Partners Unite to Improve Habitat in the Sandhills

The Nebraska Sandhills contains the largest remaining grassland area in the U.S., along with abundant rivers, lakes, and wetlands. These habitats are an important resource for a variety of bird species including waterfowl and grassland-nesting birds.  Recently, several conservation partners, including the Rainwater Basin Joint Venture, Sandhills Task Force, U.S. Forest Service, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife, implemented conservation measures funded by a $300,000 grant obtained in 2014 from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) to help improve grasslands and wetlands in the Sandhills.

Photo: Shelly Kelly

Photo: Shelly Kelly

The Sandhills Task Force, along with its partners, was able to use these NFWF funds to remove eastern red cedar from 9,686 acres of privately-owned Sandhills prairie. Removal of eastern red cedar has improved and restored habitat for grassland dependent wildlife that require open grasslands free of vertical obstructions, such as Sharp-tailed Grouse, Greater Prairie Chicken, Long-Billed Curlew, and other grassland-nesting birds. Removal of eastern red cedar from native grasslands also provides additional grass that would otherwise have been shaded out beneath the tree canopies, thus increasing grazing potential for ranching operations.  The partnership was also able to provide additional infrastructure to ranchers to implement rotational grazing systems, impacting 9,165 acres of native mixed-grass prairie. This infrastructure allows ranchers to set up grazing rotations that provide longer rest periods of the native grasslands, which allows for improved grass health, increased species diversity, reduced erosion, and higher quality wildlife habitat.

Funds from this grant were also used to renovate five privately-owned lake-wetland complexes impacting 298 acre feet of water.  These renovations primarily focus on removal of aquatic invasive species, like the common carp, that negatively impact wetland habitats by shifting clear aquatic habitats to turbid water.  This shift has a profound negative effect on water quality marked by the reduction of use by waterfowl, shorebirds, and fish.  By removing the carp and installing structures to prevent their return, these lakes turn back to healthy clear aquatic habitats. Overall, the funds for these activities total over $235,900 spent on private lands, improving native grassland and wetland habitats in the Sandhills.

This grant opportunity was also used to make improvements on public lands.  Eastern cedar trees were removed to restore 5,276 acres of grassland habitat on Samuel R. McKelvie National Forest lands near the Snake River.  Additionally, the U.S. Forest Service leveraged matching funds from NFWF to improve grazing rotations in 5 allotments in the National Forest, impacting over 45,000 acres of grassland habitat.  This new system places large cow herds into more pastures for a shorter period of time.  This results in increased water demands so grant dollars were also used to incorporate novel water delivery systems at 9 locations.  These changes will improve vegetation height and structure for the benefit of a variety of grassland nesting birds.

The successful implementation of the first NFWF grant obtained in 2014 prompted the group to explore other conservation opportunities within the Sandhills.  The outcome was a second request for funding during summer 2016.  If awarded, eastern red cedar will be mechanically controlled on 1,890 acres of private lands. An additional 1,860 acres of grasslands will be enhanced with grazing infrastructure.  A public-private Flagship Prescribed Fire Partnership will also be established to return fire to this landscape. This Partnership will be a joint effort between the U.S. Forest Service and Sandhills Task Force.  Funds will be used to acquire the necessary equipment to safely complete 11,000 acres of prescribed fire on Forest Service lands along with 4,000 acres on adjacent private lands. These prescribed fires will also serve as an outreach tool to demonstrate how fire can be used to manage public and private grasslands within the Sandhills landscape.