It’s an oft-accepted truism that what’s good for agriculture is bad for wildlife. But conservation groups in the intensely farmed Rainwater Basin region are developing practices that benefit both agriculture producers and wildlife by making wetland habitats a productive part of farming operations. The Rainwater Basin Joint Venture calls this concept the Working Landscapes Initiative, and biologists who work in the region think it makes good sense.
The 160-mile-wide Rainwater Basin lies between the Platte River Valley and the valleys of the Republican and Little Blue rivers. Portions of the region have gently rolling hills, but much of the landscape is nearly flat, with elevations that vary by mere feet. Across the region, even in the flattest areas, are thousands of shallow, clay-lined depressions—sometimes called playas—that have collected springtime rains and melting snow annually over millenia. These are the Rainwater Basin wetlands.
Literature about the Rainwater Basin often cites the millions of waterfowl that stop over in the region’s wetlands during spring migration. “Millions” sounds like an impressive number, but it’s hard to really grasp the enormity of the migration without experiencing it—sitting beside a wetland at dusk as clusters of teal jet past. Flocks of dark geese thunder overhead, and waves of mallards and northern pintails roll in, cup their wings and pour onto the wetland like a flood over a waterfall. As the sun sets, the sky fills with white geese, ghostly in the fading light, and the air rings with their high-pitched yelps.
Spring migration includes sights and sounds of haunting beauty. But visit a Rainwater Basin wetland in the summer, and it looks like a different place. Instead of open water, there’s a tangle of reddish weeds punctuated by bare soil, and perhaps a muddy hollow in the center. No ducks are in sight, just a few killdeer, red-winged blackbirds and … a herd of cattle.
The absence of water is due to the nature of Rainwater Basin wetlands. Most are seasonal, meaning they only hold water for a few months or even weeks. The nature of these wetlands also explains the grazing cattle. Their purpose is not just to fatten up but to help control plant growth.
Why do plants need controlling? Isn’t it better to let nature take its course? The answer to those questions lies in the history of the Rainwater Basin. Before European settlement, this landscape of over 11,000 wetlands offered a springtime haven where northbound birds could loaf and eat for several weeks, accumulating energy in the form of body fat for migration. A feast of invertebrate-laden mudflats and seed-rich annual plants awaited the birds each year because frequent disturbances—flood-drought cycles, prairie fires and roving herds of bison and elk—interrupted “succession,” the process in which annual plants are replaced by dense perennial vegetation, shrubs and finally trees.
Even after farms spread across the region, wetlands were a significant feature on the landscape and within farming operations. “Traditional operations used wetlands as pasture,” explains Andy Bishop. “Grazing of those wetlands emulated disturbances by bison and helped keep vegetation and habitats in a condition that waterfowl, cranes and shorebirds prefer.” Bishop is coordinator for the Rainwater Basin Joint Venture, a public-private partnership of nonprofit organizations, government agencies and individuals cooperating to improve the region’s wetland habitat.
In the second half of the 20th century, progress began to chip away at the number of wetlands. Government programs encouraged farmers to drain and cultivate wetland areas, which were viewed as impediments to modern, more efficient agricultural equipment. As more farms specialized in row crops, livestock production dwindled, and even small wetlands that had not been drained were often abandoned to cattails, bulrush and other invasive weeds that made poor habitat.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, recognizing the Rainwater Basin’s importance to wildlife, began to buy wetlands from willing sellers. “The first conservation strategy was simply acquisition,” says Bishop. Agencies fenced off wetlands to “protect” them, and let nature take its course. But nature’s altered course, in the absence of bison, fire and other disturbances, led to weed-choked, tree-choked wetlands. The need for active management was soon apparent.
Today, public land managers employ a variety of management techniques, including prescribed fire, herbicide treatment, disking and grazing. No method is perfect, says Gene Mack, project leader for the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Rainwater Basin Wetland Management District. Prescribed fire is labor intensive, and burning plans are frequently curtailed by the vagaries of springtime weather. Herbicide is effective but leaves dead plant material that must be burned (see disadvantage #1). Disking, which must be repeated two or three times, has a big carbon footprint, plus, says Mack, it disrupts the mud flats that shorebirds require and buries seeds and invertebrates in the overturned soil. “You come back to the one management tool that’s most friendly to the environment,” he says, “and the one that nature used to set succession back.” That tool is grazing.
