Nebraska's Unique Habitats: The Rainwater Basin

Restored wetland in the Rainwater Basin. (Photo by Ariana Brocious, NET News)
Jerry Stevens's restored wetland field, with pivot in the distance. (Photo by Ariana Brocious, NET News)
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July 19, 2017 - 6:45am

This week, NET News is taking a closer look at some of the unique and diverse habitats of Nebraska. Today, we travel to the southeastern part of the state.

You’ve probably been to the Rainwater Basin—you just might not know it. The region stretches across parts of 19 counties in southeast and southcentral Nebraska, between the Platte and Republican rivers.

Before farmers started planting acres of corn and soybeans, “you would have had a sea of mixed grass prairie with playa wetlands, which are shallow ephemeral wetlands scattered across this region. Historically, there were 11,000 playa wetlands, covering over 200,000 acres,” said Andy Bishop, coordinator with the Rainwater Basin Joint Venture—a partnership of many different groups and agencies working to conserve this wetland habitat, largely because of its incredible importance for migrating birds.

The Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network designated the Rainwater Basin as a landscape of hemispheric importance in 2008.

“It's estimated that we have 8.6 million waterfowl use this region during spring migration, along with 500,000 shore birds, including buff-breasted sandpipers, Baird's sandpipers, lesser and greater yellowlegs, phalaropes,” Bishop said.

As a companion to this story, our 360-production team captured immersive video and audio to give you a taste of these habitats. You can view this video on your smartphone or on your desktop. For desktop viewing, we recommend the latest version of the Chrome browser for the best experience (Safari and older versions of Internet Explorer do not support 360 video at this time). And we also recommend you view with headphones to get the full effect of the 360 audio. 

Federally endangered whooping cranes stop over, too. And all that bird use is in spite of the fact that row crop agriculture has dramatically changed the landscape, and the habitat available.

“90 percent of the wetland basins are gone, and 80 percent of the wetland acres are gone off the landscape,” Bishop said.

Two species that frequent the Rainwater Basin: (from top) the federally-endangered whooping crane and the buff-breasted sandpiper. The Nebraska Natural Legacy project seeks to "to refine and implement a blueprint for conserving Nebraska’s flora, fauna and natural habitats through the proactive, voluntary conservation actions of partners, communities and individuals."

(Photos courtesy NEBRASKAland Magazine/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission)

The wetlands that remain sit between, or sometimes inside, fields, and range in size from a half an acre to 4,000 acres. We visit one in Fillmore County, where we meet Brad Krohn with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which owns and manages numerous properties in the area.

“The main goal is to restore landscape ecological function for these wetland communities. Plants, fauna and flora that once existed throughout the Rainwater Basin,” Krohn said. Like other area conservation groups, his agency works to improve the habitat for migrating birds through grazing, prescribed fire and removal of invasive plants.

“We like to provide a buffer against climate change by providing migration habitats for millions of migratory birds, which is our strong point here as we are in the central flyway,” Krohn said.  

The wetlands also clean water and recharge the aquifer. And, Krohn said their work helps support and protect the basin’s threatened and endangered species and make it less likely other species will be listed in the future.

“Like anybody else, we'd rather not see species go on there. It's easier for us to prevent that,” he said.

Healthy playa wetlands are shallow. They’re not wet year-round, only when they collect rain or snowmelt in their clay-heavy soils. But as this landscape was put into agriculture, many wetlands were drained or converted into deep pits.

“Early on they used to use these pits for irrigation purposes. They would concentrate the water from the watershed, so all the water would flow down into this pit and then they would use that to irrigate their fields,” said John Denton of Ducks Unlimited. “Well now we have center pivot agriculture. So these pits are still on the landscape.”

Denton said those pits aren’t good habitat for waterfowl and shorebirds, but it costs farmers money to fill them in. So Ducks Unlimited buys properties from willing sellers, restores them, and then sells the wetland portion to the Fish and Wildlife Service and sells the remaining land back to farmers.

A map of the Rainwater Basin, courtesy of the Rainwater Basin Joint Venture. To learn more about the region, visit their website.

“We're taking properties that really don't do well the growing crops and putting them back into wetlands, while also keeping things in production that need to be in production in the uplands,” he said.

­Just a few miles down the road, farmer Jerry Stevens knows all about trying to farm on wetland acres. He points to a spot in his field.

“My dad tried to develop it, he had a couple of big catch pits in there to pump it back through the pivot, but that never really worked very well. Always too much rain, too much water at one time. You get down out in the center of it, it's really marshy, it would take forever to dry that out anyway,” Stevens said.

Working with the Rainwater Basin Joint Venture, Stevens enrolled his field in a conservation easement program that helped pay him to restore the wetland and still let him run a pivot on it. But he still had some concerns.

“Thinking about it over time, I thought if my pivot breaks down going through the water, how am I ever going to repair it?” Stevens said. So the Rainwater Basin Joint Venture helped pay for two used pivots, moving them to the field corners to maintain Stevens’ irrigated acres.

“I think most farmers are conservationists. So many of our wetlands have been torn up and drained, so I think it’s good, I think we need these kind of wetlands around,” Steven said.

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Other landowners are motivated to restore wetlands on their land to support hunting habitat: for ducks and geese, pheasants, quail, and deer. And not all these areas are private: the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission manages public access areas for hunting, bird watching and recreation.

Some farmers say the cost-share programs make sense from a business standpoint. Others say there need to be more financial incentives to make it worthwhile.

Brian Shaw is a cattle rancher and seed farmer. He said his family saw an opportunity to grow their herd and keep their cows close to home by enrolling land in wetland programs. 

“Right now we're looking at a parcel of ground that we purchased from Ducks Unlimited that has a perpetual easement on it, that it's going to stay wetlands and grasslands. We're not able to plant corn or soy beans on this piece of ground,” Shaw said.

They’ve restored the wetland, but also drilled a well, put in cross fencing and a pivot for water tanks. Shaw says while it’s not typical pasture, their fall calving cows make good use of it.

“Once they've learned what to eat, it's amazing how well they do out there. We found that our condition scores normally go up out on wetlands, which is a good thing,” Shaw said.

Rainwater Basin Joint Venture Coordinator Andy Bishop said when they first recognized the value of these wetlands, they sought to protect them.

“But we've realized that we can't just protect and restore the wetlands. We've got to manage these wetlands, so really working to try to integrate wetlands back in as part of the landscape,” Bishop said.

Working with landowners and many different conservation partners, Bishop said, has allowed them to restore and conserve the valuable habitat migrating birds depend on in a working agricultural landscape.

This story is part of an in-depth report looking at unique habitats of Nebraska, as part of the forthcoming documentary “RARE: Creatures of the Photo Ark,” which follows renowned Nebraska photographer Joel Sartore’s quest to photograph 12,000 species and create worldwide awareness about threats facing animals in Africa, Asia, Europe, North America and Oceania.



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