Playa Country Radio Episodes
Below are links to all the Playa Country episodes. Listen to each series by clicking on the audio player. To move to another episode, click the the forward or backward arrow to the right or left while listening. To download or save a full episode (including the introduction and sponsor information), right click on a title and choose the 'save link as' option.
They're not sport birds, but they are important to the ecological balance of range land. We look at the lives and habitats of the birds, and how conservation initiatives, like the Conservation Reserve Program, help these species.
The Burrowing Owl is North America's only raptor that nests below ground. This bird's fate is tied to that of the prairie dog, and dog populations are in sharp decline.
The Mountain Plover is a shorebird that spends little time on the beach and lives on the open Plains and nowhere near mountains. Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory offers financial incentives to farmers of the southwest Nebraska panhandle to till around their nests -- which often are in crop fields.
This raptor migrates from its winter home in Argentina into western North America and breeds as far north as Canada. The bird helps producers by eating insects, mammals and reptiles considered to be pests.
Migratory Bird/Duck Stamp
Duck Stamp: Not Just for Hunters
If you think the Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation stamp, or the Duck Stamp as it's commonly called, is just for waterfowl hunters, think again! Whether you hunt, bird, photograph wildlife and scenery, collect stamps or conserve habitat, you'll want to purchase this stamp. As much as 98% of the $15 price goes to the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund, which supports wetland acquisition for the National Wildlife Refuge System.
Seven Reasons to Buy a Migratory Bird/Duck Stamp
The Migratory Bird/Duck Stamp is the best kept secret in bird conservation. Buying the annual stamp is a simple, direct way for people to contribute to wetland and grassland conservation. This episode presents seven reasons to buy a stamp.
Hunters and Birders, Not Mutually Exclusive
Hunters and birders have more in common than might be assumed. Both support the conservation of wetlands and other bird habitat. Some people even identify themselves as both a hunter and a birder, as well as a conservationist. Yearly purchase of the Duck Stamp is an excellent way to actively support bird conservation.
Citizen Science: Gathering Bird Data
Citizen Science: Bird Banding
How do scientists get the data they need to study birds? A lot of data is collected by volunteers, "citizen scientists," through bird surveys and bird banding. Bird banding is a universal and indispensable technique for studying the movement, survival and behavior of birds.
Citizen Science: Breeding Bird Survey
The North American Breeding Bird Survey is a cooperative effort between the United States and Canada. The bird survey is a longterm, largescale, international avian monitoring program started in 1966 to track the status and trends of North America's birds. If significant declines are detected, causes can then be identified and action taken, to reverse them before populations reach critically low levels.
Citizen Science: Mid-winter Eagle Survey
When America adopted the bald eagle as the national symbol in 1782, there may have been 100,000 nesting eagles. But the eagle population declined, in part due to pesticides. By 1963, with only 487 nesting pairs remaining, our national symbol was near extinction. Bald eagles were listed as an endangered species in 1967, and that afforded them protection. In 1979, the government started the Midwinter Bald Eagle Survey to establish an index of the bald eagle population in the lower 48 states.
Citizen Science: eBird
eBird was launched in 2002 by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society. It helps bird-watchers keep records of observations. It's another example of citizen science. eBird aggregates millions of bird sightings, which is very useful for scientists studying the movement, survival and behavior of birds. eBird provides researchers tools to understand all the data that is collected.
Citizen Science: Christmas Bird Counts
The approach of Christmas foretells the annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count, held in various locations between December 14 and January 5. It's an activity that allows laypeople to develop an interest in bird watching, while their help in conducting the census is invaluable. Scientific organizations couldn't afford to pay for the vital data-collection performed by thousands of “citizen scientists” across the nation. Learn more by listening to the Playa Country episode below or find an event near you.
What Is a Playa?
University of Kansas geologist Bill Johnson and Texas Tech's Ken Rainwater discuss origins of High Plains playas, their composition, and emerging information that the region's more than 80,000 playas are the primary source of groundwater recharge.
