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Fen Restortion in Cherry County
Restoration Plan for the Jumbo & Pullman Valley Fens
Sandhills Task Force logo The Nature Conservancy logo Nebraska Environmental Trust logo


Hilltop view of Pullman Valley
Purpose

The purpose of the project is to restore the hydrology and vegetation (and associated wildlife) of two Sandhills fens located in western Cherry County to their more natural condition and to evaluate the cost-benefit for restoration as it relates to ranching.

Background

The restoration project for Jumbo and Pulman Valley Fens was formed by the Sandhills Taskforce and The Nature Conservancy. The Sandhills Task Force is a non-profit organization (formed in 1991, and incorporated in 1996) consisting of 15 members; nine are associated with ranching within the Sandhills and six are associated with government or private agencies concerned with sustaining a healthy grassland ecosystem in the Sandhills. The Nature Conservancy is a non-profit conservation agency whose mission is "to preserve the plant, animals, and natural communities that represent the diversity of life on earth by protecting the lands and waters they need to survive."

In March 1995, the Sandhills Task Force and The Nature Conservancy began working together to restore the unique characteristics associated with fens. The objectives of the project are:

1. To restore high quality examples of biologically unique Sandhills habitats known as fens;
2. To establish a Sandhills Conservation Fund to be used by the Sandhills Task Force to accomplish regional conservation objectives;
3. To gain an understanding of the dynamic physical and biological processes associated with the sandhills ecosystem as it relates to sustaining healthy human communities;
4. To gain an understanding of the economic costs and benefits of fens for private ranching and the public; and
5. To return the property to a private ranching operation with a conservation easement placed on the property.

These objectives are to be accomplished in a way acceptable to the local communities.

In May of 1996, 2,700 acres of deeded land were acquired from a landowner by The Nature Conservancy. This purchase formed the basis for a conservation partnership with the Sandhills Task Force. The ranch included lands known locally as the Jumbo and Pullman Valleys, approximately 26 miles north of Whitman, Nebraska in south-central Cherry County.

Project location map
Detailed view (146 k)

Funding for land acquisition was provided by the Nebraska Environmental Trust Fund, while operational support is being provided by the Sandhills Task Force (including private ranchers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Nebraska Cattlemen, NRCS, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, local NRD's, and County Governments) and The Nature Conservancy through site management activities (leases) and fund-raising. The Nature Conservancy is providing staff and administrative support in paying operating costs, taxes, land management, and coordination of inventory and scientific studies. They are paying taxes and other costs but will be reimbursed once the property is sold.

Fundamental to the project partnership is a commitment to locally driven private-land conservation. The group envisions restored fens in private ownership, though possibly with management needs which change the use and value of these lands. They expect to discover land uses and management regimes which maintain unique fen species and natural communities within the context of existing ranch operations. Or if this is not possible, to quantify the lost economic opportunities landowners incur if they restore fens to meet public conservation goals.

This multi-agency organization called the Sandhills Task Force has established a fund called the Sandhills Resource Conservation Fund. When the fen property is restored and an easement has been placed on the property, it will be sold to a private ranching operation. Monies received above the costs of restoration, management, and conservation easement will be placed in this fund and used to accomplish other conservation projects throughout the Sandhills. To date, funding (placed in this Conservation Fund) has been received from various public and private organizations to assist the Task Force in doing projects. They range from educational workshops, to establishing whole-ranch grassland management plans, to controlling stream erosion and improving riparian habitat.

Another significance of the fen project is proof that partnerships and an attitude of cooperation can find win-win solutions to environmental issues. This fen project demonstrates that:

  • Landowners and government agencies share common visions,

  • Government agencies can work together on conservation practices,

  • Landowners and agencies can work together;

  • Ranching and wildlife are not mutually exclusive, and

  • Projects that no one agency or organization has the resources or skill to accomplish can be accomplished through partnerships.


Fen Restoration

The Jumbo and Pullman Valley wetlands (where the fens occur) encompass from 700 to 900 acres separated by a major sand dune. Upland range also occurs on the north and southwest portions of the property.

Sandhills Task Force members touring the fen site During the first year of the project the members of the Sandhills Task Force, local ranchers and Conservancy personnel familiarized themselves with the site. Preliminary field reconnaissance, plant inventory and vegetation classification, topographic surveys, and instrumenting Jumbo Valley for hydrology monitoring were also accomplished.

In year two, a wide array of biological inventory and monitoring projects were initiated. A day-long workshop attended by Sandhills Task Force members, local ranchers, resource specialists, and scientists was held in July, 1997 to identify the significant issues and make recommendations for the fen restoration.

Hydrology

Fens are wetlands uniquely characterized by the up-welling of ground water in saturated peat deposits. Unlike wet meadows, ditching is relatively ineffective in draining fens because of the slow movement of water through peat. Surface water currently moves through the fens within the narrow ditches constructed to increase water flow through the valleys. The water level in these ditches is from 2 to 5 feet below the historic fen surface, across which a more dispersed flow occurred.

Water control structures will be used to restore the historic seasonal water levels near the main channels at or near the land surface, while allowing drainage to flow through the valley. A series of small control structures will be installed in the primary channel of Jumbo Valley and the north channel of Pullman Valley, with a main structure being placed on the eastern end of each.

Example of small water control structure
Small control structures used to maintain
high water levels in the channels.
Example of a wier
Weir used as main structure to pass
all water coming down the drainage.

Earthen Ditch Plugs will be used to impede water movement from the lateral ditches into the main channel and restore seasonal water levels to near historic levels.

