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November 2013 – January 2014 Update

I hope everyone had a great holiday season. I believe December was one of the coldest and driest on record for Grand Island. It looks like habitat could be somewhat limited again this spring despite our wet fall. Everything can change pretty quickly though, so let’s hope for a few wet snows. A couple partners reported seeing Snow Geese and Sandhill Cranes arriving in central Nebraska last week. I bet these birds, like me, are ready for spring to spring.

 On a positive note the revised RWBJV Implementation Plan and Associated Landbird, Shorebird, Waterfowl, Waterbird plans were approved at the November Board Meeting and are now available for download from the website: http://rwbjv.org/rainwater-basin-joint-venture/library/    

  Biological Planning & Conservation Design Activities

American Burying Beetle Species Distribution Model: The Rainwater Basin Joint Venture (RWBJV) Science Office has coordinated with Jessica Jurzenski, Ph.D., a former post-doctoral research associate from the University of Nebraska – Lincoln, to complete a species distribution model for the federally endangered American burying beetle in Nebraska’s Sandhills. This project is a collaborative effort between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, the University of Nebraska – Lincoln, and the University of Nebraska – Kearney. The methods and associated products developed as part of this project were extensively reviewed by project investigators, and outside reviewers with either species and/or modeling expertise. The methods and applications used to produce the American burying beetle species distribution model are described in the article “Identifying priority conservation areas for the American burying beetle, Nicrophorus americanus (Coleoptera: Silphidae), a habitat generalist” which will be published in the journal Systematics and Biodiversity later this year.  In the future the RWBJV partners will be able to incorporate recently generated Breeding Bird Survey models and the American burying beetle model to highlight landscapes where grassland conservation can have the greatest positive impact for beetles and grasslands birds. This type of Decision Support System could be very useful in administering the Nebraska Trust Species and Habitat Fund.

Advanced Biofuel Decision Support System: The RWBJV has developed a Decision Support System using a Geographic Information System (GIS) to help identify areas best suited for planting switchgrass and/or other prairie species.  hese plantings would be harvested and subsequently burned to power a second-generation ethanol plant in either York or Ravenna, Nebraska. A Decision Support System is a computer-based information system that is used by decision makers to compile important information from personal knowledge, data, and models to identify solutions to problems and make informed decisions. This Decision Support System incorporated groundwater management areas, wellhead protection areas, soil erosion characteristics, and species occurrence models to highlight those tracts that, if planted to herbaceous cover, would most positively influence surface and groundwater quantity/quality, reduce soil erosion, and provide high-quality habitat for several priority grassland birds. Given the range of goals from both a biofuel development perspective and a conservation perspective, this initial Decision Support System was created based on input from multiple stakeholders. This project is an ongoing and collaborative effort among the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, the Nebraska Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, the Nebraska Forest Service, Pheasants Forever, Abengoa Bioenergy, multiple Natural Resources Districts, the Department of Environmental Quality, Natural Resources Conservation Service, the National Wildlife Federation, and private landowners. 

Prairie Dog Assessments: Tricia Dudley, a GIS analyst with the RWBJV, has been working on a project to identify prairie dog towns in Nebraska’s panhandle region. The size and shape of each prairie dog colony will be determined by digitizing aerial imagery and cross-referenced with Google Earth imagery. These delineations are being completed following the protocols outlined in the range-wide monitoring protocol prepared by the United States Geological Survey. These inventories will be used in conjunction with other state assessments to evaluate the potential for reintroduction of black-footed ferrets, and possibly the expansion of the Natural Resources Conservation Service Working Lands for Wildlife Program. The Working Lands for Wildlife Program has been very successful at developing economically viable options for producers to benefit multiple species of concern including Sage Grouse and Lesser Prairie-Chickens. In the future this program could provide new economic incentives for producers to manage grazing lands to maximize habitat for ferrets and grassland birds. 