A Playa Rehabilitation Story
New Mexico rancher John Wood has a 160-200 acre playa, named Buffalo Lake, in his pasture. Several years ago, The Nature Conservancy's Tish McDaniel of Clovis, New Mexico, consulted Wood and assisted in restoring his playa.
Playas Create Biodiversity
Some 200 species of birds and other animals owe their ability to survive in the High Plains landscape to the existence of playas. Learn what flora and fauna are found in and adjacent to playas and how they support the biannual bird migration through this region.
Playa Sedimentation: Causes and Fixes
Playas are effective vectors for groundwater recharge and water filtration, but that assumes they're in a healthy state. Water, soil and habitat specialists discuss the causes of sedimentation and talk about playa restoration.
Playa Renovation on Jan Minton's Ranch in Texas
We examine Jan Minton's ranch, the family operation she took over in Floyd County, Texas. It had been "farmed to death," she said, and two playas were in poor condition. Bill Johnson, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist, developed a restoration plan that involved silt removal, playa repair, and a native grass and forbs plant buffer around the playas' margins.
Playa Health: The Importance of Buffers
Research indicates that a buffer surrounding a playa lake, consisting typically of native grasses and forbs, prevents migration of upland topsoil and farm chemicals into lowland wetlands such as playa lakes and rainwater basins. The buffers are important to rangeland playas, but are vital when playas are situated in fields under crop production.
Playa Renovation on Haynes Farm in Colorado
Larry Haynes, a farmer from Holyoke, Colorado, talks about putting land "to its best use." For decades he attempted to farm playas in his fields, but said he "rarely" was able to harvest crops grown in those wetlands. He decided to forget attempting to farm the playas; instead he renovated them and planted large buffers around them, thus putting the playas "to their best use" as wildlife habitat.
Wetlands Reserve Easement in Kansas
McPherson County landowner Dale Schmidt bought ground he intended to farm, but often it was too wet to plant, or to harvest. He's pleased he enrolled the land as a perpetual wetland easement. Schmidt and his NRCS District Conservationist Blake McLemore discuss the improvements made to the parcel.
A Playa Rehab on the West Texas Plains
Mark Hilliard of Hale County, Texas, says, "This is cotton country. It's rare to find a pristine playa lake." He bought the native grassland on which the playa sits from family members, then protected the playa and a grassland buffer with a permanent Wetlands Reserve Easement. He couldn't be more happy with NRCS assistance removing sediment from the playa to improve its function and create bird habitat. NRCS conservationist Blake McLemore discusses what's involved in negotiating a perpetual easement.
Rainwater Basins and Playa Wetlands: What Are the Differences?
A 21-county area of south central Nebraska is home to thousands of rainwater basins, which are identical in function to the playas of the southern plains, but formed by different natural forces. In addition, these basins hold water longer than the playas to the south, providing lush plant and invertebrate life for migratory birds on their way north in late-winter to nest. The region has been losing rainwater basins, but efforts are underway to work with landowners to guard these wetlands for bird habitat.
Rainwater Basin Conservation Landowner Story
Laurel Badura, wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, found incentive funding allowing ag producer Bart Jacobson to renovate and conserve a rainwater basin on grassland that's grazed by cattle and sheep under aggressive management. Jacobson is pleased with the results and credits Badura with arranging funding and managing the details of the partnerships, which drove the project forward.
Rainwater Basins, the Central Flyway, and Migratory Birds
Nebraska's rainwater basin region is beneath the Central Flyway, used by tens of millions of birds migrating to the prairie pothole regions of the Dakotas, Canada and beyond to nest and mate. Modern ag-production imperatives have reduced the number of basins. This episode discusses the importance of the basins to migrating birds. They rely on the lush habitat of the region as a rest-stop to sustain them for the duration of their journey to their nesting grounds.
Ogallala Aquifer Conservation
A significant report published by the National Academy of Sciences stresses the need to conserve groundwater. This episode focuses on two ways that is happening: 1) the USDA promotes Ogallala Aquifer conservation with money for cost-share projects, and 2) the state of Kansas changes water-rights laws to foster a culture of conservation rather than consumption.
