Playas dot the landscape throughout the PLJV region. Photo courtesy of Brian Slobe.
In The News
Playa Post - October 2012
IN THIS ISSUE
Each year, the PLJV ConocoPhillips Grant program provides funds for a small number of projects focused on habitat conservation and restoration as well as research and outreach projects that support on-the-ground conservation work. These projects come in all shapes and sizes, but the common theme is creating or preserving bird habitat within the western Great Plains. In the last two years, ConocoPhillips grants have funded such diverse projects as restoring and protecting a warm water slough and the surrounding floodplain marsh in northeastern Colorado, expanding a Farm Bill Biologist program in western Kansas, and helping to start Prescribed Fire Councils in Oklahoma and Kansas. Read the stories below to learn how each of these projects is helping restore and protect bird habitat.
In 2011, Ducks Unlimited received a ConocoPhillips grant to help restore over 196 acres of wetland habitat in Weld County, Colorado, and protect it through a 30-year conservation agreement with the landowner. The property has been owned by the family since 1979 and managed as a wildlife refuge and family duck hunting property for the past 30 years.
"The site is one of the most important waterfowl roosting sites in the central South Platte River watershed," says Matt Reddy, the regional biologist for Ducks Unlimited who is overseeing the restoration project.
When finished, this project will enhance 189 acres of wetland habitat, providing roosting, foraging and staging areas for wintering and migrating waterfowl and other wetland-dependent wildlife. Approximately six acres of warm-water slough channel will also be restored, along with 57 acres of associated floodplain marsh habitat, through the removal of sediment and invasive vegetation, mainly cattails, which can take over a wetland area and use more water. Another 126 acres of wet meadow habitat will be enhanced through the installation of low terraces and water-control structures to better manage the timing, depth and duration of seasonal flooding, thereby optimizing vegetation and habitat conditions for waterfowl.
The ConocoPhillips grant completed the funding needed for Ducks Unlimited to proceed with the project. Other funds were provided by the landowner, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, and a Standard NAWCA grant.
"This is a perfect example of the type of project that leverages partner funding through match," says PLJV Conservation Delivery Leader Christopher Rustay. "Although, this time, the NAWCA funding came first, in other cases a ConocoPhillips grant can be used as non-federal match when applying for a NAWCA grant."
Native Americans used fire to manage rangeland for thousands of years, but a hundred-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. In the past few years, ConocoPhillips grants have been awarded to support the development of Prescribed Fire Councils in Oklahoma and Kansas, which are helping landowners put fire back into the natural cycle of the plains.
"Prescribed fire is a practical, low-cost management tool for the mid- and short-grass prairies, increasing habitat for grassland bird species such as the Lesser Prairie-Chicken and creating better grazing for livestock," says Tim Christian, Coordinator of the Kansas Grazing Lands Coalition and one of the founders of the Kansas Prescribed Fire Council. "It reduces invasive woody species, improves forage quality and quantity, and provides quality grassland bird habitat that is also beneficial for the land user."
"Eastern Red Cedar continues its rapid expansion within the mixed grass prairie ecosystem of the playa lakes region," says Christopher Rustay, PLJV Conservation Delivery Leader. "It dramatically alters rangeland hydrology, reduces plant diversity and annual production, and especially important to us, contributes to declining grassland bird habitat, diversity and populations. Fire is an effective tool in combating the advance of this and other invasive species."
The Kansas Prescribed Fire Council, which is being partly supported through a 2012 ConocoPhillips grant, is now incorporated as a non-profit organization and recently finalized an agreement with the Natural Resources Conservation Service and Kansas Forest Service to house and supply their full-time coordinator who will work toward expanding membership in local prescribed burn associations and increasing the number of acres burned within the state. The organization is also planning to offer affordable liability insurance as well as training and equipment to help landowners conduct prescribed burns.
Similar efforts in Oklahoma were supported through a ConocoPhillips grant in 2011. For more information about how fire is being used to create and restore grassland habitat, listen to our Playa Country radio series on prescribed burning.
Almost all of the land within the Playa Lakes Joint Venture (PLJV) region is privately owned, so most conservation efforts must happen on private lands—often through enrollment in various Farm Bill programs such as the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). But first, landowners and resource managers need to know the available options and how programs can help meet their goals. That’s where a Farm Bill Wildlife Biologist or Private Lands Biologist can be invaluable.
In 2010 and 2011, ConocoPhillips grants helped create three Pheasants Forever Farm Bill Biologist positions in the Red Hills and Lesser Prairie-Chicken range of Kansas through a joint effort between Pheasants Forever, Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism, and other conservation partners. The biologists work with ranchers in the area, providing quality information, education and outreach about the importance of restoring and improving habitats for Lesser Prairie-Chicken, Northern Bobwhite and other species of concern and showing them how enrolling in conservation programs can positively impact their economic well-being.
"Kansas is over 99 percent privately owned so outreach is essential if we are going to increase participation in native prairie restoration and protection practices. The Farm Bill Biologist program provides landowners a ‘one-stop shop’ experience for their habitat and conservation program needs and gets the word out about what conservation programs are available, the deadlines for submitting applications, whether or not a program would be a good fit for an individual, and possible financial incentives," says Steve Riley, Pheasants Forever Farm Bill Biologist Manager. "During the last two years, many producers with expiring CRP acres were contacted personally to discuss options. The biologists encouraged them to keep their land in conservation and provided guidance on how to avoid plowing it up to put into crops—a very tempting scenario with $7 per bushel for corn, $9 for wheat, and $16 for soybeans."
"Education is crucial too and, in many cases, is as much about salesmanship as it is about biology," adds James Krueger, the Assistant State Conservationist from Kansas NRCS. "The biologist makes every attempt to explain why doing a certain conservation practice is beneficial to a given resource and why improving that resource is important to the individual. For example, when discussing prescribed burning it’s not only important to educate about the benefits to the grass such as reduction of excess litter, killing invasive trees and increased protein levels, but also to talk about the benefits to the landowner—things like less acres lost to invasive trees, faster cattle weight gains and improved wildlife habitat for the species of concern."
At the end of 2010, with only one new position added, the biologist’s efforts had contributed to over 8,000 acres of new or improved habitat through the Conservation Reserve and Lesser Prairie-Chicken programs. In addition, these programs and others are being implemented in more wildlife friendly ways including the use of more diverse seeding mixtures even when they are not required by program specifications, improvements in frequency and types of management used, and producers taking on extra practices within the programs.
Learn more about Private Lands Biologists working in the PLJV region.
In September, the Playa Country radio show started a series on playas—what they are, what they do, how to conserve them, and their important role in aquifer recharge. Listen to archived episodes by clicking on a link below.