I want to wish all of the RWBJV Partners a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. The RWBJV partnership just completed our annual reporting and Federal Fiscal Year 2014, and it was our most successful ever. As a partnership we leveraged $5.6 million dollars and impacted over 10,200 acres. These conservation accomplishments were directly in line with strategies outlined in the recently revised RWBJV Implementation Plan. A significant majority of the projects either restored watershed function or enhanced habitat conditions on lands already in the Rainwater Basin conservation estate. In addition to the watershed restoration activities and management treatments, the RWBJV partners also completed several important easement and acquisition projects that expanded the conservation estate and increased habitat on private lands. The RWBJV wouldn’t have been this successful without the support of the Management Board, Technical Committee, and partner staff, so thanks again.
Biological Planning & Conservation Design Activities
Revised Universal Soil Loss Equation Model: Dr. Zhenghong Tang (University of Nebraska - Lincoln) received a grant from the Great Plains Landscape Conservation Cooperative to run the Revised Universal Soil Loss Equation Model (RUSEL 2) for the entire RWB. Dr. Tang and his team have integrated Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) data into the model to more accurately calculate the slope and slope length components of the model. This fine-scale topographic information, along with soil characteristics (rainfall erosivity), climate variables (precipitation), and cropping patterns, allows for a much more accurate estimate of soil loss in tons/acre/year. I look forward to working with Dr. Tang, and his team to help integrate the model results into Decision Support Tools that will help the partners target buffer strips and other conservation actions to reduce sediment deposition into RWB wetlands.
Highly Erodible Lands Layer: The RWBJV Science Office is working with the Farm Service Agency to integrate the Highly Erodible Lands layer into maps that will be provided to each county office to highlight opportunities to enroll in the Highly Erodible Lands Initiative. This is a Continuous Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) sign-up option that is open to producers with croplands that have a soil loss of 20 tons/acre/year. The RWBJV GIS shop is also coordinating closely with the Natural Resources Conservation Service and Farm Service Agency to extract hydric soils, perennial streams, and intermittent streams. These datasets will be used to identify tracts that will be eligible for different wetland and buffer strip programs available in the Conservation Reserve Program.
Central Loess Hills Biologically Unique Landscape Planning: The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission will kick off a planning effort to define conservation objectives (population objectives, habitat objectives, etc.) in the Central Loess Hills. This landscape is one of 40 Biologically Unique Landscapes identified in the State Wildlife Action Plan and a Geographic Focus Area identified in the RWBJV Implementation Plan. This effort will provide a good opportunity to understand how RWBJV habitat objectives, outlined to support target populations of landbirds, waterbirds, shorebirds, and waterfowl, can complement the conservation objectives developed for biodiversity conservation. Based on the planning guidelines, the RWBJV geospatial habitat models developed for Greater Prairie-Chickens and other associated grassland birds – as well as the playa wetland models developed to guide conservation for waterfowl, shorebirds, and Whooping Cranes – will be a valuable resource for the group.
American Burying Beetle Species Distribution Model Methods: The RWBJV Science Office worked closely with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Nebraska Game and Parks Commission to develop a methods white paper describing how the American Burying Beetle Species Distribution Model was developed and how the results are going to be interpreted during the consultation process. This provides both project proponents and project review biologists a common tool to understand potential impacts of projects on this species. The model also helps conservation project delivery staff understand the potential positive impact of their projects to this species. Congratulations to Bob Harms (USFWS), Michele Koch (NGPC), and Mike Fritz (NGPC) for getting the project over the finish line. Rachel Simpson (NGPC) was also instrumental in getting the methods paper online.
Communication and Outreach
Rainwater Basin Conservation Days: Tri-Basin Natural Resources District again hosted Rainwater Basin Conservation Day, September 18th at Nebraska Game and Parks Commission’s Sacramento-Wilcox Wildlife Management Area. Eighth grade students from Gosper, Phelps and Kearney Counties were invited to attend. There were numerous concurrent sessions including geology, hydrology, surveying, GPS, trees, grasses, soils, waterfowl migration, and insects. Based on John Thorburn’s Tri-Basin Report, it was a tremendous success again this year.
