Filling Pits in Playas on National Grasslands

 

Many playas on federal grasslands in southeast Colorado, southwest Kansas, New Mexico and the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles have pitted playas. There’s a cooperative effort underway to rehab some of these playas. Restored playas mean shallow water will return. When that happens, plants will burst forth, providing seeds the birds like, and attracting insects, a good source of protein.

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This is Playa Country — a weekly look at the wildlife, wetlands and prairies of the western Great Plains, and the people who manage them — brought to you by Playa Lakes Joint Venture, an organization dedicated to conserving birds and bird habitat.

Today, we’re learning about rehabilitating playa wetlands on national grasslands, and how that can help migrating birds. Playas are those shallow and ephemeral ponds we see after rainfall. Some dry up within days. Others contain water for weeks or months. Some ranchers and ag producers in the past dug deep pits at the lowest point of the playa, thinking the water would collect and remain available longer for cattle or irrigation. But those pits also reduce its ability to provide food and habitat to birds and other wildlife.

“When the water is concentrated, it doesn’t allow the wetland vegetation to grow, which is of great benefit to wildlife.” Christopher Rustay is Playa Lakes Joint Venture Conservation Delivery Leader. “What you wind up getting is more of a water desert in the middle of, what should be, a beautiful wetland oasis.”

Those playas — those pitted playas devoid of plants migrating birds like to eat — become worthless to those hungry, commuting birds.

“When migrating waterfowl, or shorebirds, or other wetland birds, are flying, they are looking for wetlands.” Anne Bartuszevige is Conservation Science Director for Playa Lakes Joint Venture. “What attracts them to a particular area is that there are a lot of wetlands. So then it looks like, ‘Wow, there’s a lot of food down there, and I can probably fuel up really fast.’ And if there are a lot of wetlands that are really close to one another, then you don’t have to fly very far to get to the next place that might have a lot of food.”

Sort of a stepping stone effect. Many playas on federal grasslands in southeast Colorado, southwest Kansas, New Mexico and the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles have pitted playas. There’s a cooperative effort underway to rehab playas to give migrating birds that stepping stone effect.

Angela Safranek is a rangeland management specialist with the U.S. Forest Service in Pueblo: “It’s not just the federal government doing something in isolation. We’re working with Playa Lakes Joint Venture. All those people working together is what’s going to make this be a successful project.”

In 2015, the partners began a project to fill pitted playas on the Comanche National Grassland south of La Junta and Springfield, Colorado, and the Kiowa National Grassland in northeast New Mexico.

“We started doing this on the Kiowa National Grassland last year and restored four pitted playas. That generated then the idea of going across a much larger piece of the world and doing a bigger scale. Starting this spring we’re putting the permits and environmental assessments and archeological surveys into place. We’re hoping to do the contracting and get the work done before the summer monsoons.”

Restored playas mean shallow water will return. When that happens, plants used to growing in that environment will burst forth, providing seeds the birds like, and attracting insects, a good source of protein.

“Often when birds are migrating, they don’t necessarily stay just one night and move on. Sometimes they stay for a few days, or even a couple weeks depending on the weather or how much food is available, how fast they’re able to refuel, and things like that. So if there are a lot of wetlands, that looks like a lot of food, and that’s a great place for me to go and just eat a lot really fast and get fat again before moving on to the next place.”

Perhaps you’re a producer, or a rancher, with a pitted playa on your land. Contact your USDA service center and ask how you can restore your playa through the USDA Continuous Conservation Reserve Program or a Wetlands Reserve Easement, and how the Environmental Quality Incentives Program can help set up alternative water sources for livestock.

This episode of Playa Country was made possible by the Playa Lakes, and Rainwater Basin Joint Ventures, and a grant from the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Climate Adaptation Fund, which was established by a grant from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.

Original broadcast: March 2015

Posted: February 21, 2016
Topics: Playas