Thursday, July 10, 2014

Prairie Places: Kayaking Swift Current Creek at High Water


Estuary of Swift Current Creek, photo by Mike Wild, who always gravitates to
the highest spot[click to see the whole panorama]
There are some wonderful stretches of grassland in Canada. Places we go to for solace and solitude. Here is a photo story about one spot I visited, but I would love to hear from you about the prairie places you explore this summer--leave me a comment below or send me an email to I will post a list of favourite grassland places later this summer.
The weekend before Canada Day I walked part of the last stretch of Swift Current Creek meandering towards the South Saskatchewan River between Saskatchewan Landing and Beaver Flats. Friends have been telling me for years about the place, showing me pictures, describing it as a hidden wonder.
Even on google earth the landscape looks dramatic, steep hillsides and buttes tumbling down to a small underfit stream hurrying toward bigger waters.
a little riffle in the creek before the big rains came
Arriving there after a morning of birding north of the river in the Matador Provincial Community Pasture, I walked north from the last bridge on the creek. The rains of June had made the hillsides as green as postcards from Ireland. The sleepy creek had become a series of rapids running through rock gardens and standing waves worthy of a northern river. Here is a video that shows one set of rapids that got me thinking about a kayak trip.
The next day I talked to my good friend, the indomitable and always ready for an adventure Mike Wild. We decided we would do a Canada Day paddle down the creek and out onto the South Saskatchewan toward Beaver Flats. Karen agreed to come along. We borrowed all of the gear from Doug Kermode's Spirit Bear open source paddling emporium (thanks Doug!).
When we got there at 10 a.m., the creek was flowing even faster thanks to the deluge that fell on Sunday the 29th. It was the most fun I have had with a paddle in my hand for several years. Karen and Mike stayed dry but I dumped twice and went for a bit of a swim in fast water. But the water was warm and the sun shined on us all day.
Here is a string of photos from the day.

Karen suiting up for the day near the bridge east of Stewart Valley
With my white-knuckled grip on the paddle as I struggled to stay upright and aiming downstream in the rapids there was no way I could take photos of the river action, so all the shots from here on are either on shore when we stopped or at the estuary where the water was calm.

I counted seven Yellow-Breasted Chats singing along the creek, their territories evenly spread between the bridge and the estuary

I heard at least two Willow Flycatchers, another increasingly rare species that likes these
 grassland coulees

Pin cushion cactus were in bloom

Once we made it to the calm waters of the wide estuary we
 found a beach for lunch

this is a view of the estuary looking back from a hilltop that
is the corner to the river flowing east (left)

Mike took this shot as I walked to the top of this
 lower hill overlooking the estuary and river

After some exploring we headed into the river. This is Mike
mustering the courage for his dive.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Birds of Strawberry Lakes Community Pasture

Clay-coloured Sparrow, by Kim Mann

On the second weekend of June, a birding friend, Chris Harris, and I joined with nine other keen birders to do a one day survey of the breeding birds in the landscapes in and around Strawberry Lake Community Pasture.

Strawberry Lake is one of Saskatchewan's provincial community pastures and one of the southernmost in the Aspen Parkland eco-region. The provincial community pastures, like the federal ones being transferred to Saskatchewan, provide important remnants of grassland habitat for a wide range of grassland and wetland birds as well as woodland species, many of which are on Canada's Species at Risk list.

Spreading out in four groups, we counted birds from 5 am to mid-afternoon, visiting the lakes and wooded coulees and creeks in the Indian Head Creek drainage just north of the pasture--Cherry, Margueritte, and Deep Lakes--as well as the wetlands and grasslands in and around the community pasture itself.  Since the event we have been entering the data onto eBird, an online database where volunteers record and store their sightings from all over the world.

We recorded 123 species of birds, almost all of them breeding in the area. Here is a gallery of images from the event, all taken by the birders who helped out.

The day started with mist on Cherry Lake. Fran Krbs contributed this photo.

Ten Wilson's Phalarope were seen, including this one that Brian Sterenberg caught on camera.

