Playas dot the landscape throughout the PLJV region. Photo courtesy of Brian Slobe.
In The News
Playa Post - May 2012
IN THIS ISSUE
Several communities throughout the Playa Lakes Joint Venture (PLJV) region set aside time to celebrate prairie-chickens, both Lesser and Greater, giving people a chance to view these unique birds as they dance and court each spring. In addition, these events provide an economic stimulus to the local areas by bringing in visitors from around the nation, and even further afield.
"Small communities are finding that these birds yield significant economic benefit," says Christopher Rustay, PLJV Conservation Coordinator. "The proceeds can help fund local services and bring the community together. Residents and visitors also learn about the necessity of maintaining the surrounding grasslands so these birds continue to survive, which will provide long-term economic benefits."
One of these events, the High Plains Lesser Prairie-Chicken Festival in Milnesand, New Mexico, is now in its eleventh year. Limited to 100 people, the festival is always sold out well before the April 1 registration deadline. During the weekend event, participants have opportunities to observe and photograph the colorful Lesser Prairie-Chicken mating ritual at close range, go on birding tours, and learn about local culture and natural history of the area as well as conserving prairie-chickens and their grassland habitat.
"This festival is a well-oiled machine with heart and soul," says Kevin Holladay, from the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish. As for the participants, they agree that there are "magical moments" to be found at this festival in eastern New Mexico.
If the Milnesand festival is sold out, bird enthusiasts have another chance to see the Lesser Prairie-Chicken in action at the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Festival in Woodward, Oklahoma, a week later. This year, in addition to viewing Lesser Prairie-Chickens, the festival offered opportunities to participate in protecting the species by marking fences, view Greater Prairie-Chicken at a private ranch, and learn how to photograph prairie-chickens in their natural surroundings.
Other communities are joining in by creating festivals and viewing tours in other states. This April, the first annual Nebraska Prairie Chicken Festival was held near Burwell in the Nebraska Sandhills. The festival featured lek tours to view the Greater Prairie-Chicken and Sharp-tailed Grouse mating displays, educational speakers, additional birding excursions, discussions pertaining to state and federal conservation programs, ranch tours, cultural demonstrations and live entertainment.
"Not only will this event celebrate these iconic bird species, it will also educate a wide range of participants about realistic conservation measures that will ultimately benefit a large suite of grassland birds," says Sarah Sortum, coordinator of the Nebraska festival. "In addition, the festival will provide an economic boost for our rural area."
Greater Prairie-Chicken can also be viewed in northeastern Colorado. The Wray Chamber of Commerce offers a series of chicken-watching weekends from late March through April.
In Kansas, Lesser Prairie-Chickens can be seen dancing on leks from early March through mid-May at the Cimarron National Grassland in southwestern Kansas. Reservations are not required for the self-guided tour where four people fit comfortably in a viewing blind. Viewing the birds from the parking area from within vehicles or using the vehicles for cover is also an excellent way to view the birds.
"People from all over the world have come to view the Lesser Prairie-Chicken on the Cimarron. To watch the territory battles and female selection is a pretty awesome sight," says Andy Chappell, a wildlife biologist for the US Forest Service.
For those who want to participate in any of these viewing opportunities, early reservations are a must. Festival registration for the next year usually opens in the late fall, but spots fill quickly.
Playa Lakes Joint Venture (PLJV) is in the process of developing an initiative that will incorporate the latest work of the Joint Venture partnership in a number of fields to drive more playa conservation throughout the region. The initiative is currently comprised of 18 interrelated projects focused on addressing the current conservation challenges and taking advantage of available opportunities.
"This approach to playa conservation builds upon the work done over the last decade by the Joint Venture partnership," says PLJV Coordinator Mike Carter, "and, in all likelihood, will provide direction for the next decade of conservation action."
The projects range from creating decision support systems that prioritize playas for conservation and placing playa-specific private lands biologists in strategic areas to developing playa research priorities, collecting data on bird use of playas and promoting ecosystem services provided by playas. Although most of the projects are still in the conceptual stage, work on the Playa Decision Support System is already underway.
A number of the initiative's components depend on the completion of other projects to realize the full benefits and see more playas being conserved or restored. For example, the Playa Decision Support System currently in development must be completed before a number of other projects can happen, such as developing more NAWCA projects or playa landscape conservation partnerships within priority areas. On the other hand, when completed, data collected on how wetland birds use playas will be incorporated into the Playa Decision Support System to make it more robust.
The PLJV Management Board reviewed early drafts of the projects at the winter meeting and will be taking steps to begin implementation of the initiative at their summer meeting in June.
Over the past two years, the Playa Lakes Joint Venture (PLJV) has been working with playa experts across the region to develop a geospatial Playa Decision Support System to help developers, land managers, and conservationists strategically plan where their efforts will have the greatest or least impact on playas. Using the best available spatial data and the latest science on playa ecology, the system prioritizes individual playa basins according to their estimated ecological value and identifies clusters of playas that likely have higher value functioning as a group. The system prioritizes playas differently based on proposed land-use activities, chiefly energy development (e.g., wind farms siting), application of USDA Farm Bill conservation programs (e.g., enrollment in the Conservation Reserve Program), and wetland restoration or protection (e.g., enrollment in long-term or permanent easements).
"This project is a cornerstone of our Playa Conservation Initiative," says PLJV Coordinator Mike Carter. "With more than 80,000 playas within the Joint Venture, people are asking which ones are the most important to conserve. When the Playa Decision Support System is completed, we will be better able to answer to that question."
