the RWBJV Administrative Area. The plan estimated that the RWBJV Administrative Area will need to support just over 3.1 million shorebirds at goal, while the RWB will need to support 561,000 individuals. Habitat estimates suggest that we have adequate habitat across the RWBJV Administrative Area, however habitat is limited for small-bodied probers, gleaners, and large-bodied probers in the RWB.

Working Lands Initiative:  Little Blue Natural Resources District has just acquired a portable tube chute-and-alley system that will be available to local producers to facilitate grazing in Rainwater Basin wetlands. Infrastructure to facilitate moving cattle between wetlands and to work cattle has often been identified as an impediment to grazing wetlands. The equipment was purchased through a Nebraska Environmental Trust grant with the Natural Resource District holding title and paying insurance. Little Blue Natural Resources District can be contacted at 402.364.2145 if you know producers who would be interested in using the equipment.