Rainwater Basin Joint Venture Implementation Plan Summary: Ted LaGrange (Nebraska Game and Parks Commission) and Jonas Davis (Ducks Unlimited) recently completed a summary publication that distills the RWBJV Implementation Plan and associated RWBJV Bird Plans into a 20 page document. Ted coordinated closely with Tim Reigert in NGPC’s Communications Division to develop a great looking document. The RWBJV office has 500 printed copies, so let me know if you need any. In addition, the document is also available digitally on the RWBJV website:
Thanks, Ted, for all of your hard work.
Communication Plan: At the November 19th RWBJV Management Board Meeting, the RWBJV Management Board participated in a communication assessment to identify the messages and audiences that, as a partnership, we need to communicate with more efficiently and effectively. Each of the RWBJV Workgroups (Acquisition, Public Lands, Private Lands, and Conservation Planning Workgroup) also worked through a facilitated discussion to identify key audiences and messages. The facilitator was very impressed with the workgroups participation and the variety of messages and audiences that were identified and fleshed out. A one page summary will be prepared and available to the Management Board and Workgroups by the March Management Board meeting. In the following year we will be developing the full RWBJV Communication Plan that will identify the best strategies for our success and provide a budget describing the financial investment that will be required for success.
Spring Migration Field Trip for Wind Developers: Caroline Jezierski, Nebraska Wind Energy and Wildlife Project Coordinator, is working to have a tour for wind energy developers in the Rainwater Basin and Central Platte River. The goal is to provide project proponents a firsthand experience of the migration spectacle that is central Nebraska. The tour is slated for March 4th, with a field trip through the Rainwater Basin, followed by presentations at the Crane Trust, then an evening viewing of Sandhill Crane roosting along the Platte River. Look for more details in the near future and I’m sure there will be numerous opportunities for RWBJV partners to assist with the tours and provide information about our conservation goals and activities.
Natural Resources Conservation Service Staff from Washington DC Tour the RWB: Juan Hernandez (Acting Regional Conservationist for the Central Region), Leonard Jordan (Associate Chief for Conservation), and Kim Berns (Easement Program Director) visited Nebraska to learn about Nebraska Natural Resources Conservation Service’s approach to delivery of the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program. I unfortunately was sick and could not make the tour, but from all accounts it went outstanding. Zach Rigg, Jeremy Jirak, and Ritch Nelson (all with NE NRCS) worked with all the partners to develop a well-orchestrated tour highlighting playa restoration in the Rainwater Basin, wet meadow and wetland restoration along the Platte River, and stream restoration in the Sandhills. From everything I heard, the wildlife cooperated perfectly and the partners spoke with one voice on the importance of Agricultural Conservation Easement Program options and working with landowners to develop effective restorations that achieve programmatic objectives while also fitting into producers’ operations as working lands.
Rainwater Basin Joint Venture 20th Annual Informational Seminar: Mark February 10th on your calendars for the RWBJV Informational Seminar. This will be our 20th annual seminar and is shaping up to be a great venue. We will again have the event at the Mid-town Holiday Inn in Grand Island. Registration begins at 8:30 with the opening remarks at 9:30. Researchers, landowners, and conservation delivery staff will present on a variety of topics related to conservation of RWB wetlands.
Missouri Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit Field Trip: Ten students from the Missouri Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit made the pilgrimage to Nebraska to see firsthand the wetland resources at the pinch of the hourglass in the central flyway. The students toured riverine and wet meadow restorations completed by the Whooping Crane Maintenance Trust and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Partners for Fish and Wildlife, as well as Rainwater Basin Wetland restorations. The audience was awed by the story of the Troester Basin drainage tile that was dug by hand to facilitate drainage of that wetland. Special thanks to Mark Vrtiska and Randy Stutheit with Nebraska Game and Parks Commission as well as Kirk Schroeder (USFWS) and Greg Wright (Whooping Crane Trust) for making this tour possible.
Rainwater Basin Joint Venture Webpage: The RWBJV webpage is going mobile devise friendly. By the first of the calendar year, the website platform will support all mobile devices. Based on the RWBJV Communication Assessment, the RWBJV Communication Workgroup has just started working with the web designer to develop web accessible fact sheets that will complement the *.pdf versions that are currently available on the website.
