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

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Wyoming spends millions to protect Sage-grouse and their habitat--what about Saskatchewan?

from a website for the U.S. Western Governors' Association

The more I talk to the men and women who run cattle on government land, the more it becomes clear that, apart from their purchased lease rights, they don’t expect much from the rest of the world. They like the way they live and the places they live and they want to be left alone. If they must receive any notice, they would prefer that it was for having chosen to work with grassland rather than destroy it with a plough. And they want conservationists to see the irony and injustice in regulations that penalize ranchers for being the ones who chose a form of agriculture that, when it is done right, protects the oases of prairie remaining in the ecological desert of cropland. 

Recognition, though, will not be enough. If we want to protect rare grassland habitats and species without eroding the income of ranchers who agree to apply certain management practices, our provincial and federal governments will have to commit some significant funding. In the last nine years, the state of Wyoming has spent nearly $8 million working with ranchers and the resource industry to keep the Greater Sage-Grouse off the endangered list. How much has Saskatchewan (which has twice as many people and more than twice the government budget) spent to conserve or restore Greater Sage-Grouse habitat during the last ten or even twenty years? Nothing. 

In fact, Saskatchewan Environment several years ago abolished the one endangered species biologist position they had. The ministry now claims to have risen above endangered species management by taking an "ecosystems based management" approach instead. Which sounds nice, but if you only have enough budget to go to meetings and write strategic plans and reports and there is nothing left to support and implement actual plans such as the South of the Divide Multi-species Action Plan (a multi-stakeholder initiative primarily between the Saskatchewan Stockgrowers Association and many government agencies) then the ecosystems you talk and write about will continue to erode along with their many species at risk. It is time to put some money behind our planning and talk and take things to implementation in the field.

In the U.S., where state governments and the oil and gas industry are spending millions every year to work with ranchers and others just to keep the sage grouse off their Endangered Species List, the Governors (!) of eleven Western states meet annually to compare and compile sage-grouse protection programs, producing a report!

Meanwhile here in Canada, our politicians don't give the grouse a second thought as it moves rapidly from severe endangerment to extirpation.

The Greater Sage-Grouse is now Canada’s most endangered bird. Last week, I received word that one of Saskatchewan’s last sage-grouse leks had only two males dancing on a patch of grass that had once been stamped flat by dozens.  We may or may not be able to restore the sage-grouse, but there are many other grassland creatures declining now and they all need the long term protection and conservation management that public lands and public funding can offer.

Sage-grouse male on lek, image courtesy of Associated Press

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Sage Grouse EPO: mending fences with ranchers

the view across the road from the Nashlyn Community Pasture. 
Those who support the privitization of our community pastures say that there is no risk of cultivation because the land is too poor to be converted to crops. That even shade of light yellow on the other side of the road in this photo says otherwise. Many community pastures are engulfed by land that private landowners turned into grain fields when public policy and the market gave them incentives to do so.

We need public policy and grassland  advocacy that will ensure that any conservation concerns--whether it is an endangered species or carbon sequestration--will give our cattle producers who graze on our remaining native grass the right kind of incentives.

Earlier this week Lorne Scott and I drove to the town of Consul to meet with some of the ranchers who raise livestock in Saskatchewan's southwest corner, where the grass is short and the moisture scarce. We thought there might be ten show up for our discussion in the hall, but by the time we sat down to talk it was twenty-six, including three or four women.

Many who came were very concerned about the Greater Sage-Grouse Emergency Protection Order. They showed Lorne and me a Rural Municipality map they had prepared outlining the zone in which the order will apply. There were strong feelings in the room and some strong words came out right away on the topic of the order and what it means for their livelihoods and the value of the Crown grassland they lease. We heard several ranchers state clearly that the order as it is will hurt their ability to make a living. They spoke eloquently about their experience with Sage Grouse and other wildlife, and said that they feel betrayed because the EPO seems to attack the very people who are living on the prairie and practicing a form of agriculture that prevents it from being plowed and seeded to crops. They also said that they believe the conservation agencies and organizations focus too much on this or that species without looking at the overall picture from a balanced perspective.

Regrettably, we did not have enough time to talk through all of the details of the order and air every concern, mostly because there were other things we had gathered to talk about.

But they made it very clear that there will be no progress on any other topics, possible partnerships or cooperation with conservation groups until the immediate concerns of the EPO are addressed. That seems fair. This is spring and people with land affected by the EPO have to know what they can and cannot do when they head out to their pastures to work.

