By Bill O’Brian

In a state known for cattle and corn, Nebraska’s Rainwater Basin Wetland Management District (WMD) is critical habitat and a funnel point for migratory birds.

“The Rainwater Basin lies at the narrowest portion of the Central Flyway migration route. A 160-mile-wide region gathers up the millions of migrating ducks, geese, shorebirds and other water birds that have wintered along the Gulf Coast, across Texas and Mexico, and farther south,” the Rainwater Basin Joint Venture website says. “To humans, it’s a fascinating wildlife spectacle. To birds, this region is a vital resource — a linchpin in their annual life cycle.”

The basin’s name comes from clay-bottom field depressions that catch and hold rain and runoff water, according to Rainwater Basin Wetland Management District acting manager Brandon Jones.

The wetland management district conserves almost 26,300 acres of habitat on 61 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service-owned waterfowl production areas and via more than three dozen conservation easements on private land in 21 south-central Nebraska counties. As with the National Wildlife Refuge System’s 37 other wetland management districts, most funding to acquire habitat came from federal Duck Stamp revenue.

Rainwater Basin WMD “is critically important in providing mid-latitude stopover habitat for migrating birds during migration, specifically the spring migration,” says Jones. He estimates that 23.8 million ducks migrate through annually, or 61 percent of the midcontinent population. Ninety percent of midcontinent snow geese (2.6 million) and greater white-fronted geese (950,000) pass through. More than 86 percent of midcontinent sandhill cranes (375,000) do.

“Being a waterfowler at heart, my favorite birds are the ducks that migrate through, and out of those birds, the northern pintail would probably have to be my favorite because their courtship displays and rolling whistle call are some of my favorite sights and sounds to see,” says Jones, who has been at Rainwater Basin WMD for four years.

To accommodate those millions of migratory birds, the wetland management district conducts a range of conservation actions to control invasive monolithic vegetation and promote diverse native vegetation in wetland and upland habitat. The actions include prescribed burning, private grazing, haying, pumping, reseeding, disking, shredding and tree removal.

“Burning and grazing are some of our most highly used management treatments because they mimic historical processes that would have occurred throughout the basins before European settlement,” says Jones. As the district’s website explains, “historically, bison and wildfire kept the wetlands open with annual plants growing during dry summer months and droughts. With bison gone and wildfires controlled, management has to be done to keep these wetlands in a condition favored by ducks, geese and other water birds.”

The Rainwater Basin Joint Venture and the Service’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program are critical to conserving habitat. The joint venture — which includes local, state and federal agencies, nonprofits and landowners — provides technical assistance and pays for wetland enhancement, restoration and management on private and public land, among other actions. The Partners Program works with the joint venture and the wetland management district to help private landowners restore or enhance wetlands and obtain conservation easements.

One result for visitors is fabulous springtime birding and autumn waterfowl hunting.

“A network of functioning wetland and prairie plant ecosystems provides a native grassland mosaic that gives the local community a sense of pride and connection to the Great Plains flora and fauna,” the district’s website says. “The lands managed by the wetland management district serve as an example of land stewardship mimicking natural processes, and they provide an array of wildlife-dependent educational and recreational opportunities.”