Wetlands Reserve Enhancement Program Monitoring Project:  The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission received a Natural Resources Conservation Service Wetlands Reserve Enhancement Program grant to document current vegetation communities and develop management plans for all Wetlands Reserve Program tracts in the Rainwater Basin. Vegetation survey data were collected for this project from late August to early October, 2012 and were later combined with the Rainwater Basin Vegetation Management and Monitoring survey data. In total, over 12,000 survey points were visited across the Rainwater Basin.  The RWBJV is using eCognition Developer, a remote sensing program, to outline vegetation communities based on a historic wetland footprint shapefile and 2012 spring, mid-summer, and late-summer aerial imagery. Based on the spectral signature of the survey data, eCognition classified vegetation communities as grasses, moist soil species, wet meadow species, reed canary grass, river bulrush, cattails, woody species, bare soil/mudflat, or water. A final (GIS) vegetation map and associated metadata should be available in early summer. An accompanying project report will be prepared for the Natural Resources Conservation Service at the end of this project. This report will be presented following the Conservation Effects Assessment Program framework. This framework will build on the 2008 Conservation Effects Assessment Program report, and highlight the changes in waterfowl carrying capacity since 2008, as well as the contribution different ownership and programs provide migratory waterfowl during spring migration. 

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service National Wildlife Refuge System’s Land Acquisition Priority System (LAPS) Revision: Roger Grosse, the RWBJV’s GIS Specialist, is currently involved in developing spatial criteria for the LAPS revision. LAPS is a scoring system that provides a standardized and objective approach to ranking proposed land acquisition projects within the National Wildlife Refuge System. The recently revised National Wildlife Refuge System Vision document prioritizes three areas for future expansions of the National Wildlife Refuge System. These are: 1) Implementing the North American Waterfowl Management Plan, 2) Conserving migratory birds of conservation concern, and 3) Recovery of threatened and endangered species. Roger, along with other Joint Venture staff and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Refuge staff, is developing a geospatial tool to prioritize future acquisitions that have the greatest potential to achieve these objectives. Roger has developed an initial draft for Nebraska to estimate foraging resources (Kcals) available to waterfowl. This county-based assessment was generated by developing an estimate of Kcal production for all wetland types within a county. These values were then standardized by county area to identify high-priority counties. This tool provides a standardized matrix, allowing migration habitat to be compared against other migration habitat using a common currency. For more information on LAPS, please visit: http://www.fws.gov/refuges/realty/laps.html

Least Tern & Piping Plover and Whooping Crane Project Update:The RWBJV Science Office has collaborated with the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program (PRRIP) to document high-quality Least Tern and Piping Plover habitat along the Central Platte River from 2007. During this process, the RWBJV Science Office, based on PRRIP criteria, has developed a series of Geographic Information System (GIS) filters to “mask out” non-suitable habitat for terns and plovers. Thus far, Austin Barenberg, a GIS Analyst for the RWBJV, has completed the 2007-2012 assessment for both the off-channel and in-channel filters along the Central Platte. The results were recently submitted to the PRRIP for review prior to the final documentation of methods and results.  Moreover, Barenberg is working on a similar project, outlining suitable roosting habitat for Whooping Cranes along the Central Platte. Barenberg is utilizing Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) technology to identify potential in-channel obstructions (e.g., woody cover > 1.5 meters in height) that reduce the available habitat for Whooping Cranes. Prior to completion, the RWBJV Science Office will continue to assess and identify suitable habitats for Whooping Cranes during the 2007-2012 migration seasons. 

Waterfowl and Sandhill Crane Habitat Selection along the North and South Platte River:  Last month Jonas Davis, Ducks Unlimited, received a Conoco Phillips grant from the Playa Lakes Joint Venture to expand survey and modeling efforts for waterfowl and Sandhill Cranes along the South Platte River. This project will expand on the North Platte River waterfowl and Sandhill Crane surveys funded by the Great Plains Landscape Conservation Cooperative. Preliminary wetland mapping of the North Platte River is completed, and the South Platte will be updated this spring. The Platte River Habitat Assessment Workgroup met earlier this winter and finalized survey routes and protocols. Special thanks to Mark Vrtiska and Heather Johnson, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, for agreeing to assist with the surveys. The first survey was slated to start the week of February 10th, 2014, but the river is still iced. Surveys are currently slated to start next week. In addition, this project was recently highlighted in Ducks Unlimited ’s Wing Beats and Nebraska’s Prairie Fire magazine. The articles highlighted project details and expected benefits. 

