Playa Post
Volume 9 / Issue 3 / May 2011

NAWCA Funds Help The Nature Conservancy Protect Playas in New Mexico

  James Thorp & Christopher Rogers
  James Thorp & Christopher Rogers
  James Thorp & Christopher Rogers
With the support of a $75,000 North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA) grant, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) has been working to restore and protect playa wetlands in Curry County, New Mexico. To date, TNC has signed land management agreements protecting two playas—a total of 226 acres with 45.8 acres of wetlands—and is working on a third.

"These projects were especially important because recently developed arroyos were causing sediment to be dumped directly into the basins of these grassland playas," says Christopher Rustay, PLJV Conservation Delivery Leader. "As part of the restoration activities, TNC and various partners worked with the Natural Resources Conservation Service to stop these arroyos from putting sediment directly into the playa basins."

For the past several years, TNC has been working with the New Mexico Prairie Partners—comprised of numerous state and federal agencies, NGOs and private landowners—to provide playa education and actively conserve playas in eastern New Mexico. Unlike other areas of the Southern Great Plains, landowners with playas in this area cannot currently take advantage of Conservation Reserve Programs such as CP23A or the Wetland Reserve Program because counties are already at capped levels.

In 2008, The Nature Conservancy was awarded a $75,000 small NAWCA grant to restore and protect playas from overgrazing and over-sedimentation, a continuation of the playa conservation work of the New Mexico Central Curry Playa Protection Program, which received $400,000 to restore and manage ten playas in 2007. Both programs focus on the protection of sensitive playas by enrolling interested landowners in 10-year restricted-use land management and stewardship agreements. During that time, the landowners agree to managed grazing practices, selected restoration activities and no land conversion on the protected acreage.

"Almost all playas in New Mexico are on private land and many of them have been compromised through past agricultural practices, siting of rural roads, and urban development," says Tish McDaniel, TNC’s Southern Shortgrass Prairie Project Coordinator. "Active habitat management—such as limited grazing, planting of grass buffers, remediating a previously pitted area, or eliminating farming—is essential for sustaining waterfowl, shorebirds, waterbirds and many grassland bird species dependent on these important wetlands."

The protection and restoration of playas in New Mexico is helping to sustain populations of many wildlife and associated playa plant species. Limited grazing creates habitat, food, and cover for dabbling ducks, migrant shorebirds, water-dependent landbirds and breeding Long-billed Curlew. It also allows grass species to recover and provide a functioning buffer to trap sediment and pollutants.  

Four playas were initially selected for the TNC project, with all four landowners interested in participating. "To have landowners excited and willing to enroll their lands in playa protection for ten years is a major milestone here," says McDaniel. "NAWCA dollars have been critical to maintaining the interest and momentum developed by TNC and the New Mexico Prairie Partners."

NAWCA grants provide federal funding in the form of matching grants for projects that support long-term wetlands acquisition, restoration, and/or enhancement that benefits migratory birds in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. There are two programs: Standard Grants and Small Grants. Standard Grants offer up to $1 million per project but require extensive preparation. Small Grants, with up to $75,000 available per project, have a much simpler application form. If you are interested in the Small NAWCA program, download PLJV’s Small NAWCA Check List. If you have questions about developing a proposal, please contact Christopher Rustay, PLJV Conservation Delivery Leader. The application deadline is in late October.

Aquatic Invertebrate Research Will Provide a Monitoring Tool for Assessing Playa Health

James Thorp & Christopher Rogers  
James Thorp & Christopher Rogers  
A new study is underway that will create a quantitative tool for measuring the environmental effects and stressors on playas in the Great Plains and will develop a strategic long-term plan for monitoring aquatic invertebrate community structure and composition in these wetlands. Senior Scientist James Thorp and Invertebrate Zoologist Christopher Rogers, from the University of Kansas, are beginning the three-year project by collecting macroinvertebrate samples from playas in eastern Colorado.

"To gain protection for these ecologically critical wetlands, we need to learn much more about their ecosystem functioning," says Professor James Thorp. "Almost all ecological theories for aquatic systems are based on permanent ecosystems. This study will help us understand how the ephemeral nature of playas affects the processes that control community structure and ecosystem functioning, such as food web complexity."

"Analyzing aquatic invertebrate communities is a common practice in other wetlands and has become the standard in many states for mitigation and restoration projects," says Anne Bartuszevige, PLJV Conservation Science Director, "but it has never been developed for playas in the Great Plains. We will be able to use this tool for many different things—such as assessing how restoration efforts are progressing and understanding how sediment impacts wetland functions and food availability for migrating birds. It will be very useful for agencies that want to evaluate their wetland restoration projects by providing a standardized way of assessing playa health."

Aquatic invertebrates are animals—such as worms, snails, crayfish and insects—that live in water or moist environments and do not have a spine. They are standard organisms for monitoring perennial habitats but are usually ignored in calm, fresh water systems. Nonetheless, this type of monitoring program is important for managing and assessing effects on wetlands. Aquatic invertebrates are good indicators of a wetland’s health because, unlike birds and amphibians, they have limited mobility and live out their lives in a single wetland habitat. They also provide greater species diversity; it has been estimated that several hundred macroinvertebrate species live in playa systems and new species are still being discovered. In addition, because invertebrates have a much shorter lifecycle, going through four to five generations in a few months, they are far more sensitive to small disturbances in the system.

