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October – December 2016 Update

I hope everyone had a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. The RWBJV Partnership received some great Christmas presents from the United States Department of Agriculture. This included the announcement of 10,000 acres of State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE) Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) funds through the Working Lands for Wildlife (WLW) Initiative to benefit 20,000 acres in the eastern Sandhills, and a Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) grant to benefit 1,600 acres of Rainwater Basin Wetlands. Here is a summary of the RWBJV partnership’s recent highlights and accomplishments.


Conservation Planning and Design

Directed Mailings to Landowners - Panhandle Wetlands, Southwest and Central Continuous Conservation Reserve Program, and RWB Pivot Corners: The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, with assistance from Rainwater Basin Joint Venture GIS staff, is conducting directed mailings to landowners, providing information about wildlife habitat conservation and restoration initiatives. Three separate targeted initiatives were conducted across the state. These mailing targeted landowners with playas in the Northern and Southern Panhandle POAs, highly erodible lands in southwestern and central Nebraska (in or near the Central Loess Hills, Loess Canyons, and Sandsage Prairie BULs), and pivot corners within 2 miles of long-term conservation areas or containing hydric soils in the Southeast POA and South-central FOP areas of the RWB wetland complex.

Spring Waterfowl Monitoring Surveys to Begin in February: This year we will kick off a long-term monitoring program designed to help better understand the habitat needs of spring migrating waterfowl. From mid-February to mid-April, we will count ducks and geese on a random selection of Rainwater Basin wetlands. Thanks to the many partners that have helped make this project happen, including contributions from USGS, USFWS, NGPC, The Nature Conservancy, Bird Conservancy of the Rockies, and Ducks Unlimited. Funding for the survey design and first year of data collection has been provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service National Wildlife Refuge System Inventory and Monitoring Program and the Great Plains Landscape Conservation Cooperative.


Communication and Outreach

Rainwater Basin Joint Venture Informational Seminar: The 22nd Annual RWBJV Information Seminar will be held at the Hotel Grand, formally the Mid-town Holiday Inn on February 2nd. This year the planning committee has done a great job pulling together the event. We will have Mark Brohman and Kristal Stoner as our plenary speakers, followed by five different concurrent sessions. Each concurrent session will have three different presentations. Presentation topics will range from research to on-the-ground implementation.
Husker Harvest Days: The RWBJV hosted a booth at Husker Harvest Days this year. Traditionally, the RWBJV staff have been in charge of the booth, but this year I got to attend. There was a lot of interest in the Agriculture Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) and our Working Lands Initiative. Several cattlemen were put into contact with Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) landowners whose tracts could use grazing to manage against invasive species.

Working Lands for Wildlife: The RWBJV hosted Galon Hall from Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) national headquarters for a tour of the Working Lands for Wildlife (WLW) project area in the eastern Sandhills. Ryan Lodge (Pheasants Forever) was an outstanding tour guide and lined up several project sites for us to visit. During the tour we were able to see firsthand how we approach grassland restoration and enhancement activities in the Sandhills. We recently learned that as part of our WLW application NRCS has allocated a special allocation of Environmental Quality Incentives Program funding to support projects in the eastern Sandhills. Projects are expected to positively impact 20,000 acres through control of eastern red cedar, integration of prescribed fire, and modification of grazing infrastructure to maximize habitat for grassland birds and the producer’s bottom line.

Nebraska Cattlemen Annual Convention: The RWBJV was asked to present this year at Nebraska Cattlemen’s Annual Convention. As part of this presentation we were able to highlight the Prescribed Fire Training Exchange in the Loess Hills, the Rainwater Basin Working Lands Initiative, and the recently announced Working Lands for Wildlife program in the eastern Sandhills. As part of the presentation we were able to highlight the priority bird species found in these regions and the conservation practices that we are implementing to maximize habitat conditions through the integration of different grazing regimes.

Blue River Compact Tour: The RWBJV, Upper Big Blue, and Little Blue Natural Resources Districts hosted Don Nelson on a tour of projects in the Blue River Basin. Don serves as Nebraska’s representative to the Nebraska/Kansas Blue River Compact. The summer compact meeting will be in York this summer and Don wanted to gain a better understanding of the types of projects the partnership is involved in and highlight these voluntary proactive conservation practices at the upcoming meeting.

Farm Bureau AquaMart Meeting: AquaMart is a new partnership developing between the Nebraska Corn Board, Nebraska Water Balance Alliance, Nebraska Farm Bureau, and Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality. This group is developing opportunities to monitor water use and savings through the integration of technology. The RWBJV was asked to present about the partnership’s pivot crossing initiative. The Marsh project was highlighted along with the Wetlands Reserve Enhancement Program. After the presentation there was significant interest in designating the Rainwater Basin region as a Water Performance Zone. As part of this region producers who develop wetland and variable rate irrigation projects would be provided technical assistance to help monitor their water use. This information would then be analyzed to help the RWBJV partners quantify groundwater conservation associated with our projects.

Playa Symposium at the Midwest Fish and Wildlife Conference: Join us on February 7, 2017, for the Playa Wetland Ecology Symposium at the 77th Midwest Fish and Wildlife Conference at the Cornhusker Hotel in Lincoln, NE. Topics will include mapping inundation in the spring, landscape biodiversity, groundwater recharge, pollinators, waterbirds, waterfowl, shorebirds, impacts of cattle grazing on vegetation, agricultural contaminants, climate change, human dimensions, and more. This event will also include a roundtable discussion to review progress that has occurred since the previous playa symposium 6 years ago and future research needs and a social reception to encourage further discussion and collaboration.


RWBJV Updates

Rainwater Basin Wetland Management Districts Staff Changes: There have been significant staff changes at the Wetland Management District (WMD). We wish Brandon Jones and Damon Taylor the best of luck in their new endeavors and welcome Amy Coffman to the RWBJV.

Brandon Jones worked as the Deputy Project Leader at Rainwater Basin for the last 5 years. Brandon worked in all facets of refuge management within the wetland management district focusing on partnerships and administrative oversight of management techniques being utilized on the waterfowl production areas. He has accepted the Refuge Manager job located at the McGregor District in McGregor, IA as part of the Upper Mississippi National Wildlife and Fish Refuge Complex. The “Upper Miss Refuge” was established in 1924 and covers over 240,000 acres along 261 river miles in the states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Illinois. This broad forested floodplain is framed by 500 foot bluffs and is designated as a “nationally significant ecosystem.” Fish and wildlife abound with over 304 bird species, 57 mammal species, 134 fish species, and 44 mussel species to name a few. Over 40% of the continent’s waterfowl use the river flyway during migration with up to 50% of the world’s population of canvasbacks ducks using the refuge. Bald eagles are a common sight for visitors with over 250 active nests within the refuge. Public use is high with over 3.7 million visitors enjoying fishing, hunting, wildlife viewing, boating, and floating on the refuge each year. Numerous on-going partnerships exist with the Army Corps of Engineers, USGS, EPA, National Park Service, state DNRs, The Nature Conservancy, Upper Mississippi River Basin Association, state byway commissions, local communities, and several friends groups. The McGregor District Manager overseas management of 92,000 acres in pools 9, 10 and 11 of the Upper Mississippi River as well as talus algific slopes on the Driftless Area National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge provides habitat for hundreds of thousands of waterfowl in the fall, annually has nearly 200 eagle nests, is inhabited by a diverse freshwater mussel fauna, and has impressive furbearer populations. Brandon was a great team leader and a joy to work with. His presence will be missed.

Damon Taylor moved to Minden, Nebraska from Medicine Lake, Montana in the fall of 2013. Throughout his tenure at Rainwater Basin WMD, he served as a Wildlife Refuge Specialist managing a number of waterfowl production areas and assisting with the stations various programs specializing in wetland and grassland restoration. Damon has accepted the Assistant Manager position at Sequoyah National Wildlife Refuge located in eastern Oklahoma. The refuge protects a very unique habitat found within the Arkansas River flood plain that includes bottomland hardwood forests and wetlands, home to many species of migratory birds and other resident wildlife, like white-tailed deer, bobcat, beaver and bald eagles. The refuge provides habitat for waterfowl and other migratory birds, as well as food and cover for resident wildlife. Damon was a true asset for not only the district, but also for the community of Minden where he resided. He most certainly will be missed.


Grant Updates

Migratory Bird State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement: The RWBJV and Playa Lakes Joint Ventures Migratory Bird State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE) proposal was allocated 20,000 acres. As part of this allocation, Nebraska received 10,000 acres, with 8,000 acres targeted to the Rainwater Basin, 1,200 acres to the Southwest Playas, and 800 acres to the Central Table Playas. The program allows for a minimum parcel size of 1 acre, up to a maximum of 160 acres. Mid-contract management allows for haying and/or prescribed grazing. As part of this SAFE, a market-based approach will be used to evaluate offers. Landowners will be able to submit an offer, up to a maximum amount of $300 per acre, that they are willing to accept as an annual CRP payment. Offers will be periodically ranked and selected, based on their bid amount. The market approach will make sign-up for this SAFE competitive. Tracts with the lowest bid amount and greatest amount of wetland acres will be prioritized.

Regional Conservation Partnership Program: NRCS announced $1.8 million in Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) funding for the Upper Big Blue (UBB) Natural Resources District (NRD). The RWBJV partners worked closely with UBB NRD to develop this proposal. As part of the proposal, ten tracts will be enrolled into NRCS’s Agriculture Conservation Easement Program (ACEP). This will include five Agriculture Land Easements (ALEs) and five Wetlands Reserve Easements (WREs). The ALE tracts will have the wetland restored to the extent possible, with the easement precluding wetland drainage or construction of permanent structures. The owner can continue to crop these wetlands and the adjacent cropland or transition the restored wetland and associated uplands to forage production. 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. The program 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. 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 to promote desired habitat for waterfowl. As part of each project the pivot irrigation systems will also be upgraded with Variable Rate Irrigation (VRI) technology to maximize irrigation efficiency. The three major pivot manufacturers (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 funding whole-field solutions.

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. As part of this grant, pipelines have been installed at Clark, Spoonbill Flats, and Johnson Waterfowl Production Areas. The RWB WMD is also working with Central Public Power and Irrigation District on retrofitting water deliveries into Funk WPA with a 60 inch pipe off of the Phelps Canal. This would allow Funk to receive all of its water deliveries in a week rather than a month, significantly decreasing losses to evaporation and transpiration.

Working Lands for Wildlife Initiative: At the Nebraska Cattlemen’s Annual Convention the funding for the Working Lands for Wildlife proposal “A Leveraged Approach for Beef, Birds, and Beetles in Nebraska’s Sandhills” was announced. As part of this proposal, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has allocated Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) funds to implement grazing systems, mechanically control eastern red cedar, and implement prescribed fire. At goal, 20,000 acres will be positively influenced, benefiting nesting birds, the American Burying Beetle, and producers’ profitability. Project partners include Nebraska Cattlemen, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, USFWS Partners for Fish and Wildlife, and the Sandhills Task Force.

National Fish and Wildlife Foundation Grant: The USFS and STF were awarded their grant titled “Nebraska Sandhills Landscape Conservation: A Public Private Partnership”. This unique proposal will support development of a Flagship Prescribed Fire Partnership that will implement 11,000 acres of prescribed fire on the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) lands along with 4,000 acres of prescribed burns on 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 on private lands.