Excerpts from Nebraska's Natural Legacy Project / Comprehensive Wildlife Conservation Strategy (CWCS) applicable to Private Landowners.
QUICK LINKS TO SECTIONS OF THIS DOCUMENT:
- Introduction and Purpose
- Mission Statement
- Guiding Principles
- Purpose and Need
- Conservation Funding
- CWCS Required Elements
- Value of a CWCS
- Conservation Actions
- Increase Collaboration and Communication
- Increase Environmental Education
- Improve Conservation Programs and Incentives
- Promote Management Compatible with Conservation
- Altered Fire Regime
- Altered Grazing Regime
- Altered Hydrologic Regime
- Introduction of Invasive Species and Pathogens
- Habitat Fragmentation
- Focus Conservation
- Expand the Network of Public and Private Conservation Lands
- Increase Participation in Nature-based Recreation
INTRODUCTION AND PURPOSE
The mission of Nebraska’s Natural Legacy Project is to develop and implement a blueprint for conserving Nebraska’s flora, fauna and natural habitats through the proactive, voluntary conservation actions of partners, communities and individuals.
To facilitate the development and implementation of a comprehensive wildlife conservation plan for Nebraska, the following guiding principles were developed by the Partnership Team.
Through the process of development, Nebraska’s Natural Legacy Project shall…
- be open, transparent and inclusive.
- be built on a foundation of sound economic and scientific principles.
- keep the public informed and involved.
The blueprint produced by Nebraska’s Natural Legacy Project shall…
- recognize private landowner participation is critical to the success of NNLP.
- recognize and respect property rights and address property issues.
- have opportunities for conservation actions and partnerships across the state.
- ensure all participating with NNLP are respected and treated fairly.
- encourage involvement through consistent and thorough information exchange.
- provide opportunities for developing conservation partnerships regardless of ownership.
Conservation actions as a result of Nebraska’s Natural Legacy Project shall…
- be voluntary and incentive based.
- minimize the use of land acquisition as the primary tool for habitat conservation and instead principally use actions directed toward conservation on private lands.
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Purpose and Need
Nebraska’s rich biological diversity is composed of thousands of plant and animal species interacting with each other and the environment. The flora and fauna of the state, along with natural habitats they occupy, form Nebraska’s natural heritage – a legacy that should be treasured just as we do our cultural heritage. Unfortunately, populations of many once common species have declined due to a variety of stresses including habitat loss, habitat degradation, diseases, and competition and predation from invasive exotic species. While conservation actions in the past have had notable successes, they have not been sufficient to stem the tide of species decline. There is a need for a comprehensive, systematic and proactive approach to conserving the full array of Nebraska’s biological diversity.
The goals of the Natural Legacy Project are to:
- Reverse the decline of at-risk species (and avoid the need for state or federal listing as threatened or endangered)
- Recover currently listed species and allow for their de-listing
- Keep common species common
Almost all existing natural habitat in Nebraska, and the biological diversity it supports, resides on lands under private ownership. All Nebraskan’s benefit from the strong conservation tradition and sound stewardship of private landowners. The Nebraska Natural Legacy Project seeks to continue this tradition while at the same time creating new opportunities for collaboration between farmers, ranchers, communities, private and governmental organizations and others for conserving Nebraska’s biological diversity, our natural heritage. As stewards for the next generation, it is our responsibility to ensure the treasures that were handed to us by nature and our predecessors are still here for future generations of Nebraskans to enjoy.
For more than fifty years, state fish and wildlife agencies have benefited from funds provided by the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act (Pittman-Robertson), the Federal Aid in Sport Fisheries Restoration Act (Dingell-Johnson, Wallop-Breaux). These monies are collected through a federal excise tax on hunting and fishing equipment. In conjunction with revenues collected through the sale of hunting and fishing licenses and habitat stamps, these funds have provided consistent support for the conservation and management of game fish and wildlife species. These monies have been critical to the establishment of the Game and Parks Commission’s long-term conservation planning and have led to significant results in Nebraska. Species such as white-tailed deer, pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep, elk, Canada geese, turkey and walleye, which were in low numbers or extirpated from the state in the early 1900s, have shown dramatic rebounds.
In Nebraska, game species make up about 1% of the estimated 30,000 species. While many of the state’s nongame species have received substantial benefits from habitat conservation and restoration directed at game species, their needs have not been fully met. Conservation efforts for these species have in large part been opportunistic and crisis-driven, limited by a lack of funding and by a lack of strategic approaches to species and habitat conservation. Today, with more than 1,200 species in the U.S. listed on the Federal Endangered and Threatened species list, and many more species in decline, the need has never been greater for a complimentary source of funding to support the conservation, protection, and restoration of the full array of species, especially those not covered under traditional funding strategies. It is time to take measures that aid in the recovery of declining species and ensure that common species remain common.
A coalition including more than 3,000 organizations representing wildlife enthusiasts such as birdwatchers hunters, anglers, and others was organized in the mid 1990’s and is one of the largest grassroots coalitions of its kind in the nation’s history. This coalition, known as Teaming with Wildlife, was created in part to demonstrate support for federal wildlife conservation funding that can be used to address the needs of declining fish and wildlife. In response to the Teaming with Wildlife Coalition, Congress established the Wildlife Conservation and Restoration program and the State Wildlife Grants Programs in 2001.
As a requirement for receiving funding through these two new programs, Congress required each state to develop a “Comprehensive Wildlife Conservation Strategy” (CWCS). Nebraska’s comprehensive wildlife conservation strategy is called the “Nebraska Natural Legacy Project”. The CWCS developed in Nebraska and in every other state will provide an essential foundation for the future of wildlife conservation and a stimulus to engage the States, federal agencies, and other conservation partners to strategically think about their individual and coordinated roles in prioritizing and delivering conservation work. The Natural Legacy Project is designed to be a blueprint for conservation that all organizations can use in Nebraska, not simply a plan for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.
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Eight Required Elements of the Comprehensive Wildlife Conservation Strategy
Congress identified eight required elements to be addressed in each state’s Comprehensive Wildlife Conservation Strategy. Congress also directed that the strategies must identify and be focused on the “species in greatest need of conservation,” yet address the “full array of wildlife” and wildlife-related issues. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies have developed additional guidance on information needed to meet the eight elements (see Appendix 2). The strategies must provide and make use of these eight elements:
- Information on the distribution and abundance of species of wildlife, including low and declining populations, as the state fish and wildlife agency deems appropriate, that are indicative of the diversity and health of the state’s wildlife; and,
- Descriptions of locations and relative condition of key habitats and community types essential to conservation of species identified in (1); and,
- Descriptions of problems which may adversely affect species identified in (1) or their habitats, and priority research and survey efforts needed to identify factors which may assist in restoration and improved conservation of these species and habitats; and,
- Descriptions of conservation actions proposed to conserve the identified species and habitats and priorities for implementing such actions; and,
- Proposed plans for monitoring species identified in (1) and their habitats, for monitoring the effectiveness of the conservation actions proposed in (4), and for adapting these conservation actions to respond appropriately to new information or changing conditions; and,
- Descriptions of procedures to review the strategy at intervals not to exceed 10 years; and,
- Plans for coordinating the development, implementation, review, and revision of the plan with federal, state, and local agencies and Indian tribes that manage significant land and water areas within the state or administer programs that significantly affect the conservation of identified species and habitats.
- Congress also affirmed through this legislation that broad public participation is an essential element of developing and implementing these plans.