And here is a phalarope nest I photographed near one of the larger wetlands in the Community Pasture

Bob Luterbach, Ed Rodger and Jim Cummings made the most astonishing bird discovery of the day by finding a pair of nesting Trumpeter Swans. Two weeks later I returned to photograph them and found they had five young swimming beside them. This is a first record in modern times for the southeast part of the province. The resurgence of the Trumpeter Swan in recent decades is one of the great victories of endangered species recovery. In the 1930s Canada was down to 77 individuals of this species and today we have as many as 16,000.

Red-winged blackbirds were giving this turkey vulture some misery. Here are two images by Dennis Evans followed by one taken by Brian Sterenberg.

Fran Krbs got a distant photo of this American Bittern hiding in plain sight in the southeast corner of the Community Pasture. It was one of two we recorded--both on Strawberry Lake Community Pasture.

Brian Sterenberg caught this Grey Catbird (one of 34) showing off the colour on its undertail.

This female mountain bluebird preened in an Aspen bluff in the middle of the pasture as Fran Krbs took her photo. We found a total of eight, seven of which were on the community pasture.

Fran also got this image of a Marsh Wren (one of three we recorded) near one of the abundant wetlands on the Community Pasture.

We recorded four Green-winged teal on the day. Brian Sterenberg took this photo of a male.

Black terns breed on several of the larger wetlands on and near the community pasture. We counted 107, including some on nests. Kim Mann took this photo.

Other significant sightings for the day included a single Ruddy Turnstone that should have been much farther north by then, two wood ducks, three Great Crested Flycatchers, 515 canvasbacks, four common goldeneye, two hooded mergansers, 500 eared grebes in one colony, 90 Least Flycatchers, 35 Red-eyed Vireos, aYellow-throated vireo, 26 grasshopper sparrows, ten Sprague's Pipits, and 19 bobolinks.

Finally, a couple of prairie wildflower photos. Ed Rodger contributed the Yellow Lady's Slipper and Kim Mann took the photo of a pussytoes or Antennaria species.

A tremendous day of prairie bird counting during one of the rare sunny breaks we had this June. Thanks to all who came out to help and to those who shared their photos: Dennis Evans, Kim Mann, Brian Sterenberg, Ed Rodger, Dale and Paule Hjertaas, Bob Luterbach, Fran Krbs, Dan Sawatzky, Jim Cummings, and especially Chris Harris who did so much of the preparation and eBird consultation to make the day both fun and fruitful.

Friday, June 13, 2014

As the cattle industry consolidates, how do we protect our native grassland?

Swift Current-Webb PFRA Pasture Manager Mert Taylor (image by Jon Bowie)
2014 is the International Year of the Family Farm. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, there are more than 500 million “small holder” family farms on this planet. Of course most of those are in Africa and Asia, but that is still an impressive number. 
How many small holder family farms were here on the northern Great Plains before the internal combustion engine transformed our rural landscapes? In 1936, when the province had 930,000 people, more than half of them lived on a total of 142,391 farms (Saskatchewan Encyclopedia).

Today we have somewhere fewer than 40,000 farms. Many have off farm income and most of them do not feed themselves the way their subsistence-based predecessors once did in the middle of the last century.
The number of farms in Saskatchewan continues to drop rapidly. In fact it fell nearly 17 per cent in five years from 2006 to 2011. 

But what is a small holder family farm anyway? A family-owned corporation that runs a feedlot employing twenty people and bringing in receipts of $3 million a year is included in the definition of family farm, but no one would call them “small holders.” Cargill is owned by a family. 

On the other hand, a husband and wife who run their own ranch grazing 10,000 acres of leased and private land but only bring in $150,000 in gross receipts are legitimately a family-sized operation. Is it fair to call them “small holders” though? They may not be making enough net income to pay the bills without off-farm income but they have a lot of land in their care. The average Saskatchewan farm is now 1,600 acres--up from 2006 to 2011 by 15%, 2 points short of the percentage of farms we lost in the same period. If you are cropping 1,600 acres you may not be a small holder, but you are likely struggling to make enough to cover your expenses. 