Kansas Water Laws Change
Kansas' water-rights laws had encouraged consumption rather than conservation of Ogallala Aquifer groundwater used by irrigators in the western part of the state. Gov. Sam Brownback talks about his initiative to change laws in the 2012 legislative session to encourage conservation and self-regulation among ag producers.
NRCS Ogallala Aquifer Initiative
Realizing the importance of the Ogallala Aquifer to High Plains states, the Natural Resources Conservation Service created the Ogallala Aquifer Initiative to attempt to reduce the quantity of water removed from the aquifer, improve water quality using conservation practices, and enhance the economic viability of croplands and rangelands in the region. This episode explains how playas fit into these goals.
Nebraska Landowner Enrolls Lagoon in Wetlands Reserve Easement
Dave Hilfterty grows dryland winter wheat and irrigated corn in Perkins County, Nebraska. Dave had a challenge that was perfect for a Wetlands Reserve Easement. Amongst his five irrigation circles there's a lagoon, which he got tired of trying to farm through.
KAWS Wetland Coordinator: Helping Landowners Conserve Playas
Duane Cheney, from the Kansas Alliance for Wetlands and Streams, talks to landowners and operators in western Kansas about the benefits of enrolling playas in a Wetlands Reserve Easement or the Continuous Conservation Reserve Program, thereby taking those "mudholes" out of production and converting them into wonderful wildlife habitat that also helps recharge the Ogallala aquifer. Doug Duell talks about his experience rehabbing a 40-acre playa on his western Kansas cropland.
Conservation Planning to Reduce Water Use
Realizing the vital importance of the Ogallala Aquifer to the High Plains, The Natural Resources Conservation Service launched the Ogallala Aquifer Initiative. Playa lakes recharge the aquifer, and because of that, NRCS provides ways, through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, for producers to rehabilitate playas in cropland. NRCS Conservationists can help landowners develop a conservation plan that meets their goals, using this and other USDA conservation programs.
Kansas Producers Self-regulate Water Use
New legislation in Kansas makes it possible for producers to work within water conservation districts to create Locally Enhanced Management Areas (LEMAs) and agree among themselves how much groundwater use they can curtail. Brad Oelke talks about the first LEMA, which began in January 2013, and how NRCS may be able to help irrigators reduce consumption.
Nebraska Landowner Story
Jerry Stevens enrolled in the Rainwater-Basin Wetlands Reserve Enhancement Program, which restores and protects wetlands in fields under production by allowing center pivots to cross the rainwater basins. It's win-win. The program protects a wetland, and allows the producer to farm the circle around it.
Playa Restoration on Grissom Ranch
Southeast Colorado rancher Grady Grissom and Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory manager Seth Gallagher discuss renovation of a playa on the Grissom Ranch. The wetland had been "pitted," and a flat playa bottom was restored, which normalized plant-life, then birdlife, around the playa.
Soil Health and Playas
Good Soil Health Practices Benefit Playas
Playa wetlands benefit from practices that result in good soil health. The Natural Resources Conservation Service says there are four principles to improving soil health: 1) keep soil covered as much as possible; 2) disturb the soil as little as possible; 3) keep plants growing throughout the year to feed the soil; and 4) diversify as much as possible using crop rotation and cover crops.
No-till and Cover Crops Help Rainwater Basins
South-central Nebraska producer John Kinley has a three-acre rainwater basin in a crop field. He talks about progressive practices such as no-till production and cover cropping. Even though he farms through his wetland, no-till leaves the playa with cover year-round, and it now attracts ducks and geese as they migrate.
Converting to Dryland Farming
Southwest Kansas producer Steve Arnold had been a big irrigator. Ten wells, numerous pivot irrigation systems and 4-wheel-drive tractors on a farm near Johnson City. Then, his wells ran dry. The Ogallala Aquifer failed him. Arnold talks about his experience converting to dryland farming, adopting precision farming equipment and practices, and his experiences farming no-till and attempting to use cover cropping.