To address both “species in greatest need of conservation,” and the “full array of wildlife”, the Natural Legacy Project used a two-pronged approach – focusing on habitats and selected individual species. The Project has identified as a priority the conservation of multiple examples of each of the ecological communities (habitat types) in the state. This approach will conserve the vast majority of species – keeping common species common. For those species missed by this approach, typically the rare and imperiled species, attention was focused on individual at-risk species. To identify locations of key habitats, information on known locations of ecological communities and at-risk species was used to identify a series of Biologically Unique Landscapes. These landscapes offer some of the best opportunities to conserve the full array of biological diversity (see Chapter 3 for explanation of methods used), though conservation in the state will not be limited solely to these landscapes. In addition to identifying problems or stresses affecting species and their habitats, we also identified a number of barriers that are impeding effective conservation. We have identified a set of overarching conservation strategies and actions to address the stresses and barriers that can be applied anywhere in the state (Chapter 4), as well as site-specific actions for each of the Biologically Unique Landscapes (Chapters 5-8).
Value of a Comprehensive Wildlife Conservation Strategy to Nebraska
The nationwide completion of Comprehensive Wildlife Conservation Strategies is being viewed as a watershed event in the history of conservation in the United States.
Conservation has traditionally taken a species-by-species approach and focused on a limited number of species. Previous conservation efforts aimed at non-game species have often focused on those species that were on the brink of extinction, however, these “emergency room” efforts at recovery are expensive and not always successful. A new proactive approach is needed that addresses the full array of wildlife - that keeps common species common while also preventing our at-risk species from declining to the point of threatened or endangered status.
State Wildlife Grant (SWG) funding has been instrumental in helping the state undertake this comprehensive planning process, the Nebraska Natural Legacy Project. The development process itself has engaged new partners, strengthened existing partnerships, and significantly raised awareness about the state’s biological diversity. The resulting blueprint is designed to provide guidance and strategic focus to agencies, organizations, communities and individuals interested in implementing conservation.
The Wildlife Conservation and Restoration Program and State Wildlife Grants Programs have provided new funding opportunities for conservation organizations in Nebraska. The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission has made a large share of these funds available to conservation organizations and universities through a competitive grants program. From 2001 – 2004 the Commission awarded over $2 million in grants to dozens of conservation partners (see Appendix 3). Projects currently underway and already completed have increased our knowledge about the species and habitats found in Nebraska and contributed towards their conservation. Continuation of a competitive grants program will be integral to implementation of the Natural Legacy Project.
State Wildlife Grant funding is a turning point in wildlife conservation funding, but it cannot possibly meet all the needs of Nebraska’s wildlife species. The actions outlined in this document suggest ways to use existing monetary resources efficiently, but new funding sources and new partnerships must also be explored. The responsibility for implementation of this plan rests with all Nebraskans.
One of the greatest strengths of the Natural Legacy Project has been the diverse collaboration that has resulted from this planning process. Ecoregion teams will be formed with representatives of a variety of stakeholders to assist with development of operational plans that will be critical to implementation of the plan.
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CONSERVATION ACTIONS TO ADDRESS BARRIERS TO CONSERVATION AND STRESSES AFFECTING SPECIES AND HABITATS
During the planning phase of the Nebraska Natural Legacy Project, conservation practitioners and the public were asked to help identify the barriers that that limit or preclude conservation, key stresses to species and habitats, and actions needed to overcome barriers and stresses to species and habitats. Barriers, stresses and actions were identified by
- the public at sixteen public input meetings and through the Nebraska Annual Social Indicators Survey (NASIS),
- by conservation practitioners who participated in a two-day workshop and at six regional meetings
- by species experts who attended a series of workshops and
- from members of the public and conservation practitioners who provided comments during the review of the plan. Existing conservation plans were also reviewed and appropriate stresses, barriers and actions were incorporated into this plan.
Proposed conservation actions were run through a filter of guiding principles developed by the Natural Legacy Partnership Team to ensure they were biologically sound, economically feasible and sensitive to private landowner needs. Although most input was gather on an ecoregional basis and specific barriers, stresses and conservation actions have differing levels of importance in each of Nebraska’s four ecoregions, most have statewide relevance so they were incorporated into a single chapter to reduce redundancy. Key barriers, stresses and actions in each ecoregion and biologically unique landscape are identified in ecoregion chapters.
The Natural Legacy Project has focused on voluntary, incentive based approaches to conservation. It did not evaluate existing state or federal regulatory programs that affect biological diversity (e.g. water or air quality regulatory programs or at-risk species protection laws). This strategy therefore does not provide recommendations for changes to exiting regulatory programs or the need for additional such programs.
Since 97% of the state is in private ownership (principally farms and ranches), conservation of the state’s flora and fauna will be largely dependent upon the support and participation by private landowners. Extensive input by the public helped ensure proposed conservation actions are reasonable and practical. Although actions have not been prioritized, operational planning will begin in Fall 2005 to establish priorities, describe more specific details that will guide implementation, and to develop a timeline. Input from private landowners and conservation practitioners will be sought throughout implementation.
The stresses and actions identified in the following section along with the at-risk species, communities, and priority landscapes identified in Chapters 5-8 comprise the nucleus of the conservation blueprint. Implementation of the conservation actions on a statewide level will help ensure that opportunities for conservation of biological diversity exist in every corner of the state.
Actions Needed to Overcome Barriers and Threats
- Increase collaboration and communication
- Increase environmental education
- Improve conservation programs and incentives
- Promote management that is more compatible with conserving biological diversity
- Focus conservation on the best opportunities
- Expand the network of public and private conservation lands
- Increase participation in nature-based recreation
Increase collaboration and communication
No single government agency or private organization has the authority, financial resources, or staff to assume the entire responsibility for conserving Nebraska’s biological diversity. Implementation of a comprehensive wildlife conservation strategy will require the cooperative efforts of a wide range of governmental entities, private organizations and citizens. Partnerships and cooperative arrangements can be used to promote collaboration and communication. This approach should help reduce duplication, increase information sharing, establish trust, and promote more efficient allocation of resources to conservation priorities.
In the past, a lack of communication and collaboration between resource professionals and agricultural producers has created tension and conflict regarding fish and wildlife conservation. Many of these conflicts have arisen from issues related to endangered species, water management, and a perceived lack of respect for private property rights. As a result, trust has eroded and collaboration on a broader range of conservation issues has been impeded. Information about conservation opportunities to landowners is often insufficient or unclear. Many individuals who are interested in conservation programs may not be aware of conservation opportunities or know whom to contact.
Communication amongst conservation practitioners is often inadequate. Without a consistent exchange of information and opportunities to collaborate, conservation practitioners run the risk of being uninformed about programs and species needs. Improved communication and collaboration between agencies and conservation practitioners can lead to greater efficiency and result in new and innovative solutions to conservation problems.
Conservation Actions needed to advance collaboration and communication
- Develop new and support existing locally-based conservation partnerships in each of Nebraska’s ecoregions that includes a diversity of stakeholders (e.g. farmers, ranchers, community leaders, public and private conservation organizations, etc.) and is charged with conserving biological diversity. When possible, new partnerships should be modeled after existing successful partnerships (e.g. Sandhills Taskforce, Rainwater Basin Joint Venture).
