Photo: Playas

Playas dot the landscape throughout the PLJV region. Photo courtesy of Brian Slobe.

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Playa Post - May 2013

IN THIS ISSUE

Understanding Landowner Attitudes About Playas
Focus Groups to Look at Socioeconomic Factors Relating to Playa Conservation

Proposed Focus Group LocationsPlaya Lakes Joint Venture is beginning an exciting effort to learn more about landowner attitudes regarding playas and playa conservation—by asking landowners directly. This summer, DJ Case and Associates—a leading human dimensions and strategic communications company dedicated to conservation and environmental issues—will be conducting landowner focus groups in 14 locations across the Playa Lakes and Rainwater Basin Joint Ventures. The project is made possible through a grant from the Great Plains Landscape Conservation Cooperative (GPLCC) and addresses one of their playa research priorities, an analysis of the socioeconomic impediments to playa conservation.

"Landscape Conservation Cooperatives were designed, in part, to provide science and research for partners' conservation planning and design efforts," says James Broska, GPLCC Science Coordinator. "The GPLCC recognizes that a big part of playa conservation on the Great Plains is directly related to landowners willingness to participate in conservation activities. The human dimensions study being conducted by DJ Case will help the GPLCC to focus it's future ecological and natural sciences research and other conservation efforts in step with local communities."

"This is a rare opportunity to sit down and have face-to-face discussions about playa conservation with opinion leaders at the local level," says says Phil Seng, Vice President of DJ Case and Associates, and project lead. "Focus groups allow for open-ended discussions and follow-on questioning that reveal the key socioeconomic realities and hurdles that discourage landowners from enrolling in conservation programs or restoring playas. This research will provide valuable information about landowners' perceptions of and experiences with partners and partner programs, and will identify the most effective ways the Joint Venture partnership can communicate with landowners about playas and playa conservation in the future."

The focus groups will be conducted in areas with large playa clusters as identified by PLJV's Playa Decision Support System (see map). Conducting focus groups in areas of high playa density not only directs attention to areas with the most playas, but also to areas most important for habitat connectivity. Researchers will select key landowners in each state for participation and use the focus group sessions to learn what landowners think and feel about management of their lands in general, and about conservation of playas specifically.

"There are many real-world applications for this research," says Barth Crouch, PLJV Conservation Policy Director. "For example, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and Farm Service Agency can use it to create whole-farm conservation programs that will appeal to landowners, provide insight into how to write guidelines for these conservation programs, and help craft specific outreach efforts for their Ogallala Aquifer Initiative, Wetlands Reserve Program and Continuous Conservation Reserve Program based on what landowners require to enroll. This research can also assist the state wildlife agencies with state wetland conservation programs that either complement or stand alone from USDA's conservation programs. And Farm Bill Biologists at Pheasants Forever and Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory can use the information to improve outreach efforts to landowners regarding playa conservation."

To prepare for the focus groups, PLJV is soliciting input from conservation agencies and partners, especially those who work directly with landowners, on what information they need to be more effective. After the research has been completed, a strategic communications planning session will be held to help partners apply specific research results to improve outreach to landowners and encourage more playa conservation. The research results will also be shared with focus group participants, letting them know their opinions were heard and understood, and may be used to direct changes in conservation programs.

The focus groups will be conducted in mid-summer and early fall. Analysis, report writing, and the final strategic communications planning session for partners will be completed by May 2014. For more information about this project, contact PLJV Conservation Policy Director Barth Crouch at 785-823-0240 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

Growing the Support for Waterfowl Conservation
2012 North American Waterfowl Management Plan Focuses on Human Dimensions

By Dale D. Humburg, Chair, Interim Integration Committee

DucksDespite recent years' breeding duck populations at or above record levels, concern for the future of waterfowl resources remains. Wetlands in several key landscapes are being lost at a high rate, and grasslands essential for breeding ducks on the prairies also are declining much faster than nesting cover is restored or protected. And threats to these landscapes are growing as human populations increase, water quality and quantity continues to erode, energy issues often predominate land use decisions, and a changing climate presents long-term pressures that only exaggerate current threats. The traditional support base from waterfowl hunters has declined to half the level of the 1970s, and overall, budgets are not keeping pace with the challenges facing waterfowl resources.