If we look at gross income as a way of defining the small farmer, we quickly find out why there are very few of them left. There simply is no money in it if you stay small and those that remain small are in it more for love than for money.

Field cropping farmers in Canada who bring in less than $100,000 in gross receipts have a ratio of expenses-to-receipts of 84 cents to the dollar. Beef producers in that same category, however, were much worse off at 96 cents to the dollar. Not a lot of margin to be had in beef until you get over the $100,000 in gross receipts mark, when the ratio improves to .85.

According to the Stats Canada site, “Farms raising predominantly beef and ‘all other animals’ had the lowest proportions of farms covering their expenses and also had relatively large numbers of farms in the lowest receipts class. For all beef operations, the proportion with receipts that met or exceeded their operating expenses came in at 51.9%. . . .” 

That is bad news for our smaller cattle and bison producers in Canada but what does it mean for native grassland ecosystems? If the beef industry continues to consolidate and more of our grassland is concentrated into fewer hands—whether through ownership or leasing of Crown land—the quality of land management would not necessarily have to decline and could in theory improve. The wild card that will determine which way things go is the role of the public, both in the marketplace and through government policy. 

Large incorporated beef operations that are left to merely follow the marketplace’s demand for low per-unit prices and maximum yield will be driven to look for more ways to cut costs and increase scale to find the point where their expense-to-receipts ratio hits a sweet spot. Conservation and the public interest in healthy grasslands will only enter the equation incidentally to the extent that the producer will need to save some grass for next year. Concern for species at risk, oil and gas development, biodiversity, invasive species, soil conservation, carbon sequestration, and public access to Crown land will all remain outside the consideration of producers, large or small.

For those values to have any influence over the grazing management of our remaining native prairie, the public either has two options: 1. we vote with our pocketbooks by purchasing grassland-friendly beef and bison or 2. we work with government agricultural and environmental agencies to create pricing structures on leased Crown land as well as other incentives and disincentives that will enable our producers to continue protecting our native prairie, and improving their stewardship where possible. 

Realistically, we will likely need to do both—work with market instruments and environmental policy—to protect our native grassland ecosystems as the beef industry continues to change and consolidate, driving smaller producers from the land.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Red Williams: province is abandoning its role of protecting land from cultivation

Crown grasslands that are sold may be broken

Red Williams, professor emeritus of Agriculture and Veterinary Medicine from the University of Saskatchewan, has published this week some comments on the Province of Saskatchewan's recent announcement that it has decided to sell some of its leased grasslands formerly protected under the Wildlife Habitat Protection Act.

In his 89 years, Red has seen agriculture go through a great deal of technological change as the prairie was converted into industrialized cropping landscapes. More than most of us he knows what has been lost and knows the cost of short-sighted agricultural policy. Here is the text of a note he sent out earlier this week in his newsletter, which he still pens regularly from his home in Saskatoon:

Lease Land for Sale
The Saskatchewan government has taken one more step in the ideological trend that has been evident over its tenure. The land previously held or leased with restrictions on its use has been a contention for years. The larger ranchers and farmers have wanted to have title to their leased land in a long time lease while the smaller operators would prefer that it continue as is because of the cost of purchase. The claim by the Minister of Agriculture that it is alright because the lessees have been good stewards of the land is pure “poppy cock.” They have been required to maintain the land in its original state which is the objective of the government’s ownership whether the land is suitable for grain production or not.

We have still not seen the end of the move to sell-off the PFRA lands to individuals or groups and therefore exposing them to cultivation and resale. The whole picture is one in which land held in trust by government is being abandoned and eventually lost of its original purpose of protection from cultivation. It is all a matter of political ideology; whether you believe in conservation or in the total exploitation of the land resource.