- Develop new and support existing regional forums that include diverse representation from landowners, agencies, private organizations and others that facilitates the exchange of ideas, promotes networking, and engages in problem-solving to address issues related to endangered species management, public lands ownership and management, landowner confidentiality, private property rights, etc. Address concerns by conducting seminars, workshops, and social functions that promote communication, cooperation and the exchange of ideas.
- Develop and widely distribute clear and concise publications about conservation programs, stresses to biological diversity, and actions needed to conserve biological diversity. Make it widely available in printed and electronic formats.
- Regularly inform the public of proposed initiatives, management actions, policy changes, and conservation successes and failures through public meetings, workshops, field trips, one-on-one meetings, seminars, presentations at stakeholder meetings, and other effective venues.
- Develop and implement recognition and appreciation programs to acknowledge the efforts of farmers, ranchers, acreage owners, organizations, community leaders, and others who demonstrate meritorious achievement in the conservation of biological diversity.
- Design and conduct training programs that instruct conservation practitioners and others in effective public participation techniques.
- Strive for shared responsibility between landowners, agencies, organizations, and communities when implementing the Nebraska Natural Legacy Project.
- Institute a citizen-science and education initiative that draws on volunteers of all ages to assist with monitoring, research, stewardship, and education of natural habitats and wildlife. Accomplish this by developing new (e.g. Master Naturalist Program) and supporting existing programs (e.g. Adopt-A-Stream, Project FeederWatch).
- Improve existing and establish new communication channels among conservation practitioners and their agencies/organization to improve coordination, reduce conflicting and confusing messages conveyed to the public, and to develop a shared vision for the conservation of biological diversity.
- Seek opportunities to facilitate understanding and collaboration between the rural and urban publics.
- Establish networks between public land managers and neighboring private landowners to improve communication, increase respect, and build trust.
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Increase environmental education
Education is an essential part of conservation. For the Nebraska Natural Legacy Project to succeed, more Nebraskan’s need to be made aware of and become knowledgeable about the state’s rich biological diversity and the stresses that threaten their existence. An environmentally literate citizenry is critically important to sustaining the natural and built environments. When presented in an unbiased and scientifically accurate manner, environmental education (EE) is an essential tool that empowers learners of all ages to rise to the challenge of making sound decisions.
Nebraska’s natural environment provides numerous opportunities for student learning. Most children have an innate interest in the natural world, yet time constraints, transportation issues, inadequate teacher training, lack of materials, curriculum requirements, and other factors are barriers to teachers wishing to deliver environmental education. The interdisciplinary nature of environmental education makes it appropriate for many subject areas, yet EE is mainly used in science disciplines. Although the 2003 Nebraska Conservation and Environment Literacy Survey indicated that 98% of Nebraskans support the teaching of environmental education in classrooms, most school districts provide only token support.
The motto “Nebraska-The Good Life” underscores the importance of a healthy and sustainable environment to the well-being of the state’s residents. The increasing urbanization of Nebraska, reliance on technology, and competing interests for unscheduled time is changing people’s level of attachment and perceived reliance on the environment. It’s critically important that both urban and rural Nebraskans maintain or establish a sense of place whereby they value, understand and appreciate the local environment in which they live. Achieving a sense of place is contingent upon Nebraskans of all ages having easy access to materials, trained educators, and opportunities to be immersed in the natural environment.
An environmentally literate citizenry has large social, ecological, and economic implications. The important role of education in furthering biological diversity conservation is becoming better understood and more widely accepted. According to the 2004 NASIS survey, 94% of Nebraskans feel that increasing education programs is very or moderately important to reverse the decline of “at-risk” species. Putting more resources into education can produce long-term societal benefits and help ensure continued and expanded support for the actions necessary to conserve biological diversity.
Conservation actions needed to increase environmental education
- Assess the need for environmental education resources across the state including the number of qualified educators, education centers, materials, etc. throughout the state.
- Increase educational capacity for biological diversity education by providing increased support to organizations and agencies that deliver environmental education providing quality training to formal and nonformal educators.
- Support existing and develop new programs/partnerships/materials to improve learning opportunities that will increase awareness, knowledge, appreciation, and shared responsibility of Nebraska’s biological diversity at all age levels (pre-school, students, adults). Examples include but are not limited to Nebraska-specific curricula, activity guides, workshops/programs, educational trunks, portable classroom/laboratory, field trips, distance learning opportunities, websites, videos, posters, etc.
- In collaboration with the state Department of Education, seek to address important issues related to biological diversity in state education content standards.
- Increase opportunities for students and adults to experience and learn about Nebraska’s natural communities by improving access to and organizing events such as tours, workdays, environmental festivals, etc. oriented around these natural communities.
- Develop a diverse taskforce with ecoregional representation that can address obstacles related to increasing Nebraskan’s awareness, knowledge, and commitment to conserve biological diversity. Members should include leaders from private and public conservation groups, educational institutions, formal and nonformal educators, community leaders, private landowners and others.
- Support existing and start new programs that promote the development of replica natural communities (e.g. prairies, wetlands, native woodlands, etc.) at schools, parks, government offices, housing developments, businesses, etc. that can be used by the public to learn about biological diversity.
- Raise awareness about the role of farming, ranching and home ownership in biological diversity conservation.
- Develop and conduct workshops for landowners, community leaders, conservation practitioners and others on topics such as prairie conservation, at-risk species management, forest management, aquatic resources, etc.
- Develop demonstration sites that illustrate management techniques (e.g. wetland restoration, prescribed burning, planned grazing, forest management, etc.) that can be used to educate conservation practitioners, private landowners, and the public about management alternatives.
- Use multiple media outlets (e.g. television/radio, print advertisements, internet, billboards, public displays, etc.) to increase awareness and support for Nebraska’s biological diversity and inform the public of progress made to conserve species and habitats.
Improve conservation programs and incentives
Most conservation practitioners and many private landowners can attest to the large number and complexity of conservation programs. Landowners with an interest in conservation often have to wade through a sea of paperwork and long lists of options in order to enroll in programs or initiatives. It’s often difficult for conservation practitioners to keep abreast of the many program offerings and it can be overwhelming for landowners who are interested in conservation but also want to make the best business decision. Although varying organizational missions and policies will likely always necessitate that there be multiple programs, better collaboration on the part of agencies implementing existing or developing new programs is needed to make conservation more “landowner-friendly:”
The demand for technical and financial incentives by landowners to do conservation work is growing and is outpacing our ability to meet demand. Current resources need to be increased or made more efficient to meet the growing demand for landowner assistance. Some landowners simply need technical guidance provided from a best management practice guide and others need direct assistance through one-on-one consultation by a wildlife biologist. Many landowners also need financial incentives such as cost-share for doing habitat improvements, infrastructure to change management, or direct payments to set aside habitat or to enroll in conservation easements. Delivery of technical and financial assistance can include local (e.g. Natural Resource Districts), state (e.g. Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, Nebraska Forest Service), federal (e.g. Natural Resources Conservation Service, US Fish and Wildlife Service) agencies or private organizations (e.g. Pheasants Forever, The Nature Conservancy, National Wild Turkey Federation, Ducks Unlimited).
To be effective, biologists providing technical assistance must have a familiarity and understanding of conservation programs and knowledge of habitat requirements of species. Although no two conservation practitioners are likely to give identical advice to a landowner, it’s important that management recommendations be based on the best available science. Landowners often become frustrated and lose confidence in organizations and agencies when resource professionals fail to communicate and give conflicting or contrasting advice. In many cases inconsistencies between related conservation programs are due to a lack of communication within the conservation community. In other cases, agency missions differ and program rules reflect those differences. Policy differences (e.g. where to site tree plantings) between agencies can lead to confusion by the public and conflict between resource professionals. When possible, conservation agencies and organizations should strive for consistent policies to maximize biological diversity conservation throughout the state.
