Integrated Collaborative Habitat Restoration
Funder: National Fish and Wildlife Foundation Spring 2013
Borderlands Restoration, L3C employs a wide variety of strategies to achieve measurable outcomes with ranching families and other residents of the borderlands region, to protect biological diversity, and promote sustainable management of shared grasslands. We believe that biological diversity cannot be protected solely by designating and protecting nature reserves, and that more must be done to protect and restore diversity on working landscapes. To this end, we assist ranchers and other landowners who seek to develop plans to protect rare species, improve wildlife habitat values and conditions, increase range productivity, diversify ranch income streams, and establish conservation easements and other protected corridors.
While our overall conservation goal is to protect and restore the native biological diversity of Sky Islands, in general, our method encompasses restoration of upland grassland habitat, with an emphasis on the habitat requirements of declining grassland sparrows, while maintaining and enhancing embedded wetlands in the grassland habitat. This dual strategy considers the habitat needs of upland and wetland species and reflects our intention to not threaten wetland species while managing for upland species. In addition to grassland birds, we are gathering baseline information and building a balanced management model that considers the habitat requirements of pronghorn, Chiricahua leopard frog, loggerhead shrikes, Mexican garter snake, Slevin’s bunchgrass lizard, and selected other species at risk.
Here is what we have accomplished so far:
1. Prevent and, where practical, reverse the invasion of woody shrubs and other exotic species: Now that extensive baseline data has been collected, we will begin to use quantitative models, expert opinion and common sense to design shrub removal strategies to create more habitat for open country species (e.g. Bairds, Grasshopper sparrow and pronghorn) without jeopardizing habitat for species that need trees and shrubs (e.g. Cassins). This work will be conducted in close coordination with historic and underway land manipulation work [shrub removal and erosion control installations] accomplished on the Babocomari Ranch, Diamond C Ranch, and Audubon Research Ranch. As a means of leveraging these integrated efforts, we are using similar data and land manipulation work now underway on Babocomari Ranch and River through a grant from the Walton Family Foundation to harvest water and improve surface and baseflows for multiple species.
2. Develop fire plans and use fire management as a tool to achieve biodiversity and economic goals:
We continue to collaboratively research, plan, and construct fire management unit-guided burn plans, and landscape-scale regional fire plans, for management of fire on private lands that complement existing plans for public lands. The approach will simultaneously reduce risks and improve habitat; create local employment and training opportunities appropriate to fire-prone landscapes; create and maintain research-identified and regularly monitored open areas for species that avoid trees and shrubs; and share on-going research results with the public through presentations and social media. Borderlands Restoration fire management staff have been regularly attending fire conferences and webinars, interviewing local and regional fire experts with extensive past and current fire experience, and working with landowners to mitigate harmful fire effects and initiate beneficial fire activity. We continue to learn from a prescribed fire that was initiated just prior to the establishment of the NFWF grant. While we had planned two such fires for February 2014, moisture levels were determined to be too low for beneficial fire. Instead, we will begin to take advantage of learning opportunities provided by a lightning-caused fire in April 2014 that broke out precisely where we had hoped to burn, in O’Donnell Canyon. This canyon had been slated to receive erosion control structures as well, as part of our current Walton grant. As such, it now provides a ready canvas for us to experiment and learn from the effects of using erosion control structures installed immediately, pre-monsoon, in post-fire situations. USGS will assist us in siting structures and quantifying the effects, and US Forest Service has initiated conversations and agreements with Borderlands that should expand the effort regionally as we develop standard metrics and methods.
3. Increase soil moisture and the availability of freshwater:
Shrub removal and fire management are necessary but insufficient tools for the restoration of grassland birds. Much of the area where we are working is dominated by very sparse ground cover unsuitable for most sparrow species. These areas are caught in a self-maintaining “degradation trap”: low ground cover results in rapid runoff and low soil water retention–maintaining the very conditions that prevent vigorous grass growth and system recovery. The only way to break the cycle is to actively intervene by harvesting water, thereby increasing infiltration and increasing grass growth. We believe this method combined with vigorous re-seeding and planting of native perennial grasses and forbs can return a degraded grassland to a stable and self-maintaining system.