With little expectation that an election will change the administration in the next term, it behooves the public to object as strongly as possible that the wholesale sale of protected lands is counter to the will of the majority.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Province confirms that public ownership is the best way to conserve the most ecologically significant lands

Saskatchewan Agriculture Minister, Hon. Lyle Stewart makes the announcement as Environment Minister Cheveldayoff looks on (photo courtesy of Saskatoon Star-Phoenix)
Last week the Province announced a new plan for the Wildlife Habitat Protection Act (WHPA) lands in Saskatchewan.The announcement declared that the following triage system would determine which, if any, Crown lands in the WHPA could be sold:

  • Approximately 1.7 million acres with high ecological value will be retained under Crown ownership and WHPA protection;
  • Approximately 1.3 million acres with moderate ecological value may be eligible for sale with the protection of a Crown conservation easement; and
  • Approximately 525,000 acres with lower ecological value may be eligible for sale, without restrictions.
While the conservation community might prefer that all of the lands be retained under WHPA and Crown ownership, this announcement introduces an important new "science-based" Crown Land Ecological Assessment Tool, or CLEAT that allows the government to "categorize lands based on their ecological value and risk of development."  

As much as we might like to see CLEAT protect all Crown lands from privatization, at this point I think we have to congratulate and give credit to the Province, especially to Agriculture Minister Lyle Stewart, and to the hard-working biologists, ecologists, and agrologists in Saskatchewan Environment and Sask Agriculture. In cooperation with Saskatchewan's primary conservation NGOs (Nature Saskatchewan, Nature Conservancy of Canada, Ducks Unlimited, and the Saskatchewan Wildlife Federation), they have developed a model and a land management strategy that clearly places a high value on public ownership of our most ecologically significant lands. CLEAT recognizes that the strongest form of protection is sustained public ownership, and, to quote again from the Province's website

"supports implementation of the Southern Conservation Land Management Strategy and its goal of maintaining appropriate protection based on land’s ecological values. The tool considers a variety of factors, including:
  • natural cover
  • unique ecological features
  • road density
  • species at risk reports
  • size of the parcel
  • proximity to other conservation lands
  • activity on adjacent lands
The assessment provided by the CLEAT is considered, during the review of the potentially salable parcel, to determine whether land may be sold."

It would be fair to assume that the province's scientists and the conservation NGOs will ensure that the PFRA community pastures will also be put through the CLEAT system and this new "Southern Conservation Land Management Strategy".

As everyone who has experience with the PFRA pastures knows, these grasslands would rise to the top of the list based on that list of factors used in CLEAT, placing them in the category of land that must not be sold.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

A visit to Chico Basin Ranch, Colorado

My wife Karen and I spent a pleasant four days in Colorado Springs area last week. Mike Siddoway, Associate Dean of Faculty at Colorado College, had invited me to come for a visit, read from the new book, The Road is How, and speak to a class in literature and science at the college.

The visit was wonderful in many ways--the class, getting to know birders and environmentalists, book lovers, and bright young students at the reading at the faculty club and afterward at a dinner hosted by Mike and his wife Chris, who teaches Geology at the college.

On the last day we arranged to have the education director at Chico Basin Ranch, Kathryn Baker, show us around this unique project east of Colorado Springs in the cholla cactus/shortgrass prairie. (See slideshow above.) Kathryn was a delightful host and answered my one hundred questions about how the ranch works. It seems to be a partnership between the State of Colorado and a private ranch family, based on a 25 year lease on the 87,000 acres.

The deal seems to be that the ranch operator, "Ranchlands", grazes the land under a cost scheme that commits them to follow certain conservation measures and to work with a range of conservation NGOs and government agencies to enhance and protect the ecological value of the grassland and its riparian zones. On the ranch's website, which is quite sophisticated, they say under conservation that they
"are fortunate to enjoy collaborative, working partnerships with respected organizations including the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, the Colorado Natural Heritage Program, the Colorado Native Plant Society, Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory, The Nature Conservancy, Colorado Division of Wildlife, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Colorado State University Extension, Land EKG, and Holistic Management International."
It would be good to hear from some of these agencies and NGOs to see if they feel that the management of the ranch is returning the benefits that the State of Colorado wants to see from this public land, but it certainly looked impressive while we were there.