Platte River Imagery Library:  In 2004 the RWBJV developed a Public – Private contract with Cornerstone Mapping to collect aerial photography for natural resource management applications. Ready access to this data format has transitioned the way RWBJV partners conduct business. For example we now have georeferenced datasets of the Platte River at different flows. This allows active channel area to be correlated to river flow. Since 1998, there have been over 25 image datasets collected for the central Platte River.  Unfortunately these data were not located in a central location, available in the same format, or readily accessible by RWBJV partners. Last year the RWBJV Science Office worked 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 stored in the library will be georeferenced and contain metadata that meets or exceeds the Federal Geographic Data Committee standards. Once the draft data set is developed it will be shared with partners for review and input. Recognizing the large size of the dataset, data will probably have to be made available via external hard drives, but soon 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.

Whooping Crane Cooperative Recovery Initiative:  The Whooping Crane Cooperative Recovery Initiative Workgroup was recently awarded $208,000 to continue monitoring activities in the Western Rainwater Basin. This funding will allow monitoring of watershed restoration activities via a four-pronged approach that includes level-loggers, Whooping Crane surveys, habitat assessments, and monitoring of water quality. The level-loggers will measure ponding duration, water depth, water temperature, and ponding frequency over the course of the 4-year project. Aerial surveys will be completed during both the spring and fall migration periods to document whooping crane use in the basins, while geo-referenced aerial photography will be collected to document available habitat. Water and sediment samples will also be collected at reference and restored wetlands to evaluate restoration impacts on water quality. 

Communication and Outreach

Tri-State Livestock:  As a result of the Sand County Foundation’s Innovations on the Land symposium, the RWBJV was recently highlighted in Tri-State Livestock. The article highlighted the importance of wetland management to promote desired habitat conditions and how local producers are achieving these management objectives through grazing wetlands.  The article highlighted public land grazing as well as the opportunities that exist for local producers to integrate idled wetlands back into their operations. On short notice, Ronnie Sanchez (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) provided the author with some great information about wetland grazing from a public land manager’s perspective, and the importance of Rainwater Basin wetlands to the American public. 

2013 Nebraska Environmental Trust Annual Report:  The RWBJV was highlighted in two articles in the Nebraska Environmental Trust’s 2013 Annual Report; Water, Wildlife, and Wetlands. The first article highlighted the RWBJVs’ General Grant that supports conservation actions on public and private wetlands as well as our communication and research/inventory/monitoring actions.  This grant was a two year grant totaling $320,000. The partners leveraged $337,000 in matching funds.  As a result of this grant the partners were able to positively impact 4,050 wetland and associated upland acres. Project highlights included development of grazing infrastructure on public lands to maximize habitat conditions as well as pivot modifications that have allowed several private landowners to restore wetlands within their crop fields without negatively impacting cultivation of the adjacent upland croplands. 

The second article highlighted the watershed restoration grant awarded to the Friends of the Rainwater Basin. This grant was a tremendous success and resulted in restoration activities that benefited 18 public wetlands (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Nebraska Game and Parks Commission properties). In total, 52 abandoned irrigation reuse pits were filled providing direct impacts to 5,772 acres of publicly managed wetlands. The RWBJV partners leveraged $482,750 in matching funds to the $334,925 Nebraska Environmental Trust funds. The conservation actions achieved through this grant were a springboard for the RWBJV Partners. In the last two years the RWBJV partners have acquired $1 million dollars from the Cooperative Recovery Initiative and another Nebraska Environmental Trust ($405,000) grant to continue our watershed restoration activities.