The service and the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission (NGPC) collect fees from local livestock producers, or “cooperators,” who graze their cattle on federal Waterfowl Production Areas or state Wildlife Management Areas (WMA). Income is not the goal, however, says Rick Souerdyke, NGPC biologist responsible for managing a portion of the region’s WMAs. “The dollars get rolled right back into some kind of management treatment or other improvement on the landscape.” Souerdyke notes that grazing is the one management technique that does not incur expense for the agency and benefits local agriculture.
Over the years, habitat managers at both agencies learned to fine-tune stocking rates (the number of animals per acre) and timing (when to graze relative to the plants’ life cycles), as well as combinations with fire or chemical, to reduce or eliminate nuisance plants and to promote growth of seed-producing annuals. The lesson: “You graze it to the point that it looks like a sorry sight,” says Mack. “And that’s the first step of bringing a Rainwater Basin wetland back.”
Those techniques are bringing back public wetlands, but only about 10 percent of the Rainwater Basin wetlands that still function are on public land. So Rainwater Basin Joint Venture partners also attempt to find sustainable ways to restore, improve and maintain wetlands that are privately owned.
The Natural Resources Conservation Service’s (NRCS) Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) is a voluntary federal program that helps landowners restore their wetlands, and in some cases pays for a protective easement that restricts most land uses. In 2008, the NRCS approved a modification of WRP that allows qualified landowners the option to enroll in the program and retain the right to graze their wetlands, in accord with an approved grazing program. “I don’t think it’s any secret that the Joint Venture played a role in making Reserved Grazing Rights a viable option,” says NRCS’s state wildlife biologist Ritch Nelson. Former Joint Venture coordinator Steve Moran, convinced of the need for a grazing option, took NRCS administrators from Washington on a tour through the Rainwater Basin to see the results being achieved on public land.
Under the new enrollment option, says Nelson, NRCS field staff will develop a grazing program that aims at the landowner’s production objectives, subject to the NRCS mandate to maximize benefits for “target species”: migratory birds and endangered species.
Bishop and other Joint Venture partners are quick to point out that the goal of improving and protecting habitat does not rely solely—or even mostly—on purchasing land for public ownership. Nor does it rely on retiring productive cropland, but instead offers options for flood-prone land that farmers call “marginal.”
The characteristics that make this landscape attractive to birds also make for valuable and productive agricultural land. Many former wetlands were long ago turned to crop fields, and will stay that way. “What we’re targeting are those wetland tracts that have been abandoned, that aren’t productive, and we’d like to get them into a condition so that they can be used for grazing,” says Bishop.
In some circumstances, Joint Venture partners help a landowner restore native wetland and upland vegetation on flood-prone land and then purchase a conservation easement, which proscribes plowing or development but allows grazing and haying. The easement gives the conservation organizations assurance that their investment in restoration will be protected; the landowner may use the proceeds to acquire cropland elsewhere. These projects have been funded by grants from the Nebraska Environmental Trust and the North American Wetlands Conservation Act.
Conservation easements, however, are “a tool, not the rule,” says Bishop. In a new project, funded by the Nebraska Environmental Trust and a Nebraska State Wildlife grant, the Joint Venture will cooperate with Nebraska Cattlemen and the Sand County Association to develop grazing demonstration sites where livestock producers—or potential producers—can see firsthand the results of wetland grazing and talk with fellow producers, researchers and wildlife biologists about grazing on their own properties.
The demonstration sites will provide an opportunity for researchers to study the nutritive value of wetland plants, says Bishop, “to better understand grazing regimes that are both profitable and promote desirable habitat conditions.” As Souerdyke points out, grazing on public lands is typically used “to facilitate another management tool,” usually fire or herbicide, to eliminate unwanted plants, like reed canary grass. Private landowners, on the other hand, may have different management objectives when grazing their own land; research planned for this summer will help producers and Joint Venture partners learn more about how to maintain a balance to keep a healthy plant community in the long term.
By working cooperatively, private landowners, cattle producers and conservation agencies and organizations will explore ways to sustain this region’s heritage for future generations—a heritage that includes agriculture as well as spectacular flights of migrating birds.