Conservation programs and financial incentives need to be voluntary, uncomplicated, flexible, and make economic sense in order for them to meet the test as “landowner-friendly”. Private landowners may feel that too much of their decision-making authority or income potential is surrendered in order to participate in conservation programs. In addition, some programs are overly rigid and don’t allow for changing conditions or the use of adaptive management practices. Although limited funding will often not allow conservation program payments to meet or surpass the income potential of intensive land uses such as cropping, it can provide an economic cushion when transitioning to management systems that may be more economically sustainable (e.g. changing from season-long to rotational grazing). Many landowners are willing to incur some loss in income, to increase wildlife populations and improve recreational opportunities.
Property taxes serve as one of the most significant barriers to conservation program participation. Even many recreational landowners need to generate sufficient income to pay property tax obligations. This leads many landowners to seek management alternatives that provide fewer benefits for “at-risk” species. Changes in land use or policies that result in lower property taxes are often not desirable because the revenues available for schools and roads are reduced. In recent years, the value of high quality wildlife recreation lands has risen at a higher rate than other lands, causing property values and associated property taxes to increase on working lands.
Actions needed to improve conservation programs and incentives
- Seek private landowner and multi-organizational input when developing conservation incentive programs to 1) help ensure they are landowner-friendly (voluntary, incentive-based, adaptable, economically feasible, confidential, etc.), 2) support the missions of a broad array of conservation organizations and 3) are effective at conserving biological diversity. When possible, model new programs after successful programs used elsewhere.
- Assess the barriers to landowner participation in conservation programs and use that information to improve existing programs and in developing new programs.
- Explore opportunities to provide private landowners with incentives/income for assisting with restoration projects (e.g. native seed harvest), engaging in activities that support biological diversity (e.g. providing nature-based recreation opportunities, marketing of biological diversity-sustainable products), or are willing to tolerate wildlife-associated economic losses.
- Seek opportunities to increase the focus of existing conservation programs (e.g. Wild Nebraska) and funding sources to better conserve biological diversity and natural communities.
- Develop a best management practice handbook to assist private landowners and land managers in the best methods to restore and manage natural communities.
- Explore new funding sources that provide sustainable and equitable compensation for landowners who participate in programs that conserve biological diversity. Regularly adjust incentive rates to reflect changing economic conditions.
- Seek to increase the capacity of agencies and organizations to provide efficient and high quality technical assistance to private landowners who are interested in conserving biological diversity.
- When possible seek to safeguard the local tax base by providing equitable compensation (e.g. payment in lieu of taxes) when conservation projects result in a significant reduction in property taxes.
- Seek out and promote innovative solutions to economic constraints on landowners interested in conserving biological diversity. These could include but are not limited to tax deferments, capital gains tax relief, conservation buyer programs.
- Develop and promote voluntary projects/programs aimed at conserving threatened and endangered species on private land and provide assurances to participating landowners that no additional future regulatory restrictions will be imposed (e.g., Safe Harbor Agreements).
- Develop partnerships with community planning leaders, business leaders, and private organizations to develop best management practices (e.g. cluster housing) that can help ensure residential and commercial developments minimize the impacts to natural communities and biological diversity.
- Collaborate with the Department of Natural Resources and Natural Resource Districts to discuss the impacts of watershed planning decisions made under LB 962 on fish, wildlife, and related resources in those watersheds. Undertake a watershed-by-watershed assessment of the impacts of changing streamflow conditions on biological diversity, starting with the watersheds under the most threat from increased water use.
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Promote management that is more compatible with conserving biological diversity
Nebraska’s 48,000 farms and ranches cover nearly 46 million acres (93% of the total land area) and support a significant share of Nebraska’s overall biological diversity. Activities on these lands directly impact individual species, natural communities, and larger ecosystem processes (e.g. hydrology, stream quality, nutrient cycling, etc.). According to the 2004 NASIS survey, over 90% of Nebraskans felt that farmers and ranchers should have a major or moderate role in conserving “at-risk” species in the state. In order to meet this public expectation, the state’s farmers, ranchers, and conservation organizations will need to collaborate and share responsibility for the conservation of biological diversity.
Nebraska has nearly 1,600 square miles of public conservation lands. These existing protected areas (e.g. national wildlife refuges, national forests, national monuments, state parks, wildlife management areas) are critical to the conservation of biological diversity. However, past management approaches have not always taken into consideration the needs of the greatest array of species. Public perception reflects these sentiments. According to the 2004 NASIS survey, 90% of Nebraskans feel that improving management on existing public lands is very or moderately important to reversing the decline of at-risk species. In order to more fully conserve biological diversity on public lands, increased resources, training, support, and encouragement will be needed.
Maintenance of biological diversity will require that conservation efforts be directed at a broad range of land use issues and management practices on both private and public lands. In the past, management actions on public and private lands have been directed disproportionably at a relatively small subset of species (e.g. game species, threatened and endangered species) and inadequately at conserving intact natural communities. There is a need to broaden the focus of management and seek to implement strategies that benefit a broader array of Nebraska’s biological diversity.
Nebraska’s urban and rural citizens need to share responsibility for our culture's impacts on biological diversity and play a role in future conservation efforts. Biological diversity cannot be conserved solely on public lands or solely on private lands. Instead, conservation efforts will need to combine improved management on existing public lands, by protecting some additional lands through acquisition and conservation easements, and by implementing voluntary and incentive-based conservation actions on private lands.
In the last two centuries, land use and land management practices have significantly altered Nebraska’s biological landscape and the ecological processes that sustain the flora and fauna of the state. Historically, the primary forces that shaped the pattern of plants and animals on our landscape have been climate (e.g. droughts, floods), fire, and grazing. Today additional factors such as artificial changes to hydrology, competition and predation from invasive species, habitat fragmentation, and pollution directly impact species and alter ecological processes, leading to degradation of habitat. Conservation practitioners identified six key stresses that are impacting biological diversity in Nebraska. These include altered fire regime, altered grazing regime, altered hydrologic regime, introduction of invasive species and pathogens, fragmentation, and pollution.
Altered Fire Regime
Fire historically was a natural component of Nebraska’s ecosystems and is important for maintaining biological diversity. Prior to European settlement, fires likely occurred on a 1-5 year interval in eastern Nebraska and a 10-20 year interval in western Nebraska. Suppression of fire is one of the primary factors that has altered Nebraska’s natural communities. Today, less than 1% of the state’s grasslands and woodlands are likely burned in any given year. The Loess Hills region of the mixed-grass prairie of Nebraska is a prime example of the problems associated with fire suppression. The rapid expansion of eastern red cedar trees across this region has degraded and fragmented natural communities and is leading to declines in native species and reduced livestock forage. Fire also plays an important role in prairie maintenance by promoting nutrient cycling, creating microhabitats, and increasing plant vigor and native plant diversity. Fire leads to similar benefits in woodland communities. Though some areas with dense tree cover may require mechanical thinning prior to burning in order to reduce fuel loads and prevent stand-replacement fires. There is also an important but poorly understood interaction between fire and grazing. Historically, burned areas often received intense grazing from bison or other herbivores following fire. This combination is rarely applied in today’s landscape.