Although there are aspects of the Great Plains playas that are unique, according to Christopher Rogers, there are many aspects that are very much the same. He has worked with temporary wetlands and invertebrates in Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, Australia, Switzerland, France, Britain and other countries around the world; discovered and described 30 new taxa; and developed invertebrate monitoring methods for temporary pool habitats in the California Central Valley and Chile.

"This has been my passion since I did my first hatching experiments with fairy shrimp when I was 11 years old," says Rogers. "It is amazing to see what is going on in the individual lives of these critters as they are scooting around the pools and trying to blast through their lifecycle as quickly as possible—before everything vanishes on them. With this data, we can develop a tool that will allow habitat managers to quantitatively analyze the health and functionality of playas using the invertebrate community as a surrogate."

"This is a very exciting and important project," says Bartuszevige. "Playas are one of the priority habitats within the PLJV region and play an important role for waterfowl and other water-related birds. This study will provide important baseline data and give us a way to measure our success in conserving these wetlands. In addition, we will be able to assess how ecosystem stressors like sedimentation and climate change impact playas."

DST Targets Location of Kansas Lesser Prairie-Chicken SAFE Acres

In Hallmarks of a Successful Decision Support System, we began talking about Decision Support Systems (DSS) and how they can assist in strategic habitat conservation. This article focuses on a specific Decision Support Tool (DST) and shows how it was developed.

Kansas SAFE TargetsIn 2010, Playa Lakes Joint Venture (PLJV) worked with various partners to develop a proposal for a new Kansas State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE) practice that advocated for 30,000 Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres to be enrolled in specified target areas to benefit the Lesser Prairie-Chicken (LEPC). The US Department of Agriculture approved the request in November.

The additional SAFE acres are located in areas within the LEPC range where new or re-enrolled CRP acres will provide the most benefit for the birds by expanding large patches of native habitat. To define the target areas, a Geographic Information System (GIS) was used to evaluate land against several criteria related to LEPC habitat needs including proximity to core LEPC habitat patches, size of nearest LEPC habitat patch, and percent of CRP expiring in areas adjacent to habitat patches. Generally speaking, the target areas represent areas within 2 miles of a large habitat patch (500 - 30,000 hectares or 1,235 - 74,130 acres) where a high percent (>=5%) of CRP was set to expire in 2010 and 2011.

Overview of DST Development

PURPOSE: This DST was developed to increase LEPC habitat through enrollments of cropland or CRP into a new Kansas Lesser Prairie-Chicken SAFE practice by strategically targeting areas where enrollments will have the greatest impact.

TARGET AUDIENCE / END-USER: The end-users of this tool are USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) and Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) staff, specifically those who review landowner applications for the associated 30,000-acre SAFE program. The maps and data layers produced by this tool help identify qualifying applicants.

STAKEHOLDER PARTICIPATION: The PLJV worked closely with FSA and NRCS cooperators from Washington, D.C., as well as the state and local USDA offices, to obtain essential CRP data. Development of the tool involved a number of additional partners concerned with LEPC conservation including Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, Pheasants Forever, The Nature Conservancy, Kansas Wildlife Federation, Audubon of Kansas, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

DATA USED: The DST required spatial CRP and landcover data to conduct spatial targeting. Both data sets were used to run LEPC habitat models to determine areas that are likely important for Lesser Prairie-Chickens and areas experiencing relatively high rates of CRP expirations. The PLJV provided the landcover data set and ran the LEPC habitat models. The FSA provided CRP data via the Common Land Unit (CLU) layer that delineates all agriculture field boundaries and attributes in landcover/use (e.g., cropland, rangeland, water). All CRP data is protected information that required data-sharing agreements between FSA, NRCS, and PLJV including restrictions on data use.

DATA QUALITY: The accuracy of the data sets is unknown. The landcover layer is based on imagery from around 2000, making it somewhat out-dated; however, the most dynamic landcover classes (cropland and land in the CRP) are represented in the CLU layer which is updated annually making this layer much more current. The habitat patches identified through the LEPC habitat models are confirmed to include about 90 percent of all known lek sites in Kansas so partners were comfortable using it for targeting.

PEER REVIEW: Before the DST could be used to review SAFE applications, all aspects of this effort were subject to review by both FSA and NRCS. All partners involved in the development of the DST also gave the product final review and approval before submitting it to USDA. It was important to get feedback not only from LEPC biologists but also from partners familiar with CRP policy and administration.

COMMUNICATION: As part of the development team, USDA NRCS and FSA staff were able to quickly and effectively communicate the purpose and delivery of the tool to their appropriate staff, namely field office personnel who review SAFE applications. Additionally, PLJV and USDA promoted the SAFE program to landowners via news articles.

MEASURING SUCCESS: The success of the tool is being measured by the number of SAFE acres enrolled. Currently, more than 21,000 of the 30,000 acres are enrolled in the LEPC SAFE or pending approval and more are expected.

For more information about this DST, contact GIS Director Megan McLachlan or Policy Director Barth Crouch.

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