ConocoPhillips Grant Helps Restore Riparian Habitat

Over the past several years, the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies and Nebraska Game and Parks Commission have been working with private landowners to restore more than 1,000 acres of wet meadow, riparian woodland, and mixed-grass prairie along the Upper Niobrara River in Nebraska. With the help of a PLJV ConocoPhillips grant, the partners recently completed the restoration of an additional 300 acres.

Reductions of in-stream flow, localized water table draw down, and changes in haying and grazing regimes have altered the native plant communities in recent years. Most notable is the encroachment of non-native woody species such as Russian olive and eastern redcedar into historic wet meadows and grasslands adjacent to the Niobrara River and some of its tributaries. Restoring these areas to native wet meadow or lowland prairie, and encouraging the use of haying and grazing practices that promote a diversity of grassland plant species across the landscape, will improve habitat conditions for grassland birds including Bell’s Vireo, Dickcissel, Grasshopper Sparrow, Lark Bunting, Lark Sparrow, Long-billed Curlew, Sharp-tailed Grouse, Short-eared Owl and Upland Sandpiper.

“We have a rare opportunity to address this invasive species problem prior to the infestation becoming severe,” says Wildlife Biologist Andrew Pierson. “Landowner response to the project has been very positive, and the ConocoPhillips grant allowed us to work with more landowners to create large blocks of habitat for at-risk species such as the Long-billed Curlew.”

In 2009, Bird Conservancy of the Rockies and the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission partnered with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Sandhills Task Force, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Panhandle Research Integration for Discovery Education, and nine private landowners to remove Russian olive and eastern redcedar from their property, which enhanced more than 1,000 acres of riparian and lowland grassland habitat along the Niobrara River. The trees were mechanically removed as close to the ground as possible, then the Russian olive stumps were chemically treated. Over the length of the agreement, usually 10 years, landowners continue to control the invasives from re-sprouting by spot-spraying.

In 2010, this project was expanded through a PLJV ConocoPhillips grant. A landowner workshop was held to raise awareness of threats to the local riverine ecosystem, specifically encroachment of invasive plant species such as Russian olive and eastern redcedar. The workshop also educated attendees about riparian wildlife and their habitat needs and encouraged landowner participation in native prairie restoration and protection practices. This workshop resulted in four more landowners taking steps to remove these invasive plants.

The partners worked with three workshop participants to develop habitat restoration projects adjacent to or in close proximity to the previously completed project area, expanding these large blocks of riparian habitat. Another participant didn’t seek a cost-share plan, but voluntarily set about removing invasives from his land.

“Aside from the direct benefit inherent to each project, perhaps even more important is the opportunity to show examples of people forming an emotional connection, respect and sense of responsibility for the historical, cultural, natural and socio-economic value of bird habitats and prairie ecosystems,” says Pierson. “Each project location also serves as a ‘demonstration site’ to neighboring and interested landowners, showing ways to incorporate conservation and restoration practices that sustain bird habitats and prairie ecosystems into everyday management decisions.”

Posted: August 27, 2013