Although most private landowners see few benefits to burning, a growing number of individuals are becoming interested in using fire to control woody plant invasion or revitalize grasslands. Most don’t have the capacity (e.g. equipment, burn crews) or expertise to carry out fires safely. Conservation practitioners often lack the resources to carry out the desired level of burning on private or public lands and few private contractors are willing to do burning because of liability concerns. Several cooperative efforts are underway to increase interest in prescribed fire. The Prescribed Burn Task Force and Great Plains Fire Learning Network are helping to educate landowners about burning by holding workshops and demonstration burns for private landowners.
Conservation actions related to fire
- Promote the safe use of prescribed fire as a tool for grassland/wetland/forest restoration and management through public outreach and internal communication among conservation organizations and agencies. Conduct demonstration burns as a means to facilitate understanding and acceptance of burning.
- Increase the capacity of private landowners to burn by providing technical and financial assistance, equipment, fire-training workshops, how-to guides and other assistance.
- Identify and seek to overcome barriers that limit managers and private individuals ability to conduct prescribed burning on private and public lands.
- Develop and distribute a “best management practices guide” on prescribed burning that can be used to improve management of grasslands and riparian areas for biological diversity. Include information on sources of technical information, funding programs, equipment needed, etc.
- Promote and evaluate the use of patch burn grazing systems and other innovations that combine the effects of fire with grazing and other disturbance regimes than more closely mirror natural processes.
- Seek to minimize impacts to species that may lack the ability to recolonize a site following burning through consultation with species experts and pre-burn evaluation.
- Promote and support the establishment of burning cooperatives made up of local landowners, agencies and partners that cooperate on prescribed burning by assisting with education, training, and burning.
- Provide training and support to landowners and others to conduct rapid pre/post burn monitoring and assessment.
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Altered Grazing Regime
Nebraska contains approximately 22 million acres of rangeland and pastureland, most of which is grazed. Most grassland-associated species have evolved with and are maintained by grazing. When applied appropriately, grazing promotes structural heterogeneity, native plant diversity, and can help control invasive species. Managing both the timing and intensity of grazing is important to achieving plant health and diversity and maximizing benefits to the widest variety of species. Proper grazing can also help ensure that the state’s 22 million acres of range and pastureland are sustained for cattle grazing.
Historically, grazing patterns were likely driven by fire frequency and weather. Today, most grazing takes place in the absence of fire and with relatively little variation in timing and intensity. As a result, large areas of prairie have shifted from diverse mixes of native grasses and forbs to grasslands dominated by a relatively small number of grasses (often non-native species such Kentucky bluegrass, smooth brome) and less palatable early successional forbs such as western ragweed, snow-on-the-mountain, soapweed and musk thistle. This conversion has taken place after years of season-long grazing and has been intensified by broadcast applications of herbicide and inter-seeding of non-native grasses. Restoration of these sites is often very difficult even if a more diversity-friendly grazing system is introduced.
Both overgrazing and a lack of grazing can be detrimental to biological diversity. Overgrazing can severely impact the composition of grasslands, favoring species rarely grazed by cattle and adapted to consistent grazing pressure. Overgrazing near streams and wetlands can increase the amount of sediment and other pollutants entering water bodies. Conversely, the lack of grazing can lead to a loss in plant diversity due to thatch accumulation, competition by non-native species, and loss of microhabitats necessary for propagation of some species. A lack of grazing on wetlands can favor the establishment of monotypic stands of robust emergent plants.
Haying and mowing can serve as alternatives to grazing and provide benefits to species and habitats. Haying and mowing can be particularly effective at controlling woody encroachment and removing thatch but lack some benefits of grazing such as selective herbivory, soil disturbance from hoof action and nutrient recycling through animal waste. Under homogenous haying or mowing practices, plant composition and habitat structure often decline and natural re-seeding can be inhibited.
Conservation actions related to grazing/haying
- Promote and support the use of diverse grazing/haying systems on private and public lands that enhance biological diversity and sustain natural communities. Initiate research that evaluates the profitability of biological diversity-friendly grazing/haying systems (e.g. reduced stocking rates, rotational systems, patch-burn systems).
- Develop and distribute a “best management practices” guide on grazing that can be used to improve management of grasslands and riparian areas for biological diversity. Include information on sources of technical information, funding programs, wildlife-friendly fencing specifications, etc.
- Promote and support the development of locally-based grazing cooperatives and incentive programs that can be used to facilitate grazing of playa wetlands, small disjunct prairie sites, woodlands and other sites with low grazing income potential.
- Support diverse haying regimes (e.g. on wet meadows) that stagger timing and height of cutting, promote increased plant and animal diversity, and avoid peak nesting periods for grassland birds.
- Promote the use and availability of locally adapted native seed sources for pasture and rangeland seedings.
- When possible seek to reduce or minimize fragmentation caused by permanent fencing and water development in new and existing grazing systems.
- Promote livestock grazing/haying systems that have built-in drought management contingencies (e.g. grass banking).
- Seek and promote economic alternatives that help reduce further conversion of important rangelands and pastures to cropland.
Altered Hydrologic Regime
Historically, Nebraska had approximately 3 million acres of wetlands and nearly 24,000 miles of rivers and streams. Today, approximately 35% of the state’s wetlands have been lost including nearly 90% of some playas, saline wetlands, and wet meadows. Although most of the state’s rivers and streams have been significantly modified due to reductions in flows and through channelization, the Sandhills ecoregion stands out as containing some of the most unaltered rivers and streams remaining in the Great Plains. Continued conservation of the state’s wetlands, rivers, and streams are critically important to sustaining biological diversity. Nearly half of Nebraska’s Tier 1 at-risk species are dependent upon wetland or riverine habitats.
Approximately one million acres of wetlands have been lost in Nebraska, principally through drainage for agricultural development. The loss and alteration of wetlands has reduced habitat for many resident and migratory species and has resulted in severe overcrowding for spring migrating waterbirds. In addition, the lack of management or disturbance of existing wetlands has lead to the spread of invasive species and the usurping of wetlands by a few dominant plants, resulting in a decline in natural biological diversity. Although past governmental programs facilitated wetland drainage, a shift in public attitudes in the 1970’s and 1980’s has resulted in increased interest by agencies, communities and private landowners to understand and conserve wetlands.
There have been substantial changes to Nebraska’s rivers during the last two centuries. Nebraska’s largest rivers historically experienced large fluctuations in flows, particularly in the spring when snow melt and spring rains scoured sandbars and moved sediment creating treeless expanses favored by migratory birds and other species. Direct diversion of surface flows and pumping from alluvial wells for irrigation and municipal water supplies has substantially reduced stream flows in many rivers, caused others to dry up completely, and impacted native aquatic and terrestrial communities.
Although, droughts are a natural phenomenon in the Great Plains, conflicts over water use are intensified during extended dry periods. Healthy wildlife and plant communities are well adapted to withstanding long periods of drought but biological diversity is threatened as rivers and streams reach or exceed full appropriations. Diversion of water from streams and rivers during drought can greatly reduce the amount of deep-water refugia available to fish and raises water temperatures that can result in fish and invertebrate mortality. Pumping of groundwater for irrigation, municipal and other uses lowers water table levels that would otherwise sustain grassland plants through hot and dry periods. Dams and other impediments on rivers and streams restrict fish and wildlife movements, leaving large expanses of potential habitat uninhabited and or suppressing gene flow among populations.