Playa Wetland Listening Session:  The RWBJV and Playa Lakes Joint Venture recently received the final report from D.J. Case and Associates. This report highlights the landowner perspectives from the 14 landowner listening sessions across the southern high plains. The report highlights the overarching messages from each session. Subject areas highlighted in the report were landowner perceptions of playa wetlands, available conservation programs, economics of farming playas, and economic/programmatic solutions that could be used to increase playa conservation. The report will be made available to each of the participants, Rainwater Basin Management Board, Private Lands Workgroup, and Technical Committee, and any other interested party via the webpage. 

Prairie Fire Magazine:  In the upcoming Prairie Fire Magazine will highlight the RWBJV and the integration of “Science” into our conservation planning and delivery. The article focuses on the revision of the RWBJV Implementation Plan and the planning framework that was used. The article also highlights the geospatial data and directed field work that was used to develop the habitat benchmarks presented in the Implementation Plan.

RWBJV Informational Seminar:  The 19th Annual RWBJV Informational Seminar was a tremendous success. We had 170 participants with 25 landowners. This represents the highest attendance by landowners since the 2008 Informational Seminar that was completely dedicated to the United States Department of Agriculture’s Farm Bill. The focus of this year’s Informational Seminar was the North American Waterfowl Management Plan and Human Dimensions. I received great feedback from both the presenters and the attendees about the information and the venue. Mitch Messmer, Ducks Unlimited Engineer, and Steve Shaw, local cattle /row-crop producer and Management Board member both received the RWBJV Wetland Stewardship Award. Thanks to Niki Messmer, Jim Husbands, Shanda Spurgeon, Ted LaGrange, Randy Stutheit, Joanna Pope, and Laurel Badura,  the Informational Seminar Planning Committee for making this year’s event such great success.

Congressional Tour:  Tim McCoy, RWBJV Management Board Chairman, hosted a congressional legislative tour with Nebraska’s Congressional delegation.  Neil Mosmen (Senator Fischer), Phil Erdman (Senator Johanns), and Ken Rahjes (Congressman Smith) were able to attend. Tour stops featured Working Lands Initiative projects, Watershed Restoration Initiative Projects, and restoration and management projects completed on public and private lands. These tour stops highlighted multiple “win-win” projects that exist in the RWB on both public and private lands. 


RWBJV Updates

RWBJV Accomplishments:  The RWBJV again had another successful year. The partnership leveraged just over 3.8 million dollars in federal and nonfederal funds to support conservation actions primarily in the Rainwater Basin. The partners completed nearly 100 projects, influencing just over 8,240 acres of RWB wetlands and associated uplands. Just over 4,000 acres of disking and herbicide applications were completed to enhance habitat conditions. Recent monitoring activities associated with the Management Initiative suggest that public lands in the Rainwater Basin would be able to support an additional 275,000 ducks during an average residency of six days due to the greater abundance of desired moist soil vegetative communities. The Watershed Restoration Initiative continues to be well received, with over forty irrigation reuse pits being filled in Federal Fiscal Year 2013. Based on the RWB hydrogeomorphic model, these actions are expected to positively influence nearly 1,500 acres of publicly owned wetlands.     

Leopold Conservation Award: The RWBJV is supporting a nomination for Shaw Family Farms for the 2014 Leopold Conservation Award. Brian and Steve Shaw are innovators and leaders in the agriculture community. The Shaws are grazing cooperators on several U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Waterfowl Production Areas and Nebraska Game and Parks Commission Wildlife Management Areas.  In addition, the Shaws recently developed two irrigated pastures on flood-prone cropland. The Shaws have always been strong proponents for conservation and are the first to highlight opportunities for conservation and agriculture to prosper. Good luck, Shaws, with your application.   

RWBJV Implementation Plan Summary:  Technical Committee members Jonas Davis and Ted LaGrange are working on developing a companion summary document for the recently updated RWBJV Implementation Plan. The goal is to have this document ready for the Management Board at their summer meeting. This document will provide a short concise 30,000 foot view of the partnership and the goals and objectives the partnership hopes to achieve over the next 20 years. 

