Photo: Long-billed Curlew

"North America's largest shorebird, the Long-billed Curlew breeds in the grasslands of the Great Plains and Great Basin." Learn more about this and other birds at The Cornell Lab of Ornithology All About Birds website. Photo courtesy of Tom Grey.

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NAWCA Funds Help The Nature Conservancy Protect Playas in New Mexico

arroyoWith the support of a $75,000 North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA) grant, The Nature Conservancy has been working to restore and protect playa wetlands in Curry County, New Mexico. To date, The Nature Conservancy has signed land management agreements protecting two playas — a total of 226 acres with 45.8 acres of wetlands — and is working on a third.

"These projects were especially important because recently developed arroyos were causing sediment to be dumped directly into the basins of these grassland playas," says Christopher Rustay, PLJV Conservation Delivery Leader. "As part of the restoration activities, The Nature Conservancy and various partners worked with the Natural Resources Conservation Service to stop these arroyos from putting sediment directly into the playa basins."

For the past several years, The Nature Conservancy has been working with the New Mexico Prairie Partners — comprised of numerous state and federal agencies, conservation organizations and private landowners — to provide playa education and actively conserve playas in eastern New Mexico. Unlike other areas of the Southern Great Plains, landowners with playas in this area cannot currently take advantage of Conservation Reserve Programs such as CP23A or the Wetland Reserve Program because counties are already at capped levels.

In 2008, The Nature Conservancy was awarded a $75,000 small NAWCA grant to restore and protect playas from overgrazing and over-sedimentation, a continuation of the playa conservation work of the New Mexico Central Curry Playa Protection Program, which received $400,000 to restore and manage ten playas in 2007. Both programs focus on the protection of sensitive playas by enrolling interested landowners in 10-year restricted-use land management and stewardship agreements. During that time, the landowners agree to managed grazing practices, selected restoration activities and no land conversion on the protected acreage.

Filling the arroyo"Almost all playas in New Mexico are on private land and many of them have been compromised through past agricultural practices, siting of rural roads, and urban development," says Tish McDaniel, TNC’s Southern Shortgrass Prairie Project Coordinator. "Active habitat management — such as limited grazing, planting of grass buffers, remediating a previously pitted area, or eliminating farming — is essential for sustaining waterfowl, shorebirds, waterbirds and many grassland bird species dependent on these important wetlands."

The protection and restoration of playas in New Mexico is helping to sustain populations of many wildlife and associated playa plant species. Limited grazing creates habitat, food, and cover for dabbling ducks, migrant shorebirds, water-dependent landbirds and breeding Long-billed Curlew. It also allows grass species to recover and provide a functioning buffer to trap sediment and pollutants.  

Four playas were initially selected for The Nature Conservancy project, with all four landowners interested in participating. "To have landowners excited and willing to enroll their lands in playa protection for ten years is a major milestone here," says McDaniel. "NAWCA dollars have been critical to maintaining the interest and momentum developed by The Nature Conservancy and the New Mexico Prairie Partners."

NAWCA grants provide federal funding in the form of matching grants for projects that support long-term wetlands acquisition, restoration, and/or enhancement that benefits migratory birds in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. There are two programs: Standard Grants and Small Grants. Standard Grants offer up to $1 million per project but require extensive preparation. Small Grants, with up to $75,000 available per project, have a much simpler application form.