Wetlands Reserve Easement Team 5 Leader: Jeremy Jirak, Natural Resources Conservation Service, recently accepted the State Easement Restoration Specialist position in Lincoln and will oversee restoration planning and delivery on a statewide scale. Thanks, Jeremy, for all of your hard work; your success was unprecedented. Fortunately, NRCS was able to fill the vacated position with Nate Walker. Nate was previously working in the NRCS State office, as the WRP Management Biologist. Prior to that position Nate worked for Northern Prairies Land Trust as a Coordinating Wildlife Biologist out of the Beatrice, Nebraska office focusing on Tall Grass Prairie restoration and management. Nate brings a wealth of knowledge and I look forward to supporting Team 5 in their Wetlands Reserve Easement delivery efforts in the Central Platte River and Rainwater Basin Geographic Focus Areas.
WRP Management Biologist: The Natural Resources Conservation Service, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, and the RWBJV were able to leverage sufficient funds to continue the Wetlands Reserve Program Management Biologist position. With Nate Walker’s transition to the WRP Team 5 Leader, the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission will be recruiting to fill the WRP Management Biologist position, hopefully by the first of the year. Nate, thanks again for all of your hard work in pulling together management plans for Wetlands Reserve Program easements across the state.
RWBJV Habitat Specialist: The RWBJV is currently in the process of advertising to fill the RWBJV Habitat Specialist position. Tim Smith did an outstanding job as the initial Habitat Specialist. Annually, Tim coordinated mechanical and chemical treatments on 3,000 to 5,000 acres of RWB wetlands. Based on the initial monitoring assessments, the Management Initiative has contributed to an increase in 500,000 duck-use days on public lands alone. The position was open on USA jobs from December 2nd through the 8th so we hope to have a hiring certificate and work with the funding partners to make a hiring selection before the first of the year.
Evaluation Plan: The RWBJV Science Coordinator, Dana Varner (University of Nebraska – Lincoln/Nebraska Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit), is currently reviewing the Implementation Plan and associated RWBJV Bird Plans to identify key uncertainties as well as Research/Inventory/Monitoring needs that will have to be addressed to strengthen the biological foundation guiding the RWBJV partnership. We hope to have a draft to the Conservation Planning Workgroup and Technical Committee after the first of the year and hopefully to the Management Board by the March meeting for approval.
Conservation Easement Model: The RWBJV Acquisition Workgroup is working to develop an easement prioritization model that would assist conservation delivery staff in identifying those tracts that would have the greatest potential to provide high quality waterfowl and shorebird habitat while remaining as privately owned, working lands. This tool will incorporate restorable wetland size, contemporary wetland density, potential increase in wetland post-restoration, and disturbance caused by adjacent roads or proximity to developed areas (cities, towns, farmsteads).
Cooperative Recovery Initiative Grant: The RWBJV submitted a $250,000 Cooperative Recovery Grant to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to support restoration and acquisition of the Freda Wild tract, which is adjacent to the Ritterbush Waterfowl Production Area. This 120 acre tract will allow the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to own approximately 90% of this wetland basin. As part of this project, the RWBJV partners will work together to complete a full hydrologic restoration. Restoration activities will include filling five irrigation reuse pits in the Sothern portion of the watershed, filling two small dugouts within the wetland footprint, and establishing perimeter fence and livestock watering facilities to maximize effectiveness of grazing as a management tool. The review process is currently underway with grant awards scheduled in January.
North American Wetlands Conservation Act Grant:In November the Migratory Bird Conservation Council approved the slate of North American Wetlands Conservation Act grants. This slate included the “Central Flyway Migration Corridor”. In the "Central Flyway Migration Corridor" proposal, Rainwater Basin and Kansas projects were combined. Proposed projects include easements, and acquisitions at Jamestown and Talmo Wildlife Areas in Kansas, plus protection, restoration, and enhancement projects in the Rainwater Basin. In the RWB, restoration activities are slated at Atlanta, Gleason, and Victor Lakes Waterfowl Production Areas and at Ayr Lake, Bulrush, Hidden Marsh, and Sora Wildlife Management Areas. Private lands projects include protection and restoration of two large basins. There is also funding to continue active management treatments on public and private lands.