RWBJV Webpage:  The RWBJV Science Office continues to make good progress developing on-line resources to describe the Biological Planning and Conservation Design resources available to the partners. The latest addition was the Ponding and Wetland Inundation Decision Support System. Documents are available in the GIS projects section on the webpage http://rwbjv.org/rainwater-basin-joint-venture/gis-projects/

RWBJV GIS Specialist:  Roger Grosse has recently transitioned into a permanent full-time position with the RWBJV. Congratulations on your new position, Roger. In addition, Roger continues to serve as the Great Plains Landscape Conservation Cooperative Data Steward. In this role, Roger has worked with numerous Principal Investigators that have completed research/inventory/monitoring projects, funded by the Great Plains Landscape Conservation Cooperative. Roger has helped these researchers catalogue and store their research projects, spatial data, and tabular data on LC Map. The LC Map portal makes these data available for all partners. Roger has also worked with the Principal Investigators to develop Manager Prospectuses. These summary documents highlight the methods, project findings, and management implications. Manager Prospectuses are available on the Great Plains Landscape Conservation Cooperative webpage – http://www.greatplainslcc.org/science/ Roger is also coordinating the GIS blog on the GPLCC Webpage that highlights new advances in geospatial technology and data - http://www.greatplainslcc.org/resources/geomatics-blog/

National Wildlife Refuge Inventory and Monitoring Program:  Kennan Adams and Mark Chase, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; National Wildlife Refuge System Inventory and Monitoring Program, were able to attend the recent RWBJV Informational Seminar and spend an additional day with the RWBJV Science Office to discuss a few of the landscape habitat inventories and local refuge scale projects the RWBJV has completed. Since the next generation of National Wildlife Refuge Comprehensive Conservation Plans will require a Landscape Design component, there may be more opportunities for the RWBJV and other JVs to be involved and support refuge planning. 

Grants Update

Nebraska Environmental Trust:  The RWBJV received initial approval for three Nebraska Environmental Trust grants. The first grant was a watershed restoration grant for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Atlanta Waterfowl Production Area. This grant will provide $181,125 of funding to complete a portion of the watershed restoration.  Partners have committed an additional $102,000 in matching funds to complete this restoration. This project is slated to remove 20 of the 31 irrigation re-use pits that most negatively impact the Atlanta Waterfowl Production Area. The next grant is designed to enhance wetland function at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Gleason and Victor Lakes Waterfowl Production Areas. At Gleason a new pipeline will be installed while several on-site wetland restoration activities will be completed at Victor Lakes. The last approved grant is a prescribed fire grant for the Central Loess Hills. This $305,000 grant is set to deliver 12,000 acres of prescribed fire over the next three years. This project represents the partnerships first major conservation activities outside the Rainwater Basin. The activities outlined in this grant reflect the goals and objectives presented in the revised RWBJV Implementation Plan and Landbird Plan. Thanks to Ben Wheeler, Coordinating Wildlife Biologists with Pheasants Forever, for taking the lead on this grant and coordinating delivery. 

Nebraska Academy of Sciences:  The RWBJV received a Nebraska Environmental Trust Public Information and Education grant from the Nebraska Academy of Sciences, Inc. to support this year’s Informational Seminar. The $3,000 grant helped offset the travel expenses to get Dr. Prokopy (University of Purdue) and Phil Seng ( D.J. Case and Associates) to the RWBJV Informational Seminar to present their insight on integration of Human Dimensions into the conservation business model. 

State Wildlife Grants:  The RWBJV recently closed two grants associated with our Working Lands Initiative. With these two grants, the RWBJV partners were able to leverage $113,700 dollars of federal and non-federal funds.  Funding from these grants was used to install grazing infrastructure (perimeter fence, cross fence, livestock water) on nine private lands properties. These activities positively impacted 1,010 acres of wetlands and adjacent uplands.