As public awareness of the value of wetlands and natural flowing rivers has changed, efforts to restore these important habitats on both private and public lands have increased. Across the state, hundreds of wetlands have been voluntarily restored and countless other restoration projects are planned in the future. The ability of landowners to use wetlands for grazing and hay production after restoration helps meet landowner needs for income and while maintaining disturbance that promotes wetland health.
The conservation of Nebraska’s streams, rivers, and their associated aquatic habitats will require hard work, compromise, and a shared vision for conserving Nebraska’s biological diversity and sustaining an agricultural economy. Much is to be gained by conserving both, but change will be necessary. Ensuring there is enough water to meet the needs of people and wildlife and that effective measures are taken to maintain water quality will require innovative solutions.
Conservation actions related to hydrology
- Seek to maintain or restore the natural hydrology of rivers, streams, and wetlands to sustain biological diversity and ecosystem function. Accomplish this through the use of voluntary incentives, sound bio-engineering solutions, and through collaborative decision-making.
- Establish an interdisciplinary working group that can develop a shared vision for the judicious use of limited water resources by developing drought mitigation strategies, alternative cropping/irrigation methods etc. that conserve and enhance biological diversity and lead to increased economic sustainability.
- Assess where current stream flows are inadequate and flow appropriations would most effectively contribute to the maintenance of biological diversity in Nebraska.
- Promote the development of an integrated water management plan for all water uses throughout the state.
- Promote and provide incentives for the use of wildlife-friendly conservation buffers, grassed waterways, sediment traps etc. on lands adjacent to wetlands, rivers, streams, reservoirs, and lakes to prevent siltation and protect water quality.
- Strengthen existing or establish new statewide partnerships responsible for promoting wetland, river, and stream conservation.
- Promote the value of naturally meandering rivers and streams, role of floodplains as habitat, and the need to maintain or closely simulate the natural hydrograph of rivers and streams to benefit biological diversity.
- Evaluate the impacts of new dams, additional groundwater and surface water withdrawals, channelization, and levy/dike construction on biological diversity.
- Promote the development and use of water conservation measures such as more water efficient irrigation systems, xeriscape landscaping, water-conserving appliances, etc.
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Introduction of Invasive Species and Pathogens
Most natural communities in Nebraska have been impacted by invasive species, in most cases by plants that were deliberately or accidentally introduced by people. Many naturalized species such as common dandelion and ring-necked pheasant appear to have little impact whereas others significantly affect biological diversity. Aggressive exotic species negatively impact native species through competition, direct predation, disruption of food chains, or by altering habitat or ecological processes. Nationally, invasive species are considered the second leading threat to biological diversity, second only to direct habitat loss. According to the 2004 NASIS survey, 58% of Nebraskans feel that non-native species are very or moderately likely to threaten at-risk species in the state and another 21% didn’t know if it was important.
Most of Nebraska’s native grasslands include a mix of native and non-native species. Exotic grasses such as smooth brome, Kentucky bluegrass, and cheatgrass are aggressive and often increase under season-long grazing or when there is soil disturbance. Invasive forbs such as musk thistle, leafy spurge, and sericea lespedeza impact both natural communities and grazing lands resulting in impacts to biological diversity and the grazing industry. The control of noxious weeks often results in unintentional impacts to native plants.
Invasive plants such as reed canary grass, common reed, purple loosestrife are threatening many of Nebraska’s wetlands. Other species such as Canada thistle and Russian/Autumn olive, and Eurasian water-milfoil, have impacted many of the state’s wetlands. Introduced species significantly reduce plant diversity and animal use of wetlands. Some species such as salt cedar may impact the hydrology of wetlands and rivers by increasing water consumption. Nebraska’s forests are threatened by garlic mustard and other plants that competitively exclude native species.
There are many introduced animal species that directly threaten biological diversity. The western mosquitofish competes with and often excludes the native plains topminnow. Common carp can alter bottom substrates and impact water quality and silver carp can disrupt food chains. House sparrows and European starlings compete with native cavity nesting birds for nest sites. The zebra mussel may threaten the state’s native mollusks and feral hogs have become established at several sites in the state. The impacts of introduced species that are important for recreation such as Rainbow trout, bullfrogs, and red fox are not well known but need to be assessed.
Less is known about the impact of pathogens on wildlife in Nebraska. Diseases such as avian cholera have resulted in large die-offs of waterfowl during spring migration. West Nile virus has been documented to cause mortality in more than 150 species, including humans, but it’s impact on overall biological diversity is not known. Blue tongue can result in severe mortality and chronic wasting disease could potentially have a devastating affect on native ungulates. More resources need to dedicated to understanding the impacts of diseases and other pathogens on biological diversity and proactive solutions need to be identified and implemented.
Conservation actions needed to reduce the impacts of invasive species and pathogens
- Organize a diverse network of agencies and organizations to gather and share information about invasive species including, new control measures, control efforts that are underway, distribution of invasive species, and funding issues. Collaboratively develop and widely distribute a list of all known invasive species that threaten the state’s biological diversity and develop best management practices that can be used to control or reduce the spread of those species.
- Use and promote restoration and management techniques that utilize native, locally-adapted species whenever possible. Discourage the use of non-native species in restoration/management projects.
- Encourage private seed companies to provide local-ecotype seed and harvesting and planting services.
- Renovate aquatic habitats by removing introduced rough fish to improve water quality, enhance aquatic vegetation and increase biological diversity.
- Seek measures that prevent the introduction, breeding, and use of potentially invasive non-native species by nurseries, hatcheries, universities, etc.
- Collaborate with natural resource organizations and others to develop a list of preferred plant materials (e.g. trees, shrubs, grasses, forbs) that can be used in urban and rural settings with little threat to biological diversity. Develop guidelines that will help ensure potentially invasive species do not spread to natural communities.
- Develop guidelines for the application of herbicides and use of biocontrols targeted at invasive species so that impacts to biological diversity are minimized.
- Initiate a public outreach campaign on the impacts of invasive species on biological diversity.
- Investigate the factors leading to the spread of invasive species, diseases, and other pathogens and their impacts on biological diversity. Develop and implement proactive conservation actions.
- Develop and implement protocols to better monitor, assess impacts, respond to, and manage disease stresses in Nebraska.
- Develop proactive management actions to impending disease stresses (e.g. chronic wasting disease, West Nile virus) to help limit future impacts to biological diversity.
- Assess the risks and/or benefits to biological diversity of commercialized wildlife and facilities.
Large-scale habitat fragmentation has occurred over most of the state with the exception of the Sandhills. Conversion of native habitats to crop fields, housing developments, and roads are the principal sources of fragmentation. Acreage development particularly on native prairie sites is resulting in accelerated loss and fragmentation of remaining grasslands. Infrastructure such as roads, dams, cell phone towers, and fences can impact species directly by altering movement or increasing mortality. Other forms of fragmentation can lead to the introduction or spread of invasive species or alteration of ecological processes such as predator prey relationships. Habitat fragmentation has particular consequences for species that are relatively immobile, or area sensitive species that require large intact landscapes. Fragmentation is often the result of a lack of long-term planning.
Nebraska, the Arbor Day state, has a long and proud history of tree planting. Tens of millions of trees have been planted to provide shelter to livestock, as windbreaks for homes, for aesthetics and as wildlife habitat. However, the planting of trees in native grasslands can negatively impact grassland-dependent species and some invasive trees like red cedar can rapidly spread into adjacent habitats.