A bird banding station from the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory (who endorsed the PPPI principles!), managers who seem genuinely concerned about conservation, a vacation ranch operation, apprenticeship programs, and open access for the public. I met two birders who were there for the day including the cheerful and very sharp Bill Maynard who writes a birding blog for the ranch.

As I traveled and spoke to staff and visiting birders, I had to wonder whether this kind of public partnership with private ranchers might work in Saskatchewan on public lands.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Greater Sage-grouse--a biologist's perspective

Greater Sage-Grouse on a lek in the United States, where so far it is still possible to see these birds enact their spectacular spring ritual. Photo by photographer and artist, Dennis Evans
Canada has many tremendous biologists employed in the Federal Government and in our provinces. They are really our most important defenders of our endangered prairie birds. However, Canada's environment is not receiving the full benefit of their work--in part because their recommendations are seldom followed by the upper level bureaucrats and politicians who set policy, but also because they can no longer speak to the public or share information with the non-profit conservation sector.

Fortunately, we have biologists who work outside government, in our universities and in the private sector who are free to speak. The following piece on the Greater Sage-Grouse was written by Saskatoon conservation biologist, Joe Schmutz. I think it is fair to say that Joe's perspective on the fate of this species and the Emergency Protection Order and how it relates to ranching likely reflects the views of many of our scientists working on grassland bird conservation in government agencies. Here is Joe's statement, which he has submitted for publication in the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix:

Will Saskatchewan have people and roads but nowhere to go?
The near turkey-sized sage-grouse of southern Saskatchewan (and Alberta) is colourful, offers spectacular mating displays and is specially designed by nature to thrive in sagebrush country.  The sage-grouse is also in danger.
Throughout our past the sage grouse provided inspiration for traditional dance in indigenous culture, and food for First Nations peoples and settlers.  When hunting became regulated, the sage grouse was protected, yet numbers dropped and kept dropping. 
Reasons for the decline include disturbance (e.g. oil and gas development), predation, accidents (e.g. crashing into fences at dusk) and disease.  Most importantly much of the silver sagebrush range that the grouse call home has been cultivated.  What sagebrush remains is thanks to ranchers. Halting the decline will not be simple.  However, options do exist.
Ranchers can adopt specialized grazing practices to benefit sage-grouse, including attention to grazing intensity, livestock distribution, onset of grazing and grazing systems, to use their own lingo.  The oil and gas under the small sagebrush range that remains will not spoil underground from a delay in extraction – it will gain in value.  Without the necessary collaboration and leadership, however, sage-grouse numbers will remain on their path to extinction in Canada.  It will be harder if not impossible to bring the grouse back.  Do we and our children care?  May we want to go down the road and watch the grouse’s spectacular display, or simply know that it remains a part of our province?
The federal government needed reminding in court of its promise to Canadians and its obligations under international conventions.  Then, late last year, an Executive Order for the protection of the sage-grouse was issued by the Government of Canada.  This dismayed the short-term oil and gas interests.  It remains so mishandled that it perplexed the ranchers, our necessary allies in the species’ conservation.
The management of sage-grouse is a provincial responsibility.  The federal involvement only happened when the Province was unwilling to be fully engaged.  Provincial ministers have been saying that they don’t care about birds.  What else do they not care about? 
The Saskatchewan provisions for protecting species at risk are buried in the Wildlife Act.  The provisions are so full of discretionary powers that, coupled with a stated lack of care, they do not inspire confidence.  Our provincial coffers bulge from the sale of public land, resources underground and public institutions.  If we are serious about protecting the sage-grouse, the many other species we take for granted and a functioning environment within which we prosper, then the environment minister and his staff need to be given the resources and the nod to do the job.  If enough of us care, then let’s let our elected officials know where the paved road should lead.

Joe Schmutz, Saskatoon

photo courtesy of the generous Dennis Evans

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