The 2012 revision of the North American Waterfowl Management Plan (NAWMP or Plan) integrates goals for waterfowl populations, for habitat sufficient to support ducks and geese, and for people who enjoy the birds and the landscapes required by both waterfowl and waterfowlers. Fundamentally, it brings particular focus to the need to integrate waterfowl management efforts. The singular strengths of habitat delivery and harvest management, accomplished through Joint Ventures and Adaptive Harvest Management, were notable advances in waterfowl conservation during the last few decades. However, further specialization in these areas without efforts to integrate objectives and strategies can lead to inefficient use of limited human capital and budget resources. Explicitly aligning objectives for traditional and expanded constituencies with those for habitat and population management is needed to complete the integration among fundamental goals of the 2012 NAWMP revision.

Key actions planned for implementation of the 2012 Plan include "re-visioning" waterfowl population goals and developing measurable objectives for waterfowl hunters, waterfowl viewers, and conservation supporters. These in turn will be stepped-down to regional habitat objectives. Landscape priorities will be based on integrating knowledge of the biological needs of waterfowl with the roles of landscapes to support human dimensions objectives. Obviously, there will be tradeoffs, and a deliberate assessment of the value the waterfowl community places on each objective will determine the initial balance of resource allocation.

A Human Dimensions Working Group, chartered by the NAWMP Committee and the National Flyway Council, will bring social science to bear on the challenge of integrating people into population and habitat management. The 1.3 million active waterfowl hunters in the U.S. and Canada combined with the more than 13 million people who travel to view waterfowl—and the potential for even broader public backing—represent the present and future base of support for waterfowl conservation. Growing that support, through programs that are well-informed by human dimensions research and actively adapted to a changing social landscape, will be essential.

For more information, visit the North American Waterfowl Management Plan website.

Urgent vs. Important, Space vs. Time
Can Tradeoffs Clear a Path for Lesser Prairie-Chicken Conservation?

By Matt Bain, Wildlife Biologist, The Nature Conservancy

As with all prairie grouse, Lesser Prairie-Chicken (LEPC) habitat seems simple: large, intact mosaics of grasslands. For best results, add shrubs for a structural buffer against frequent drought. Although everyone understands these basic requirements, I've found myself lost in the world of how to manage limiting factors associated with this private land species for about 13 years. Any clarity I thought I once had has been blurred by a combination of higher demands placed on the land and subsequent socio-political factors. Like booms through the fog, two pervasive issues keep calling my attention: transitioning Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) lands into guaranteed long-term habitat and finding the right mix of long and short-term habitat restoration and conservation.

Urgent: Conservation Reserve Program (CRP)

Lesser Prairie-Chicken HabitatThe relative strength of these booms are determined by where a person is standing when they hear them. I look at portions of their range and see energy development, woody invasion, old world bluestem, mismanagement of shinnery oak and sandsage, and overgrazing and have to ask, "How could this species not be threatened or endangered if it were not for CRP-rangeland complexes north of the Arkansas River in Kansas?" One of the great, practical, LEPC conservationists, Randy Rodgers, put this into perspective for me about 10 years ago when he said that there are likely more chickens in Gove County (about 60 miles north of the Arkansas River in Kansas) than Colorado, Oklahoma, and Texas combined. Recent rangewide aerial surveys confirm such a notion, suggesting that nearly 64% of LEPC can now be found in Kansas north of the Ark. The profound aspect of this, is that prairie-chickens either did not inhabit this area or occurred at undetectably low densities prior to the 1985 Farm Bill that introduced CRP to this landscape. Today, the difference between this portion of LEPC range and all others is one of significant population expansion and risk of extirpation, respectively.

Any conservation plan for this species, whether through voluntary or regulatory instruments, must first address the extremely urgent issue of transitioning CRP lands into guaranteed long-term habitat. That is, if we lose CRP grasslands north of the Arkansas River in Kansas, by failing to find a path toward incentivized long-term protection, we lose the current stronghold of the species. I consider everything else secondary.