Conservation actions needed to reduce habitat fragmentation
- Provide incentives to private landowners to maintain natural habitats and to cooperatively manage large blocks of habitat as complexes that conserve biological diversity.
- Collaborate with planning commissions, county commissions, and building associations to site new housing units in a manner that reduces fragmentation of existing natural communities.
- Seek to enlarge habitat complexes by restoring converted or degraded sites within larger landscapes of habitat. Create habitat corridors to connect disjunct tracts of habitat.
- Discourage the placement of woody plantings and food plots within natural grassland communities, especially when it will result in increased fragmentation.
- When possible, take into consideration potential impacts to biological diversity when selecting sites for cell phone towers, wind turbines, dams, and fences.
- Collaborate with transportation planners (e.g. NE Dept. of Roads, Federal Highway Administration) to minimize impacts to at-risk species and key habitats.
- Seek to remove or create bypass structures around dams and other impediments that restrict the natural movement of aquatic species.
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Although pollution can occur in many forms, water pollution is considered to be a principal stress to biological diversity, particularly for aquatic species. Water pollution includes both point and non-point sources and can include toxic chemicals, sediment, nutrients, minerals such as road salt, pesticides, and animal or human waste. Water pollution can result in direct mortality to species (e.g. fish kills due to toxic chemicals) or can alter natural communities and ecosystem function (e.g. eutrophication due to phosphorus runoff). Bioaccumulation of toxic substances can impact entire food chains and reduce the recreational value of aquatic resources.
According to the Nebraska Depart of Environmental Quality, of 203 stream/river segments with sufficient data, 67% met the threshold for supporting aquatic life and of 140 lakes and reservoirs, 49% rated favorably in 2004. Of those surface waters considered impaired, 68% were due to the presence of fecal coliform bacteria, 26% due to excessive nutrients, 11% due to sedimentation, 9% due to low dissolved oxygen, and 4% due to ammonia, atrazine, turbidity and total suspended solids.
Most Nebraskans recognize water pollution as an important threat to biological diversity. According to the 2004 NASIS survey, 92% of Nebraskans stated that water pollution is very likely or moderately likely to threaten at-risk species. In Nebraska, local Natural Resources Districts, the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality, and the federal Environmental Protection Agency regulate water quality. These agencies and others help implement a number of voluntary best management practices to help prevent or mitigate sources of water pollution.
Although many scientists agree that the burning of fossil fuels and the emission of greenhouse gasses is contributing to global climate change, the impacts on biological diversity are difficult to predict. Some recent studies have linked warming temperatures to shifts in distribution and migratory patterns in some bird species. Increased temperatures associated with global climate change will likely impact natural communities and species. Some global climate change models predict that the Great Plains will become more arid, putting further stresses on aquatic habitats and the species that use them. Communities and species that are most imperiled may be least capable of overcoming new stresses associated with global warming.
Conservation actions needed to reduce the impacts of pollution
- Promote the practice of integrated pest management (e.g. non-chemical controls such as bio-control and tillage, spot spraying) through outreach and incentives to minimize impacts to biological diversity.
- Facilitate information exchange between conservation practitioners, landowners, and the public regarding the sources and impacts of pollution on wildlife. Provide regulatory agencies (like NDEQ) with information on the impacts of pollution on biological diversity to help make better decisions.
- Implement and seek funding for conservation practices such as filter strips, grassed waterways, sediment control basins, and grassed buffers to minimize the effects of fertilizers and pesticides on wetlands, streams, rivers and reservoirs.
- Work with agricultural and conservation partners to prioritize installation of conservation buffers, conservation tillage practices, etc. within watersheds where benefits to biological diversity would be highest.
- Provide voluntary incentives through existing or new conservation programs for the adoption of organic and low-chemical farming and livestock production, especially in watersheds where changes would have the most impact on biological diversity.
- Promote management practices that limit the impacts of nutrients, sedimentation, bacteria and pesticides to help protect water quality. Examples include nutrient application on cropland, sediment control on construction sites, etc.
- Share information with agencies and stakeholders about the importance of biological diversity and the benefits of locating powerplants, factories, animal feeding operations, homes and other potential sources of pollution in places that will have minimal impact on river, stream, and wetland water quality. When optimal siting is not feasible, state-of-the art waste containment facilities should be constructed.
- Seek to understand the impacts of global climate change on Nebraska’s biological resources and propose management actions to reduce those impacts.
Focus conservation on the best opportunities
Conservation of Nebraska’s biological diversity is an enormous undertaking and the human and financial resources needed to address this task remain limited, even with new federal funding. Conservation efforts in the past have been largely opportunistic and while important work has been done, it was not always the most efficient and effective use of limited resources. For example, using scarce funds to protect a lower quality tallgrass prairie with less biological diversity may preclude the protection of a higher quality prairie with more biological diversity. Given that habitat loss will continue, those higher quality prairies may be lost before an “opportunistic” approach would conserve them.
We need to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of conservation by taking a more systematic approach to identifying and prioritizing the components of biological diversity we wish to conserve and where in the state we should focus conservation efforts. Being more efficient and effective means implementing conservation actions that provide the best opportunities to maximize conservation of biological diversity, minimize resource conflicts, and avoid future stresses.
Whenever possible, agencies and organizations should pursue strategic rather than opportunistic approaches to biological diversity conservation. Multiple objectives can often be met by taking a habitat-based approach that benefits multiple species and habitats. Conservation efforts should be focused, when possible, on areas with multiple habitat types and opportunities to benefit at-risk species. They should also focus on those sites that offer the best opportunity for long-term success in sustaining species and ecological communities. For target species, these include sites at which the species’ populations have a high estimated viability (large population size, appropriate age class, successful reproduction, few threats). For ecological communities, these would include sites with a high percentage of expected native species, few invasive exotic species, and where ecological processes essential to maintaining the community (e.g. fire, grazing, flooding) persist or can be simulated through management.
In developing the Natural Legacy Project, we utilized a systematic approach to identifying at-risk species, ecological communities, and biologically unique landscapes in the state (see chapter 3). This effort was based on the best available data and represents a first attempt to take a statewide, systematic and strategic approach to the conservation of biological diversity. We hope this effort will provide a useful tool to prioritize conservation targets and areas in the state and provide maximum benefits from our scarce conservation resources.
Conservation action needed to focus conservation on best opportunities
- Conduct inventories to identify additional Biologically Unique Landscapes that contain high-quality examples of ecological communities and populations of at-risk species.
- Continue inventory of the currently described Biologically Unique Landscapes to better identify areas within them where multiple conservation objectives can be met.
- Provide information to conservation planners and practitioners to help focus conservation actions.
- Implement actions at those sites that offer the best opportunity for success in the long-term conservation of species and ecological communities.
- Work to ensure that high-quality occurrences of all terrestrial and aquatic community types in Nebraska are under long-term protection and management.
- Work to ensure that occurrences of viable populations of at-risk species are under long-term protection and management.
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Expand the network of public and private conservation lands
The continued loss and degradation of natural habitats undermine efforts to conserve biological diversity in the state. Nebraska's ranches, farms and private and public conservation lands provide the foundation for a support system for the state's flora and fauna. Almost all existing habitat in Nebraska is due to the stewardship of private landowners, and this will continue. Maintaining and improving existing habitat on working farms and ranches is key to conserving biological diversity and offers the greatest hope for success. There is also a need to set aside some lands that can be put under long-term protection and managed specifically for biological diversity A network of conservation lands is needed that includes a combination of protected working private lands and public and private conservation areas managed for the purpose of perpetuating biological diversity.