"The Playa Decision Support System is being developed in phases on a state-by-state basis because of its complexity and because it is being developed cooperatively with working groups from each of our six states, tailoring the system for their specific needs and issues," says PLJV GIS Director Megan McLachlan. "We are currently in phase one of development in which we are focused on building the system to guide development activities, namely wind energy development."
The second and third phases will prioritize playas for conservation programs/practices and restoration/protection activities, respectively. All phases will be developed in conjunction with partners from various stakeholder groups (e.g., energy developers, water resource managers, wildlife managers, private lands biologists). Whenever possible, research and data collected by partners will be incorporated into the product.
The Playa Decision Support System will provide end-users with GIS data and maps that identify playa priorities, playa clusters and large isolated playas in their area of interest. A user's manual will give instruction on how to properly use the tool and interpret the data and provide details on how the data and prioritization process were developed. States may also choose to include Best Management Practices (BMPs) specific for the proposed activity. Two states, Colorado and New Mexico, have already developed BMPs regarding playas and wind energy development through the Colorado Renewables and Conservation Collaborative and New Mexico Wind and Wildlife Collaborative.
"The idea for the Playa Decision Support System grew out of our work with the Colorado Renewables Conservation Collaborative," says Anne Bartuszevige, PLJV Science Coordinator. "As part of the collaborative, PLJV developed best management practices for playa conservation that recommend avoiding playa clusters. When the BMP was presented to the group, wind energy developers asked for a specific definition of a playa cluster. This fundamental, yet unanswered, question set us on a mission to identify and prioritize playas, playa clusters and large isolated playas."
Playa clusters and large isolated playas are important because they attract high densities of migrating wetland birds and are hot spots of biodiversity for a variety of other animals and plants. Research conducted by the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory in Colorado shows higher densities of waterfowl in areas with higher densities of playas. These data, relating waterfowl abundance to playa density, is the current basis for identifying playa clusters in the Playa Decision Support System.
PLJV is currently working with partners in Kansas and New Mexico to build the first phase of the Playa Decision Support System, focused on wind energy development, with an expected release date in June. Additional state working groups will be formed as soon as possible with the goal of completing the first phase for all states by December and the entire Playa Decision Support System (all states and all phases) completed by June 2013.
The Playa Decision Support System is one of the projects that comprise the Playa Conservation Initiative. For more information about the Playa Decision Support System, contact PLJV at 303-926-0777.
This month, the New Mexico Wind and Wildlife Collaborative—which consists of nine leading wind energy companies and seven conservation groups, along with various state agencies and other private and public stakeholders—released best management practices (BMPs) on the Southern Plains Wind and Wildlife Planner website. The BMPs are the result of a collaborative effort that allowed a number of different types of interests affected by wind development to come together to help preserve existing habitat and species while furthering societal goals for the development of green energy.
"The best management practices were written using the best available science to guide conservation actions," says Christopher Rustay, Conservation Delivery Leader for Playa Lakes Joint Venture, who facilitated the process. "Because of the collaborative and inclusive nature of the group, we are confident that the options provided will be useful for both conservation and wind energy development."
"These BMPs were developed over the course of two years, and a lot of time was spent building trust and learning about our partners objectives so that we could develop balanced practices that both industry and the conservation community could support," adds Matt Desmond, NM Development Manager for First Wind.
BMPs were developed for 12 wildlife species or habitats of concern, including raptors, Long-billed Curlew, bats, Lesser Prairie-Chicken, reptiles and amphibians, and playas. They are intended to help guide the placement of renewable energy development facilities and the transmission of that energy so that wildlife resource concerns may be avoided, minimized or mitigated.
"Audubon recognizes that wind power creates unique threats to birds and, more specifically, wind development threatens grassland habitats in eastern New Mexico vital to Lesser Prairie-Chickens," says Karyn Stockdale, Executive Director of Audubon New Mexico. "That’s why it was critical that we partner with the wind industry to proactively address these issues so that wind energy can move forward, but in the least harmful way possible."
New Mexico is the second state, following Colorado earlier this year, to have developed BMPs to address conservation concerns related to renewable energy development. Both states followed a similar collaborative process to create best management practices for species and habitats affected by wind energy development, with some of the same industry partners participating in the two groups.
"Wind energy can provide a tremendous economic boost for rural communities along New Mexico’s eastern plains while offering significant savings to urban consumers," says Craig Cox, Executive Director of Interwest Energy Alliance. "Now that we have Colorado and New Mexico using this collaborative model of developing best management practices, we will be able to expedite wind energy development while creating new jobs across both states."
The New Mexico guidelines, along with those for Colorado, are available for download from the Southern Plains Wind and Wildlife Planner website, hosted by Playa Lakes Joint Venture. The website provides important information to developers by identifying what resources of concern might be affected by wind development in the state, where developers might encounter conflicts with those resources, and appropriate minimization or mitigation of potential impacts if avoidance is impractical. As new science and technology emerges, the BMPs will be reviewed and updated by the group.
While the BMPs are not binding or regulatory in nature, the New Mexico Renewable Energy Transmission Authority will also be linking to the NMWWC’s website in an effort to encourage voluntary participation by prospective developers of wind, solar, and geothermal energy projects.
The New Mexico Wind and Wildlife Collaborative is an informal collaborative effort between the renewable energy industry and the conservation community to constructively and proactively address wildlife resource concerns related to renewable energy development in New Mexico. For more information or to download the BMPs, visit www.pljv.org/windandwildlife.