National Fish and Wildlife Foundation Grant:The RWBJV was awarded a $300,000 grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to support conservation actions in Nebraska’s Sandhills. Funding from this grant will support removal eastern red cedars, development of grazing infrastructure, and wetland restoration on private lands. On U.S. Forest Service lands, portions of the Range Allotment Management Plan will be implemented at the McKelvie National Forest. This will include reconfiguring management units and grazing infrastructure to maximize grazing and wildlife habitat. Eastern red cedar will also be removed to increase grassland habitat conditions. Project partners include The Sandhills Task Force, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and The Nature Conservancy. Thanks to Jeff Abegglen (USFS), Shelly Kelly (Sandhills Task Force), and Kyle Graham (USFWS) for helping to get all the partners on board.
Regional Directors’ Deferred Grant: The RWBJV submitted a $100,000 request to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Region 6 office for a portion of the Regional Directors’ Deferred spending funds to facilitate a National Wetlands Inventory re-map of the wetland resources in Nebraska’s Sandhills. Unfortunately this proposal was not funded. There is strong partner support for the project, though. Partners that have expressed an interest in supporting the project include: Natural Resources Conservation Service, Nebraska Department of Natural Resources, Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, and the USFWS Refuge Inventory and Monitoring Program. Considering that the initial mapping missed 50% of the wetland basins and 46% of the wetland area, this will be an important dataset to revise. This is especially true with the development pressure that Nebraska’s Sandhills are expected to experience once the new power transmission lines are constructed across the region.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Inventory and Monitoring Grant: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Rainwater Basin Wetland Management District recently submitted an Inventory and Monitoring grant to support site-level inventories and landscape-level assessments. The site-level activities will provide information to assess potential nutrient and contaminant issues, estimate potential sediment loading threats, and develop more accurate watershed boundaries for all 62 Waterfowl Production Areas in the RWB WMD. Collectively, this information will be used in development of the RWB WMD Habitat Management Plan. The HMP will provide a blueprint describing site-specific restoration and management strategies to be implemented at each WPA. The landscape-level waterfowl surveys will provide the foundation for a statistically valid, geospatial model that will describe habitat selection by waterfowl. These models will help guide future conservation delivery programs to the landscapes and habitats that have the greatest potential to be used by waterfowl. Thanks to Murray Laubhan, Ronnie Sanchez, and Jeff Drahota for pulling the proposal together.
Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Regional Conservation Partnership Program:The RWBJV partners were invited to submit a full proposal to the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP). Jennifer Swanson, Nebraska Association of Resources Districts, graciously agreed to submit the proposal for the partnership. This $8.1 million dollar grant builds on our past successes with the Wetlands Reserve Enhancement Program. This grant will provide both financial and technical resources to support both Wetlands Reserve Easements and Agricultural Land Easements within the Rainwater Basin. The Wetlands Reserve Easements would be very similar to our existing Wetlands Reserve Enhancement Program projects (Wetland restored to the fullest extent possible with the pivot allowed to cross the enrolled acres). The Agriculture Land Easement properties would be restored to the extent possible, with a wetland easement that would preclude wetland drainage, but still allow the producer to farm the tract using normal farming practices. In addition to the wetland restoration practices, this grant would also provide cost-share to applicants to upgrade their pivots to Variable Rate Irrigation Systems. These systems would allow producers to vary irrigation inputs over the field, based on the crop water budget and data from the soil moisture probes. The grant would also fund an agronomist to help producers calibrate the Variable Rate System and work with the RWBJV Private Lands Workgroup to enroll participants. Three major pivot manufacturers (Lindsay, Reinke, and Valmont) have signed on as partners providing cost-share to producers who choose to enroll. The RWBJV is also providing Geospatial analysis and targeting support for two other RCPP proposals designed to enhance grassland habitat for Northern Bobwhite Quail and Greater Prairie-Chickens. It will be exciting to see the list of funded proposals in January.