Kansas Producer Group Uses Soil Practices to Preserve Moisture
Western Kansas is a semi-arid region, with yearly precipitation at 17-19 inches. Progressive farmers understand their biggest challenge is capturing and holding every drop of moisture they can. A group of Northwest Kansas producers meets regularly to discuss production practices. These growers are firm believers in no-till and planting cover crops whenever it's feasible. While some producers say cover crops unnecessarily sap moisture, members of Living Acres Network are more likely to say that the careful selection of a cover crop leaves residue that helps build the soil for better precipitation infiltration.
Choosing the Right Cover Crop
Playas benefit from practices that result in good soil health. Improving the health and quality of the soil is one of the easiest and most effective ways producers can increase crop productivity, hence profitability, while benefitting wildlife and improving the environment. No-till practices, plus the planting of cover crops, mean less soil moves as runoff into playas during rain events.
Nebraska Farmer Learns New Tricks With Cover Cropping
Nebraska farmer Bill Volkmer describes himself as an "old farmer." But this old farmer is willing to learn some new tricks. He started planting cover crops in 2011. Cover-cropping — the practice of keeping fields covered between cash-crops — leads to a healthier, more bio-diverse soil and better crop productivity, which directly helps the bottom line. By selecting specific plants, from amongst the broadleafs, the grasses and the legumes, producers can improve their soils. By keeping soil covered, there's less evaporation, and when it's windy, there's less loss of topsoil.
Kansas Producer Finds Cover Crops Provide Forage and Improve Soil
The Thompson Farm and Ranch straddles the Kansas-Nebraska line. Drought in this region is entering its fourth year. The Thompson family uses no-till practices to grow dryland wheat and corn and also run cows. They went no-till in 2000 and several years ago started using cover crops, instead of continuing to leave a field fallow. The first cover crop surpassed their expectations — providing forage for cattle and improving the soil.
Landowner Conservation Partnerships
Landowner Conservation Partnerships
Habitat conservation requires local support, collaboration and leadership. When landowners, community leaders and resource managers work collaboratively to conserve natural resources, that's when the majority of habitat work takes place. We examine what local conservation partnerships are — and why they're important.
Three Rivers Alliance, Colorado
The mission of the Three Rivers Alliance is to sustain vibrant natural and human communities of the Republican River Basin by promoting good stewardship of its land, water and wildlife. The group addresses three aspects of long-term landscape sustainability: economics, education and conservation.
Sandhills Task Force, Nebraska
The mission of the Sandhills Task Force is to partner with ranchers in north-central Nebraska to "identify, prioritize, plan and implement projects that benefit private ranching, wildlife and vegetative diversity and associated water supplies." Besides ranchers, members include representatives of local communities, groups, organizations and state and federal agencies.
Roger Mills Prescribed Burn Association, Oklahoma
The Roger Mills Prescribed Burn Association formed in 2006 and covers Roger Mills and Beckam counties. The group addresses the four common reasons people do not use prescribed fire: liability, training/experience, labor and equipment.
Canadian River Cooperative Weed Management Area, Texas and Oklahoma
This partnership — consisting of agencies, non-governmental organizations and landowners — is working to control invasive plants along the banks of the Canadian River in the Texas panhandle and western Oklahoma. Salt cedar, Eastern Red Cedar and Russian Olive trees are being controlled if not eradicated.
Comanche Pool Prairie Resource Foundation, Kansas and Oklahoma
The Comanche Pool Prairie Resource Foundation is a regional grazing group located in south-central Kansas and north-central Oklahoma on 5.4 million acres of mixed-grass and sand-sage prairies. The group works with ranchers in its area to educate how best to manage grasslands to produce wildlife, clean air and water, as well as income from livestock grazing.
Invasive Plants and Trees
What Are Invasives?
Biologists and rangeland conservationists discuss problems caused by the aggressive invasions of native and exotic shrubs such as Tamarisk, Russian Olive, Eastern Red Cedar and reeds on western Great Plains rangelands. These pests adversely impact ag economics, the ecology, and native wildlife on the Plains.
Controlling Invasives in Oklahoma and Texas
Biologist Gene Miller describes the problem with invasives along the banks of the Canadian River in the Texas panhandle and western Oklahoma. The Canadian River Cooperative Weed Management Area, a group of agencies, non-governmental organizations and landowners, are working together to control these invasive plants.
