Healthy Playas Needed to Support Birds

Healthy, functioning playas provide important habitat for migratory birds and other wildlife. Healthy playas have intact basins with native wetland vegetation, excess sediment removed, and a filtering native grass buffer that traps sediment while allowing water to reach the playa. Healthy playas are also outside the footprint of wind farms.

Playas are impacted by a variety of modifications and land-use changes that reduce their ability to function properly and provide benefits to the people and wildlife in this region. Many playas have reduced functionality due to farming, energy development, and increased sediment accumulation. But there are many opportunities to work with conservation partners, private landowners, and industry to restore playas so they are able to provide needed wildlife habitat.

Goal: 32,611 Healthy Playas

Of the 71,850 probable playas in our region, we need 32,611 healthy playas to provide wetland habitat for migratory birds. We are currently at 71% of our goal.

The goal was derived from a network analysis of Southern High Plains playas by Gene Albanese and Dave Haukos. One conclusion of this analysis is that at least 40% of playas must be functioning to maintain the playa ecosystem across the Southern High Plains. In setting our goal, we expanded that conclusion to 40% of playas in each county across the PLJV must be functioning.

Progress Last Year

At the end of each year, we measure progress by counting the number of playas the larger PLJV partnership has restored. In 2017, we counted 126 playas restored through the following programs. This does not include playas that have been restored privately without the help of a state or federal conservation program.

  • USDA Migratory Bird, Butterfly, and Pollinator Habitat State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement (Migratory Bird SAFE) in Kansas and Nebraska – 95 playas
  • USDA Continuous Conservation Reserve Program – Practice CP23A (Wetland Restoration Non-floodplain) – 16 playas
  • USDA Conservation Reserve Program – 10 playas
  • Texas Playa Conservation Initiative, a state-based pit-filling program – 5 playas

We also look at how many playas have reduced functionality because of energy development, loss of grassland buffers/basins, or hydrologic modifications. In 2017, 164 healthy playas fell within the footprint of a newly constructed wind farm (FAA data, 2017). Wind farms located within playa clusters reduce the ability of those playas to provide wildlife benefits, especially when a turbine is in a playa basin. Because playas host large numbers of migratory and wintering waterfowl, waterbirds, and shorebirds, there is a risk of mortality from contact with the wind turbines as well as indirect effects of birds avoiding playas. If birds avoid playas, they may have to fly farther to find an appropriate wetland habitat for roosting and refueling, an energetically expensive activity at a time when energy is at a premium.

Potential Future Progress

The PLJV partnership is currently working to restore playas throughout the region using several different programs. The number of playas listed below  the potential for restoration under each program during in the next 3 years.

USDA Migratory Bird, Butterfly and Habitat SAFE Practice – 292 playas
In December 2017, a second signup period for the Migratory Bird, Butterfly, and Pollinator Habitat State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement (Migratory Bird SAFE) practice was announced in Kansas and Nebraska. This program is entirely focused on conserving playas, with up to 10,000 acres available for enrollment in each state.

Texas Playa Conservation Initiative – 205 playas
The goal of this multi-partner effort is to restore playas throughout the Texas Panhandle to improve wetland habitat for migratory waterfowl, shorebirds and cranes, as well as upland game birds. The restoration work will focus exclusively on filling pits and trenches in buffered playas — those in native grassland or enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program. The partners are currently working in Castro, Floyd, Lubbock, Swisher, Armstrong, Briscoe, and Crosby counties, an estimated 200 playas may be restored over the next 3 years. Five of these are already under contract and awaiting dirt work day.

Resilient Communities: Clovis, New Mexico – 126 playas
A diverse group of organizations and individuals are collaborating to conserve and restore playas in Curry County, New Mexico, with the goal of supporting the City of Clovis’ municipal water supply and providing needed habitat for migratory birds. The partnership includes city and county government agencies and organizations, soil and water conservation districts, local landowners, state and federal agencies, and nonprofit conservation organizations.

Conservation Reserve Program – 78 playas
The Migratory Bird SAFE mentioned above is a particular continuous practice that started in 2017 and was a great success, but there are other Conservation Reserve Program practices, including the playa specific CP-23A practice, that are expected to continue their popularity for landowners in the next few years.

Kansas Playas and Wetlands RCPP – 20 playas
Ducks Unlimited is leading a diverse group of partners in a Regional Conservation Partners Program to assist NRCS with delivery of the ACEP program (ALE and WRE) on priority Kansas wetlands including playas. This program is expected to protect and restore up to 20 playas in Kansas over the next few years.