Habitat loss is the primary cause of species decline. Most of the state's natural communities with the exception of those found in the Sandhills and a few other areas have undergone extensive losses. Some, like the tallgrass prairie have been reduced to less than 2% of their original extent. While it is possible to restore cropland and other altered lands, reestablishing the full complement of biological diversity is often impractical and prohibitively expensive. John Weaver the acclaimed prairie ecologist noted that "Prairie is much more than land covered with grass. It is slowly evolved, highly complex, and centuries old. Once destroyed it can never be replaced by man". To be able to conserve the full array of biological diversity, we need to conserve existing natural habitats that are still in relatively good condition.
An important way to ensure that species, habitats, and ecosystem processes are maintained over time is to devote some portion of the landscape to those specific purposes. This can be done by expanding the network of lands that have long-term protection from conversion/degradation and to manage these lands principally for biological diversity. This network of conservation lands does not have to be limited to those owned by government agencies or conservation organizations. Private lands with conservation easements, long term leases or management agreements could also be included. Collaboration with private landowners adjacent to lands under long-term protection can enlarge or buffer these lands resulting in larger blocks of habitat. These lands do not need to be managed to the exclusion of human uses. The key lies in the emphasis on biological diversity values, not as a collateral or subsidiary benefit, but as a primary goal for managing the land.
In some cases, acquisition of land by public agencies or private conservation organizations is an appropriate conservation alternative. With less than 3% of the state in public conservation lands, Nebraska has one of the lowest percentages of public land in the country. A large proportion of the state's public land is in the Sandhills and the northwestern corner of the state leaving many natural communities under-represented or not included at all as public trust lands. Acquisition of under-represented natural communities from willing sellers by private or public conservation groups would help ensure the long-term conservation of biological diversity. In addition, 50% of the Tier I at-risk species have no documented occurrences on public lands and therefore are not ensured long-term habitat protection. A number of these species may have habitat management requirements that are not conducive to achieving an economic return. Thus public or private conservation ownership may be the most practical way to maintain them. To be acceptable to the public, these acquisitions should ensure that payments are made in lieu of property taxes to maintain the local tax base. Public lands have the additional benefits of meeting recreational, educational, research and other societal needs.
There is also a need to improve management on existing public and private conservation lands so that the needs of a greater array of species can be met. Public land managers and private conservation groups often lack the financial and human resources to adequately manage their lands for biological diversity. Demands on manager's time to control invasive species and manage public use often leave little additional time to restore or manage natural communities. Insufficient capacity to monitor and evaluate management activities and a lack of information about species habitat requirements and management alternatives serve as barriers to improved conservation land management. These issues need to be addresses so that public and private conservation organizations lands can more fully contribute to the conservation of our natural heritage.
Conservation actions needed to improve the network of public and private conservation lands
- Identify and secure long-term protection for unique or high quality natural communities through actions such as conservation easements, land exchanges, voluntary acquisition, or conservation buyer programs.
- Promote land acquisition policies that are founded on willing-seller/willing buyer principles, that maintain the local tax base, and provide equitable compensation to landowners.
- Start a natural areas program (modeled after successful programs in other states) that identifies and protects biologically unique sites that are managed to perpetuate Nebraska’s biological diversity.
- Encourage and support the formation of new or expansion of existing land trusts to acquire and manage conservation easements that conserve biological diversity in Nebraska.
- Improve or change management on public lands to better protect, enhance and sustain biological diversity and natural communities.
- Establish voluntary cooperative agreements with private landowners adjacent or near existing public or private conservation lands to facilitate large-block management for conservation and recreation. Provide financial incentives, technical expertise, and recognition to landowners willing to enter into management agreements.
- Create a forum whereby landowners, community leaders, and conservation practitioners can discuss land management issues and observe management practices in use on public lands. Use the forum to engage in collaborative problem-solving.
- Facilitate the long-term protection of biologically important lands enrolled in short-term conservation programs (e.g. Conservation Reserve Program, private lands programs) through conservation easements.
- Seek opportunities to improve management on publicly owned lands that are not part of the conservation network (e.g. Bureau of Education Land Fund holdings) to increase benefits to biological diversity.
- Support efforts to provide voluntary public access to private conservation lands that are managed for biological diversity.
Increase participation in nature-based recreation
Broad participation in nature-based recreation (e.g. wildlife viewing, hunting, fishing, canoeing, etc.) has social, ecological, and economic benefits. According to the 2004 NASIS survey, 77% of Nebraskans felt it was very important that people have an opportunity to view wildlife and 66% felt it was very important that people have the opportunity to hunt and fish. Increasing opportunities for high quality nature-based recreation will help establish or maintain personal connections to biological diversity, motivate individuals to support conservation efforts, and meet an obligation to provide recreation to the state’s citizens.
Without sustainable populations of wildlife and intact natural communities, nature-based recreation is unsustainable. Nature-based recreation can serve as a strong incentive for conserving biological diversity. However, without adequate controls, recreation and conservation can be in conflict. Nature-based recreation must be appropriately managed and at times controlled to limit impacts to species and habitats and to maintain quality recreational experiences.
The economic diversification that can result from nature-based recreation or natural amenities can help provide a much-needed boost to rural communities. Many Nebraska communities are facing long-term population declines that are leading to economic stagnation. Community leaders are seeking new and innovative ways to reverse this decline. The high level of interest in the Nebraska Birding Trails initiative is one example of how nature-based tourism is seen as a partial solution to economic troubles. For biological diversity conservation to succeed it will be necessary for conservation decision-makers, community leaders, and the business sector to collaboratively develop a long-term sustainable economic vision that includes conservation of the state’s natural assets.
Conservation actions needed to increase participation in nature-based recreation
- Collaborate with agencies, private organizations, and communities to develop new and enhance existing wildlife-viewing infrastructure (e.g. roadside pull-offs, interpretive signage, viewing platforms). Promote the use of wildlife viewing sites through the media and established networks of nature enthusiasts.
- Develop resources and a support system to assist communities with sponsorship of wildlife-related events (e.g. eagle viewing days, crane celebrations, hunter breakfasts, fishing tournaments, etc) that have recreation, educational and entertainment value and provide community economic benefits.
- Identify sites conducive to greenway development and provide resources and support to help communities engage in collaborative planning to develop long-term strategies that meet conservation, economic, and recreational goals.
- Form a task force that includes economic experts, conservation practitioners, community leaders, and private landowners that can examine the economic, social, and conservation value of a natural amenities-based economy throughout the ecoregion.
- Develop a train-the-trainer program that increases the number of individuals who are knowledgeable about and committed to promoting nature-based recreational opportunities. Support the establishment of naturalist programs in state parks and other recreational areas.
- Develop partnerships with landowners to provide wildlife viewing (e.g. birding trails), hunting, and fishing opportunities on private lands and seek to provide fair compensation for providing these services. Develop collaborative eco-tourism marketing plans for different regions of the state that can be used to expand nature-based tourism and increase economic sustainability.
- Develop and populate a database of private and public nature-based recreation sites. Make the information available to the public in a user-friendly manner through the Internet and a printed publication.
- Distribute education material for nature-based users that identify potential problems associated with recreation use (e.g. ATV’s, impacts of boaters, wildlife viewing disrupting wildlife.)
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