Before the meeting was over, there was agreement to meet again. The plan is for everyone interested to read the EPO on their own, make notes, and then we will meet to nail down the parts of it that need to be changed for livestock producers to be able to carry on with their operations without incurring new costs or forgoing income. Once we have that done, the next step will be to take it forward to the Federal Government explaining the exact concerns of producers.

Here is a link to the EPO online. It is only nine pages with the important details on what is and is not allowed (actually half pages because as a federal document it has to be in both English and French), and then more than 100 pages that simply list the legal descriptions of the affected provincial and federal lands."

It is hard to say where this will all end up, but the conservation community has a moral obligation to work with producers to ensure that the wider public pays the costs of Sage Grouse recovery.  Any measures that pile most or all of the costs onto the ranchers who lease Crown grasslands will hurt all prairie conservation goals in the long run.

horned larks, the first grassland songbird to return in spring, were courting just inside the fence line of the Nashlyn pasture


Thursday, March 27, 2014

PCAP research suggests it may be time for EGS programming in Sask.

click here to go to the PCAP document on EGS
If nothing else, the Sage Grouse Emergency Protection Order is showing us that rules and regulations will not work if there are no programs that grant value to the actions producers must take on their leased lands to help a species at risk recover. But will the public, and our elected representatives, take the next step of finding some money to develop and institute such programs?

A survey conducted by the Prairie Conservation Action Plan (PCAP) in Saskatchewan a few months ago seems to suggest that we may be getting there and just need a little nudge.

PCAP is a high level partnership that brings together diverse stakeholders from the Saskatchewan Stockgrowers Association to the Sask. Wildlife Federation, to the Society for Range Management and various provincial and federal government agencies.

One set of questions in the PCAP survey asked respondents how far they would go to support public policy that values the role livestock producers and farmers play in managing land in ways that conserve things like water quality and species at risk--what is often referred to these days as "Ecological Goods and Services" or EGS.

76.4% agreed that supporting EGS was about "being responsible toward the environment."  Ok, fine, but what about that next step of recognizing the value of producers who take measures to ensure EGS are maintained? Well, 59.2% said they "support programs that value farmers and livestock producers' roles in maintaining EGS." And 45.2% "support public investment into policies that promote EGS."

That last one is the sign that things are shifting, I think, even though at 45% we think "yeah but that is not even half of the population." These kinds of surveys will always show a high percentage of folks in favour of a public good--for example, better roads in your town--but when you ask how many are actually willing to reach into their pockets to pay for the necessary work the numbers will drop below 50%. I don't care if it is roads, libraries, or climate change measures--this is what you get in a survey. It is in our nature to want public goods but not always be willing to pay for them to be fostered and maintained.

The analysis at the end of the document perhaps says it best:

"Survey results indicate 45.2% of the public supports public investment into policies promoting EGS. While work needs to be done to promote the values that farmers, livestock producers and other land managers are doing to provide EGS to the public, a baseline has now been established of current public opinion, which will be useful for partners or sectors developing or evaluating EGS programs."

Ranchers' current concerns over the Sage Grouse Emergency Protection Order present an opportunity to move from "stick" to "carrot" in the way we handle our endangered species recovery. It is time that governments come forward with some money to develop programs with producers at the table, along with conservation NGOs--programs that reflect the public's interest in supporting EGS so that a Sage Grouse will be an asset on your land instead of a liability. Anything less is not likely to help this bird that may well disappear from the Canadian sage brush plains in the next few years.

image courtesy of Alberta Wilderness Association

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Message from a rancher affected by the Sage Grouse order

Greater Sage-Grouse (image courtesy of John Carlson)
Today's post is a message that came to me from Randy Stokke, one of the ranchers who manages a large stretch of Saskatchewan's Crown grasslands in the southwest. For generations, cow-calf operators like Randy have been supporting their family by grazing the native grass that also supports many plants and animals that Canada now lists as Species at Risk. As I often point out in this space, to remain healthy grassland needs the disturbance provided by grazing. And, in a world where every landscape needs to pull its weight economically, the private management provided by stewards like Randy Stokke helps keep the land under natural cover and is one of Canada's best examples of sustainability in agriculture. In leasing Crown grasslands over decades and often passing the land lease down from generation to generation, these ranching families know that they are protecting the ecology of the natural prairie. They have seen what happens to native grassland that is not treated properly and they believe strongly in keeping the prairie grass side up.

That natural and traditional ethic should make such ranchers strong allies of those of us who are concerned about conserving our remaining native grassland ecosystems, and over the years there has been a lot of co-operation between private ranchers and groups like Nature Saskatchewan and the Alberta Wilderness Association.