With USGS support through the Walton grant noted above, we have begun to use detailed mapping and quantitative models, including LiDAR and KISNEROS, to design strategic locations for water detention devices (berms, trencheras , gabions) to slow water, increase infiltration, promote grass cover/productivity, and provide isolated stretches of stream/pools for species dependent on permanent water. Existing small spring, wetland and cienega habitats have high probability for successful restoration, and Sky Island Alliance has begun working with us to further develop their Spring Assessment and Restoration Handbook, while using two nearby springs of concern to one of our ranching partners as sites for bio-assessments and restoration work in the near future.
4. Re-vegetate degraded rangelands with native plants that prevent erosion and provide wildlife food and cover:
Supported by small amounts of ‘seed’ funding provided through agreements with BLM, National Park Service, Biophilia Foundation, and Hummingbird Monitoring Network, we continue to grow and experiment with native plants in our own greenhouse facilities. We plan to experiment with these plants to increase ground cover, reduce erosion, and provide appropriate cover (e.g., perches for predators, hiding sites for prey, nest sites for sparrows, thorn trees for shrikes), and selected grasses and forbs will provide food resources for selected species (pronghorn, box turtles). An extensive database that coordinates SEINet, ArcGIS, and in-field data has been built to track plant grow-outs and installation in restoration sites, and to determine best sites for restoration work.
In summary, we have conducted baseline surveys of rangeland ecological conditions; conducted baseline surveys of grassland birds and a variety of other target species and compared them to existing records; we continue to refine and field test our Diagnostic Management Tool to predict the impact of shrub removal on grassland sparrow diversity; and we are now well-positioned to implement the Tool with an initial focus on using invasive shrub control to benefit grassland birds, but including more species and additional management tools (fire management, water harvesting/erosion control, and re-vegetation) over time. At the same time, we continue to work closely with ranchers and other landowners to develop fire management and erosion control plans consistent with local, regional, and agency requirements such as those of US Forest Service, NRCS, and Army Corps of Engineers, all of whom strongly support our work, from methods to monitoring to relative ease of permitting the erosion structures. Outreach activities such as presentations, coalition-building and stakeholder meetings, and individual interviews with local ranchers and officials continue to inform our work while demonstrating first-hand its tandem ecological and social potentials.
We will gradually expand our management toolbox to include more species and additional management options. We will add habitat occupancy models to the DMT to cover Loggerhead Shrikes, Eastern Meadowlarks, Sprague’s Pipit, and Chestnut Collared Longspur. Soon we will conduct separate surveys in the warmer months to estimate baseline abundances of Mexican gartersnake and Slevin’s bunchgrass lizard with a herpetologist from the Audubon Research Ranch. As this information becomes available, we will use it to develop preliminary habitat models for these species as well. These data will be overlaid upon hydrology and erosion control data to aid in effective site treatment locations and intervention strategies.
In 2014 we will conduct quantitative surveys on the Diamond C ranch in areas that already benefit from water harvesting. Starting in year 1 we conducted wet-dry streambed surveys to support the ongoing efforts of TNC, comparing treated and untreated sub-watersheds and filling knowledge and labor gaps for the entire watershed, and we will survey Mexican Garter snake and both Lowland and Chiricahua Leopard Frogs, plus selected vulnerable (G1 to G3 and S1 to S3) plant and invertebrate species that may benefit from water harvesting. We will use the resulting data to develop preliminary habitat occupancy models for these species. Neighboring Fort Huachuca hydrologists and biologists have been interviewed and included in the restoration conversation, such that they now see a clearer pathway to initiating and supporting the efforts described here, while adhering to the Fort’s mission. The habitat models will be embedded in the revised DMT which, in turn, will be used to design new water harvesting projects for nearby ranches and public lands. And as new water harvesting projects are initiated, we will monitor the ensuing changes in the abundance of target species in order to test and refine the DMT and its utility as a management tool, and to design effective, replicable, and transferable restoration plans across multiple scales, and for entire communities and watersheds.