Lesser Prairie-Chicken HabitatApparently in this and other areas where native warm-season grasses were used, CRP reintroduced residual vegetative structure adequate for nesting. So, how do we transition 10-15 years of nesting habitat to real certainty for the species? First, by enrolling existing, expiring, and expired contracts into incentivized long-term agreements (30 yr) and substantially incentivized perpetual agreements with fencing and water cost-share. For this to occur, a conference opinion must foster existing (USDA programs) or new instruments (e.g. CCAAs, credit exchanges, conservation banks) that incentivize such a transition, including removal of early withdrawal penalty from CRP.

It appears that such an effort could be perceived as "undercutting" the CRP program. Such concerns must be put aside if we are to address this most critical form of voluntary conservation. Rather, it appears that spatial and temporal restrictions associated with this effort would result in minimal "undercutting". By virtue of efficient use of limited funds, the effort would be narrowly focused spatially utilizing a focal area approach. This effort would affect a relatively small amount of CRP. Such an effort should also be focused on long-term or perpetual agreements. If CRP payments are adjusted to compete with contemporary cash rent, regardless of location, there will always be demand for shorter term contracts. Currently in many areas, annual CRP rental payments need to be doubled to regain interest in even 10-15 year contracts. Subsequently, longer term contracts will need to be incentivized so highly, so as to discourage shorter-term contracts in these focal areas. However, many landowners simply cannot be paid enough to agree to a contract length greater than 10 or 15 years. In addition to robust incentives, a variety of mechanisms and options will need to be available to landowners for such an effort to achieve adequate spatial extent.

A lapse in voluntary conservation, specifically a reduction in CRP north of the Arkansas River in Kansas might be the most immediate pervasive threat to the species. If the conservation community and other stakeholders fail to address this threat, two-thirds of the species hangs in the balance. Given threats and population trajectory in the rest of the range, a path to extinction could be paved by this failure and mitigation strategies that focus on short-term habitat.

Important: Allocating Resources to Long and Short-Term Habitat

Lesser Prairie-Chicken HabitatThe manner in which limited resources are allocated to all areas in the LEPC range is much more important over the long-term than the more urgent issue of CRP. Obviously, there are broader spatial considerations than north of some river in some state, and any solution in one part of the range should not come at the expense of another; this species is an important part of the natural heritage of its entire range.

Some areas have little left to lose. In such places, regardless of term, investments in addressing limiting factors must be made before long-term spatially significant conservation would be efficient. Investments made in these areas require an assumption that restoration will be achieved and maintained. Conversely, in areas of population expansion the most efficient strategy is likely long-term conservation of existing habitat. Investments made here require no assumption associated with restoration. A robust analysis of potential and necessary economic drivers and how they vary over the LEPC range appears to be lacking, and is critical in efficiently applying limited conservation funds.

A strategy with substantial focus on short-term habitat restoration will likely result in high levels of landowner participation and a broad spatial extent. However, these benefits will come with little certainty of actual habitat restoration and even less certainty that populations will not return to previous levels when agreements expire. A strategy that focuses on long-term habitat conservation will be much more spatially limited because of reduced landowner participation and high per acre costs associated with sufficient incentives and maintenance. However, these shortcomings will be traded with a high level of long-term certainty for the species.

In terms of the best utilization of mitigation funds, it is myopic to assume that impacts and subsequent habitat credit demands will persist at high levels over the long-term, or that short-term agreements will have long-term effects. Investments made in long-term habitat will capture much greater certainty. Therefore, a strategy that results in half of the acres directed at short-term agreements, and half of the acres directed at long-term and perpetual agreements is likely a desirable balance. However, just as tradeoffs between space and time must be considered, so must conservation strategies be adaptive to address the relative importance of time frames in particular areas (i.e., ecoregions). That is, as an ecoregion achieves large-scale restoration, a shift toward increasing long-term conservation should be made. Conversely, as efforts toward long-term conservation are successful and further opportunities become limited, a shift toward increasing shorter-term conservation should be made, especially in close proximity of long-term sites.

In the end, it will be long-term voluntary conservation on private land that will determine the fate of this species. How well the strategies and decisions that are made this year address the urgent issue of CRP retention and the important issue of allocating resources to the appropriate time and space could determine whether the path that is cleared is one toward range-wide recovery or loss.

Photos by Matt Bain. Map created by Dave Dahlgren, Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism.