Story by Loretta Sorensen
Yankton, S.D.

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November 22, 2013
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Managing Nebraska's Rainwater Basin: Landowners, conservationists use burning, grazing to preserve habitat

A diverse group of landowners and conservation groups are working together, through the Rainwater Basin Joint Venture, to manage and, where appropriate, restore Nebraska’s Rainwater Basin in order to continue providing resting and feeding areas for millions of birds who inhabit the area each year during spring and fall migration.

The Rainwater Basin Joint Venture Board consists of representatives from Ducks Unlimited, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Farm Service Agency, local natural resource districts and six landowners.

The wetlands that make up the basin are scattered throughout a 21-county area.

Historically, the mixed-grass prairie uplands and wetlands found in this landscape were highly disturbed by large herds of grazing animals such as bison, elk, deer, pronghorn and black-tailed prairie dogs. It was also exposed to major disturbances associated with wild fires, drought, deluge, and other weather related events.

Andy Bishop, Rainwater Basin Joint Venture coordinator at Grand Island, Neb., is employed by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In 1963, the USFWS began acquiring critical migratory waterfowl habitat in south central Nebraska.

Although a federal employee, Bishop, as Rainwater Basin Coordinator, is continually challenged to find a balance between public ownership and programs that integrate wetlands into private farm/ranch operations.

“Today, 61 individual Waterfowl Production Areas totaling 24,000 acres have been purchased, most of them with Duck Stamp dollars,” Bishop says. “The remaining wetlands are privately owned and often integrated into diversified agriculture operations that include row crops and cattle production.”

One reason wetland habitat conditions have deteriorated over the past 50 to 60 years has been the lack of disturbance.

To maximize habitat values of the remaining wetlands, fire and grazing have been returned to the system.

In addition, mechanized disturbances, like disking, and chemical applications have also been implemented to promote desired habitat conditions.

“Disking is the most intense disturbance of wetland vegetation,” Bishop says. “It destroys both erect stems of standing vegetation as well as the extensive rhizome system that keeps plants alive during dry conditions. The limited disking we do is accomplished with a standard agricultural disk to knock down vegetation. If we’re working in a dense stand of river bulrush and cattail, we use a Whishek Industrial 12-foot disk to penetrate deeper into the root zone. A John Deere 8400 pulls the heavier disk.”

Observations of migratory fowl in the RWB have shown that pintails, mallard, white-fronts and Canada geese select wetlands with a significant amount of vegetation. Snow geese prefer more open water.

“Managing wetlands to provide habitat for both these groups of migratory birds helps reduce spread of avian cholera and other diseases,” Bishop says.

Prescribed burning, livestock grazing and haying are the preferred management tools used to maintain desired habitat conditions. Haying and grazing are “cost positive” management tools that afford local producers financial benefits to enhance habitat on their wetlands while collaborating with public land managers to increase habitat conditions on public lands in the RWB.

“Burning alone has little long-term effect on monotypic stands of reed canarygrass, river bulrush, or cattails,” Bishop says. “When used in conjunction with other management practices, you see a greater diversity of plant species in wetlands.”

Prescribed burning removes old vegetative growth, releases nutrients back to the soil, decreases woody and other invasive and undesirable species and increases warm season grasses and forbs.

“Burning is also the best method for removing invading woody plant seedlings such as cottonwoods and willows,” Bishop says. “When there’s less vegetation in the wetland, it doesn’t take as much runoff to produce open water for migratory birds. Most of the burns are done during March and April.”

Strategic grazing is also used to reduce the presence of undesirable plants and stimulate growth of preferred plants in the wetlands.

“Grazing is a natural event that occurs in healthy grasslands and wetlands,” Bishop says. “Well managed grazing plays an important role in keeping grasslands in an early successional stage and sustains the nutrient cycle important to other wildlife in the wetland area.”

A recent study of invertebrates (animals lacking a backbone) in the RWB found higher species diversity and richness of aquatic invertebrates in grazed seasonal wetlands than in wetlands burned, hayed, disked or left undisturbed.

“Grazing strategies on WPAs differs between wetlands and uplands,” Bishop says. “To address each habitat type, temporary electric fences are built to confine livestock in a specific managed area. A portion of the grazing fee is used to control weeds and trees and maintain fences.”

Haying kills invading tree seedlings, removes heavy thatch layers and creates firebreaks for future prescribed burns.

“Typically, we don’t hay until after mid-July to reduce injury to nests and nesting birds,” Bishop says. “In an average year, about 300 acres are hayed across the Wetland Management District, primarily for firebreaks.”

Invasive and noxious species management includes an on-site inspection of each WPA at least twice during the growing season. Spot spraying has proven to be the most cost effective control tool, with an application of the smallest amount of chemical and the least harm to native plants.

“Mapping the wetland areas helps us monitor our control efforts,” Bishop says. “It also marks areas where we use spot spraying to help focus attention on those areas in future years. Our control of invasive trees is becoming more aggressive as well.”

In areas where prescribed burning cannot be used, herbicide is applied to kill small trees. In any area with dense trees, shredding is followed with an application of herbicide to the soil to kill any remaining root remnants.

“We have also been testing the effectiveness of a new herbicide on controlling reed canarygrass,” Bishop says. “The herbicide causes reed canarygrass to prematurely senesce and die without harming nearby sedges and forbs.”

Bishop notes that 97 percent of Nebraska is privately owned. The primary objective of the entities involved in the conservation of the RWB is to find ways to integrate wetlands into local production operations in a sustainable and beneficial manner.

“If our wetlands are not economically and ecologically viable, millions of waterfowl will be negatively impacted,” Bishop says. “Both the habitat and ecologic value of wetlands is important to all of us. When wetlands function properly, the local community experiences less flooding events because wetlands hold water rather than having it run off. Groundwater is recharged and nutrients are recycled back to the soil.”

Ronnie Sanchez, with the USFW, Rainwater Basin Wetland Management District, notes that wetlands such as the RWB also maintain a connection to the nation’s wildlife heritage contributing to the quality of American lives.

“Wildlife and wild places have always given people special opportunities to have fun, relax and appreciate the natural world whether through bird watching, hunting, photography, or other wildlife pursuits,” Sanchez says.

Funding for the work done at RWB has primarily come from a $250,000 grant provided by the Nebraska Environmental Trust (NET).

“The NET is a state program dedicated to the preservation of Nebraska’s natural resources,” Bishop adds. “Participating landowners make a 15 percent contribution and other funding comes from a variety of sources. We’re encouraged by what we’re seeing in this pilot program. It’s a positive outcome for our environment and everyone else.” ❖

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The Fence Post Updated Nov 22, 2013 12:39PM Published Dec 11, 2013 02:30PM Copyright 2013 The Fence Post. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.