28 November 2010

Considering a Decade of Nebraska's Effort to Acquire Habitat

Several land acquisitions in the central and northern region of Nebraska are prominent accomplishments of the recently ended ten-year habitat plan of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

The goal of the "Habitat Acquisition and Conservation Plan" was "To provide for the long-term protection, management and restoration of a diverse, balanced and high quality assemblage of fish, wildlife and plant resources within the state of Nebraska for the benefit of the people and the natural resources."

During the period since 2000, there have been several property acquisitions from willing sellers, and through property trades.

The first property acquisition within the region in the new millennium was the Myrtle E. Hall WMA. The land - a farm run by Myrtle Hall, along with her brothers Merritt and Ward - was bequeathed to the Nebraska Game and Parks Foundation in February 2000 and transferred to Nebraska Game and Parks Commission in July 2000. The 1960 acre area overlooks the Loup River valley, and is upland hills and flats south of Almeria, Loup County, though some of the site extends into Custer county. The area is the divide between the North Loup and the Middle Loup watersheds.

Other land buys or trades occurred during subsequent years, include:

Red Wing WMA, 320 acres along the Elkhorn River northwest of Neligh, Antelope County
Hackberry Creek WMA, 243.79 acres along the Elkhorn River, a mile east of Clearwater, Antelope County
O. John Emerson WMA, 160 acres in northeast Holt County, which includes a section of creek, and a bit of upland wet meadow, originally visited in 2005 and 2006, and which is known to have at least 22 bird species.
Holt Creek WMA, 160 acres in Keya Paha County; acquired from the Fish and Wildlife Service as a trade for the Willow Lake WMA associated with Valentine NWR. The area is north and east of Springview, and includes a mile of Holt Creek, with deciduous woods adjacent, and is northward of the sandhills region.
Twin Lakes, Rock-County WMA, in Rock County; an additional 540 acres was added to the original 160 acres, as a trade for what had been the Almeria Meadows WMA. The addition included portions of the southern Twin Lake, plus upland grasslands and a grove of cottonwood trees.
Pressey WMA, Custer County; about 11 acres of native prairie were acquired from the Nebraska Department of Roads. Additional property has also been added to this site.

Further west, two wetland areas within the sand hills were purchased.

DeFair Lake WMA is along the highway south of Hyannis, Grant County, was acquired in April 2000, with the purchase of 125.2 acres for $49,406.42. This tract is included

Avocet WMA is along Highway 2 just east of Hyannis, was acquired in November 2003, with the purchase of 125.8 acres for $63,277.40 and 62.4 acres for $22,900.80. The wetland is well known for the Trumpeter Swans which occur during the summer breeding season.

The habitat acquisition plan had suggested that within the Sandhills region, two miles of riparian habitat (ca. 2500 acres) and wetlands comprised of lakes (2500 acres) and marsh (1920 acres) should be purchased to provide public land management areas.

The Hackberry Creek and Red WMA's comprise riparian habitat which include about two miles Elkhorn River frontage, or the extent indicated by the acquisition plan. The two areas comprise about 564 acres, or only about 22% of the desired goal of 2500 acres.

Besides the purchase of the Avocet and DeFair Lake tracts, the only other apparent addition of lake and marsh habitat would be associated with the Twin Lakes tract in Rock County, which was offset by the loss of meadow habitat at the former Almeria Meadows WMA. The two purchased tracts comprise about 313 acres. It should be noted that some minor amounts of marsh and meadow habitat would be associated with the two wildlife areas along the Elkhorn River in Antelope county.

The overall addition of lake and marsh habitat during the ten-year period was probably less than 400 acres. There was an apparent shortfall in the acquisition of this sort of habitat in the sandhills of nearly 3000 acres, or only about 12% of the desired amount of the 3420 acres.

The plan also mentioned the potential to purchase and identify tracts as Natural Areas, though there has not yet been such an area designated by the state agency.

Bird Values of Wildlife Lands

Within the general sandhills region, the state currently owns about 40 properties of various sizes, which includes the following wildlife management areas and other tracts as designated: AGA Marsh, Arnold Lake SRA, Atkinson SRA, Ballards Marsh, Big Alkali, Bobcat, Bohemia Prairie, Borman Bridge, Cottonwood Lake SRA, Cottonwood-Steverson, Dry Creek, Emerson, Fred Thomas, Hackberry Creek, Hull Lake, Keller SRA and WMA, Kent Diversion, Long Lake SRA, Long Pine SRA and WMA, Mirdan Canal, Myrtle Hall, Parshall Bridge, Pine Glen, Plum Creek Valley (acquired January 1999), Pressey SRA, Rat and Beaver Lake, Redbird, Red Wing, Schlagel Creek, Shell Lake, Smith Falls State Park, Smith Lake, South Pine (acquired September 1998), South Twin Lake, Thomas Creek which is an area which has been owned for many years by the state agency), Victoria Springs SRA, and Willow Lake Brown County (acquired December 1992 from the Wildlife Development Federation of North America).

More than 240 different species of birds have been observed at these places, in various numbers and extent among the distinctive habitats of the region, ranging from sandhills marsh and lakes, to the rugged terrain of canyons along the Niobrara River, and amidst other plant communities typical to the region.

Further considering details, the public lands where there has been a greater number of bird observations, based primarily upon observations made during visits by bird enthusiasts and not by any attempt by agency staff to record bird use, are the following sites: Smith Lake WMA (862 available records), Willow Lake Brown County WMA (561 with additional records available for the place before it became public property), South Twin Lake WMA (503), AGA Marsh WMA (397), South Pine WMA (376 with additional observations available for years prior to when the state bought the property), Long Lake SRA (336), Shell Lake WMA (207), Fred Thomas WMA (202), Thomas Creek WMA (167 from visits which required thrashing through the invasive cedars), Cottonwood Lake SRA (151), Myrtle Hall WMA (129), Plum Creek Valley WMA (116), and Pressey SRA (105 available records).

There are a lesser number of records for more than twenty other publicly owned land tracts, with bird information sometimes derived from only a couple of visits, since no other specifics are available.

Site management has been an essential part of the efforts undertaken by personnel of the state agency. This includes some removal of invasive red cedar trees, grassland management by periodic burns and other steps taken to provide quality habitat for the native flora and fauna.

Future Planning

The state agency has not yet developed a new plan to acquire and conserve native habitats throughout the state.

An email sent to four officials of the state agency, asking for comments on the results of the previous habitat plan, or any other comments pertinent to this article, did not respond.