Controlling Invasives in Central Nebraska
Learn about woody shrub invasions and control efforts in Nebraska. Phragmites is a growing problem in waterways and riparian areas, while Russian Olive and Eastern Red Cedar are invading uplands. Landowners have been controlling with mechanical removal followed by fire.
Grazing Management Benefits Livestock and Wildlife
Good grazing management is good for the livestock producer and for wildlife. When grazing-land is healthy, cattle put on the weight, and birds benefit from healthy grassland. The key is designing a grazing system that fits a producer's climatic conditions, soils, topography and vegetation types. In many cases, the most productive and ecologically sustainable operations are those that reproduce the spatial heterogeneous conditions found over thousands of years on the Great Plains.
Deferred Grazing on Grissom Ranch
Rancher Grady Grissom discusses the lessons he's learned from deploying a deferred-rotation system of managed grazing on his 14,000-acre ranch. But he doesn't like the term "grazing system." He says you don't choose a "system." You graze toward a goal. His goal in recent years has been to encourage the growth of cool-season grasses. That's meant longer periods of rest for pastures.
Managed Intensive Grazing on Birdwell and Clark Ranch
Deborah Clark and her husband Emory apply the principles of holistic ranch management, and they use managed intensive grazing on their stocker cattle operation on 14,000 acres in north-central Texas. On this ranch, managed intensive grazing, sometimes called "mob grazing," means some 5,000 cattle grazing a paddock 25 to 125 acres in size and moved four to six times daily. Holistic management demands that the practitioner think through tasks, processes and the deployment of assets not to "put pounds on cattle," but to remain laser-focused on a goal of profitability gained from efficiently-grazed cattle on an ever-improving healthy grass landscape.
Grazing Rotation and Patch Burning
Oklahoma State University's Department of Natural Resource Ecology and Management is researching effects of limited prescribed burning or "patch burning" to create a mosaic of patches across the landscape. Early research findings indicate better forage grasses and increased biodiversity.
Managing for Drought
Much of the western Great Plains has been in a two-year drought, with parts of the region in exceptional drought. How do ranchers and range managers plan, operate, and protect their grasslands under these conditions? A strategic plan is essential.
Grazing Management on the Weaver Ranch
When Jim Weaver purchased his ranch in southeast New Mexico in the 1980s, decades of mismanagement had left the grasslands overrun by shinnery, short shin-oak plants that impede grass growth by sequestering water in the root system. Weaver Ranch Manager Willard Heck discusses benefits of limiting shin-oak to let the tall grasses return.
Benefits of Using Fire on the Landscape
Native Americans used fire to manage rangeland for thousands of years, but a 100-year burning hiatus followed European settlement of the North American heartland. Those decades of fire suppression allowed invasive plants to negatively alter the landscape. Now, rangeland researchers and managers are proponents of burning, when done safely and in a controlled setting.
Ranchers Rediscover Burning
Biologist Peter Berthelson of Pheasants Forever took action to educate land managers in Nebraska how to burn and created burn trailers stocked with all the hardware required to safely conduct prescribed burns. Rancher Tom Hartman talks about using fire to control an Eastern Red Cedar invasion in this episode.
A 'Prescription' for Burning
Burning is a cost-effective method of controlling invasions of Eastern Red Cedar, but there's more to burning than simply touching torch to ground. Prescribed burns follow a precise, multi-page "prescription" to ensure efficacy and safety.
Conservation Easements and Land Trusts
More than half of western Great Plains farmers are near retirement age. Many are considering conservation easements as a way of protecting the land from development and subdivision long after they're gone. The federal government, through USDA programs, negotiate easements on land meeting conservation requirements. Other organizations, called Land Trusts, have been created specifically for contracting with landowners to protect land from future development. Learn about the functions of land trusts and what they're able to accomplish in this episode.
Water Conservation in Northeast Colorado
When Denver physician and sportsman Kent Heyborne bought land in northeast Colorado, his intent was to leave it undeveloped as bird habitat. But, working with Ducks Unlimited along the South Platte River, he created a water-conservation project resulting in neighboring farms gaining additional irrigation credits. By putting the land under perpetual easement, he created a development-free zone spanning from one wildlife park to another, ensuring a corridor of waterfowl habitat several miles long. Plus, he earned state and federal tax credits along the way.