Re-contoured Ditches -  The purpose for re-contouring several lateral ditches is to compare the efficacy of this method (relative to local water level and vegetation response) to the ditch plugs.

Beaver Activity - Beaver will be allowed to spread within the valleys to raise local water levels to the fen surface and allow a comparison with costs and effects of the water control structures. Beaver activity may cause problems with the function of the control structures. Appropriate measures, such as modifying the structures, may have to be taken.

Pullman Valley Fen.  The dune in the foreground shows how arid the tops of the dunes are.  The left portion of the valley is hayed; the right portion is unhayed.

Vegetation

The plant species associated with sandhills fens are adapted to the peat soils and hydrogeology. Most of these species have wide geographic distribution, but many are isolated considerable distances from their more northern primary range. Notable species include the northern bog bean, cotton grass, marsh and sensitive fern, tufted loosestrife, western lily, and marsh marigold. Unlike uplands and wet meadows, the native plant communities characteristic of Nebraska Sandhills fens are dominated by sedges, rushes, and shrubs. Open water areas may be dominated by cattail.

Vegetation will be managed to restore the distribution and abundance of the species characteristic of sandhills fens. This will involve expanding or re-locating populations of individual native species, and suppressing non-native species. Fire, grazing, and haying will be used to manage for the many plant community expressions found in fens with undisturbed hydrologic regimes.

Unique Species - Unique fen species will be managed to expand their populations to those portions of the fens from which they may have been removed by the effects of artificial drainage. The primary strategy for expanding unique fen species is to manage for the appropriate habitat conditions, rather than initiating re-seeding/transplanting efforts.

Exotic Species - Exotic species will be managed to reduce their distribution and abundance as much as possible given the resources of the project. The primary strategy for reducing exotic species will be to manage against the habitat conditions on which they depend. The initial focus will be on reed canarygrass and Garrison creeping fox-tail. Successful re-hydration of peat soils will likely exclude canarygrass and fox-tail from most fen habitats, though they will probably persist in wet meadow habitats. In wet meadow habitats, fire grazing and haying combinations will be employed for control.

Controlled burnFire Management - Fire management will be used to incorporate an ecological process which was responsible for some of the dynamic aspects of fen structure and function. Since the project goal is to restore examples of Sandhill fen plant communities fire will be managed so as not to consume the peat deposits in the Jumbo and Pullman Valleys. Prescribed burns will be conducted only when the peat is wet or frozen. It is expected that prescribed burns will generally be used in combination with grazing and haying as part of a strategy to improve fen habitats and allow for compatible levels of forage harvest.

Grazing Management - Grazing management will be implemented to economically harvest some of the forage produced on, or adjacent to the Jumbo and Pullman Valley fens, in a way which maintains the viability of fen species and habitats. Currently very little is known about grazing un-drained fens. This project will provide some of the first scientific data on the ecological role and potential use of cattle grazing on sandhills fens.

Pullman Valley FenHaying Management - Haying management will be implemented to economically harvest some of the forage produced on, or adjacent to the Jumbo and Pullman Valley fens, in a way which maintains the viability of fen species and habitats. Un-drained fens will be expected to have limited opportunities for harvesting hay in normal-to-wet years. However, hay production on the wet-meadow transition between fen and upland will be evaluated as a ranching practice compatible with fen restoration. Fen areas supporting shrub communities will not be hayed.


Biological testingBiological Inventory & Monitoring

The ecology and management of Nebraska Sandhills fens are poorly understood. Therefore, a major goal of this project is to improve our understanding of the hydrological and biological resources represented by these unique wetlands. Significant resources will be committed to identifying the various species, habitats, and processes characteristic of the two fens prior to restoration and documenting the changes which occur during the restoration process.

Baseline Inventory & Change Monitoring Effort, 1997-2001
SUBJECT AREA PURPOSE
Late Holocene droughts recorded in sand layers from sandhills fens. To describe the past climates and weather events which have been associated with the development of the Jumbo and Pullman Valley fens by mapping the depth and distribution of sand layers within peat deposits.
Hydrology of fen restoration. To monitor the pre- and post-restoration water levels, chemistry, and water sources within the Jumbo and Pullman Valleys by collecting data from 29 shallow well clusters (multiple depths) and six deep wells.
Fen forage baseline, breeding bird surveys, American burying beetle presence, local logistics. To document the pre-restoration presence, abundance and distribution of the resources identified in the title and insure that post-restoration changes are collected efficiently. Federally endangered beetle potentially exists on the site.
Livestock forage composition and distribution on restored sandhill fens. To rigorously describe changes in the livestock forage base of the Jumbo and Pullman Valleys during the fen restoration effort.
Plant communities and abiotic factors on three sandhill fens. To classify and describe the plant communities on Jumbo and Pullman fens prior to initiating fen restoration activities.
Stream habitat assessment and population estimates of three state threatened fish species. To describe the population characteristics (by age and sex class) and habitat abundance and quality for state listed fishes in the Jumbo and Pullman Valleys prior to fen restoration.
High resolution aerial photography baseline for Jumbo and Pullman Valleys - visible and near-infrared digitized data. To form the pre-restoration image of plant communities, management effects, and developments which can be analyzed at a 2 to 4-foot resolution.
Western Prairie Fringed Orchid. To test for the presence of a federally threatened species potentially on the site.
Upland range condition. To compare current upland range condition to a 1967 inventory and eventually to an end of project inventory.
Odonata survey (dragon/damselflies). To determine the diversity of an important (predators of mosquitoes) group of invertebrates for the site.

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