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The Rainwater Basin region (RWB) consists of a 6,150 mi2 area of loess plains in south-central Nebraska (figure 1). The area is characterized by rolling plains formed by deep deposits of windblown silt with a high density of claypan playa wetlands. More than 200,000 acres of wetlands once existed in this region. As a result of agricultural and other development, only 17 percent of the original playa wetland area remains, most with hydrologic alterations. Siltation and colonization by invasive plant species (e.g., reed canary grass, narrow-leaved cattail, river bulrush) continue to threaten remaining wetland habitats in the RWB.
Despite historic wetland loss and degradation, the remaining playa wetlands in the RWB provide critical fall and spring habitat for migrating waterfowl. The RWB is located at the focal point of an hourglass where the Central Flyway narrows as millions of ducks and geese travel north from their wintering grounds during spring migration (figure 2). Wetlands in the RWB provide essential food resources and staging areas for northbound birds while they wait for northern wetlands to thaw.
This seasonal congregation of waterfowl includes up to 90 percent of the midcontinental population of greater whitefronted geese, approximately 50 percent of mid-continent mallards, and 30 percent of the continental breeding population of northern pintails. An increasing number (>1.5 million) of lesser snow geese also migrate through the area. On average, a total of 9.8 million waterfowl move through the RWB during spring migration. Although fall migration patterns in the Central Flyway are less constricted, approximately 2.6 million waterfowl still migrate through the RWB in the fall.
In response to the critical importance of the RWB wetlands to migrating waterfowl, state and Federal wildlife agencies have managed to secure protection of 31,700 acres of playa wetlands in the RWB since the 1960s. Since much of the surrounding landscape is active cropland, these wetlands are intensively managed in early successional wetland vegetation to maximize their value to migrating waterfowl.
The Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) provides technical and financial assistance to eligible landowners to restore, enhance, and protect wetlands through 30-year or perpetual conservation easements. The goal of the program is to achieve the greatest wetland functions and values, including optimum wildlife habitat. The program has filled a unique conservation niche in the RWB landscape by enabling complete hydrologic restoration of enrolled basins and engaging private landowners in wetland management with NRCS assistance. The program provides substantial benefit to migrating waterfowl as WRP tracts are actively managed to optimize waterfowl habitat value, and the juxtaposition of WRP tracts complements wetland habitats on adjacent public properties.