Conservation Easements Through Farm Bill Programs
Over its 80-year history, the federal government's Farm Bill refined soil, water and habitat conservation programs. Along the way, its strategy changed from "let's see how many we can sign up" to a more focused "best bang for the buck" approach to conservation, funding programs to conserve fragile landscapes. This episode examines programs available from the Natural Rescources Conservation Service offering landowners monetary incentives to place qualified land under long-term or permanent conservation easements.
Preserving Ranching Heritage in Central Kansas Hill Country
Chester Peterson, Jr., of Lindsborg, Kansas, owns grass and cropland on the western margin of the Flinthills, a rolling landscape of tall- and shortgrass prairie largely unchanged since settlers crossed it in the 1860s. He wanted to keep the land perpetually free from subdevelopment, petroleum wells, wind turbines and cellular towers. He contracted land easements with the Ranchland Trust of Kansas. That organization, created by the Kansas Livestock Association, is tasked with preserving Kansas ranching heritage and open spaces for future generations.
Lesser Prairie-Chicken's Aversion to Vertical Structures
Scientists researching the population declines of the Lesser Prairie-Chicken say the bird's habitat has been damaged by vertical structures and human activity like road-building and oil and gas mining. Vertical structures include mesquite and other woody invasives, which the bird is averse to nesting near. Those features lead to habitat fragmentation. The bird is reluctant to cross roads and transmission lines. It tries to stay away from mesquite and trees. As a result, it self-limits habitat. Scientists and land managers discuss what's been learned.
New Mexico Reclamation Project
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management has partnered with hundreds of groups to restore and link back together the Lesser Prairie-Chicken's eastern New Mexico habitat. With funding from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, crews are removing petroleum welljack pads and service roads, reseeding with native grasses, and removing other vertical objects like mesquite, trees and old windmills in effort to restore a habitat more friendly to the needs of the bird.
Weaver Ranch Restores Habitat
The sprawling Weaver Ranch near Causey, NM, is located in important Lesser Prairie-Chicken habitat. Ranch manager Willard Heck talks about removing 400-500 acres of mesquite that had encroached onto prairie land, fragmenting the bird's habitat. A three-year drought has impeded the bird from thriving, but Heck thinks the chicken's population is increasing on the ranch.
Farm Bill & Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative
Farm Bill Status Update
Most sections of the legislation pertaining to Farm Bill conservation programs were funded through fiscal year 2013 in the so-called "fiscal cliff" negotiations at the end of 2012. Learn about cost-share funds available under the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative and how those funds have helped producers construct perimeter fences and install livestock watering systems. Without that assistance, a lot of expiring CRP land might have been plowed and returned to crop production.
NRCS Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative
The Natural Resources Conservation Service's Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative funds managed-grazing programs that help the grass and therefore the rancher's bottom line, and also help support the habitat of the Lesser Prairie-Chicken. Learn about cost-share funds in the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) that help ranchers with projects related to managed grazing. These EQIP funds available under the Initiative are a "life saver" for land coming out of CRP, helping them be reverted to grazing land rather than plowed and planted to crops.
Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative at Work
Land manager Tom Turner manages grazing land in west-central Kansas in the sandhills south of Kinsley. Owing to sandy soil composition the grassland is fragile. Turner got the land enrolled in the NRCS Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative and used cost-share money to improve cross-fencing and a livestock watering system. That eased the process of rotational grazing, one of the components of a managed grazing plan to protect the fragile landscape while improving Lesser Prairie-Chicken habitat.
Managed Grazing During Times of Drought
Much of the High Plains region is under extreme or exceptional drought. Learn how enrolling grassland in the NRCS Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative helps landowners take advantage of technical advice for deploying managed-grazing regimes to protect rangeland, both for cattle-grazing and Lesser Prairie-Chicken habitat. Good rangeland management during drought will enable the landscape to recover faster once "Mother Nature turns the spigot on again."