But it has always been a tenuous relationship because none of us have as much skin in the game as the folks who live on the land. If your livelihood and retirement plans depended entirely on the income you can gain from your leased and deeded grassland, you too would be wary of anyone else--in government or a conservation organization--who shows up with ideas, suggestions, or regulations that may affect your income.

Some of the land that Randy and his sons run their cattle on (he uses the term "private crown lands" to describe his leased Provincial land) has been listed under the new Emergency Protection Order for the Greater Sage-Grouse as "habitat that is necessary for the survival or recovery of the Greater Sage-Grouse."

Though in the past Randy has welcomed sage grouse researchers and other biologists onto his land (he says he has not seen any sage grouse on his land for twenty years), as this message shows, he may well be wondering if that was a good idea.

This is not a lone voice. I believe that Randy Stokke's words represent concerns being expressed by many if not most of those people who have land listed in the EPO. We need to start listening and the find a way to start over. Most important of all, we need to get the Federal Government to come back to the table with some serious money that will ensure that having Sage Grouse habitat on your land does not become a cost and a liability. Paying a zoo to captive breed the birds may play well to the public, but those millions of dollars should be spent on a program that will ensure that our rancher-stewards can be fully engaged and involved in developing a recovery model that has a real chance of working.

The EPO as it stands will do nothing to help the Greater Sage-Grouse because it does not have the support of the people we are expecting to follow it.

I would love to hear from Environment Canada people or other biologists who have some ideas on how we can fix this mess.

Here is Randy's message (I placed two sentences in boldface that I think are especially important):

Hello Trevor:

I was reading your blog on the sage grouse this morning and felt the need to contact you with some comments. I am a rancher in the Consul area. I am one of the unfortunate land holders whose lease was selected under the EPO for Sage Grouse. I was at the meeting in Consul. Because of the EO I and many other landholders have been forced to take time out of our busy lives to research the sage grouse and the implications of the Species At Risk Act (S.A.R.A.). My family and many others like us have been observers of this land and the wildlife for generations as most ranches in this area of Sask and also SE Alberta are the 3rd and 4th generations on the land. The majority of us find the science behind this to have many flaws and inaccuracies.

I or none of my family was ever contacted by any of the conservation groups who were clients of Ecojustice to see if we could help in SG recovery. You can imagine the concern we felt when receiving a registered letter informing us that some 7500 acres of our lease was selected as habitat and was put under an EPO with enforcement under SARA. This was in early Dec. 2013. It is very difficult to talk to anyone in Government during the holidays. Our first contact explaining the Recovery program for the SG was the meeting in Consul. They explained the recovery strategy. The science behind it which we now realize is flawed.

The recovery strategy from first appearance made it seem as there would be very little effect on us. We have now realized that there will be many possible intrusions into the managing of our land. The SARA regulations are nothing more than marshal law on landholders. The permit process for fencing and water development will be slow and takes the management for these decisions out of our hands. To comply with these prohibitions will be at our expense. Grazing of livestock is recognized as necessary but they use words like light grazing and timely grazing. The research I have done into SG studies all recommend grazing reductions. In fact if we followed the recommendations of some biologists we would not be allowed to graze any livestock. As most research has been done in Wyoming and other states south of our border it doesn’t take into account climate and weather conditions here.

There was a study done at One Four Research Station in Alberta from 1929 to 1939 on the effects of livestock grazing and how it affected the different species of native grasses forbs and brush. It is rather interesting how areas not grazed lost the same amount of species of plants as the grazed areas. There is no mention in the recovery Strategy of any compensation or alternate grazing if we are forced to reduce or adjust our grazing. So again this will be at our expense. The land is our retirement program as most livestock producers have spent most of their equity in maintaining their ranches due to BSE and other political restrictions on trade. The EO on the land will definitely lower the value of my deeded land as most ranches in this area sell as a complete unit. It is the only way to make these ranches viable.

We and all other landholders in the south feel that we are under attack from conservation groups. We feel these groups are blaming us and oil and gas for the loss of the SG and we know that that is far from the truth. There are large areas where there has been no oil and gas activity but yet there is no SG. The Govenlock PFRA pasture has had good grazing management and yet no SG seen there for 20 years. We know it is environmental conditions, extended droughts through the late 80’s and 90’s severe winters. There are many predators that have increased in the last 15 years, some by conservation efforts. The west nile virus is quite established in this area it has killed many birds and horses in the past year. We know as observers of this habitat that biologists seem to have tunnel vision when saving species and that most of us with cooperation from these people could manage wildlife far better.

We would like to see the EPO removed from private crown lands and a more cooperative approach with biologists, landowners and oil and gas interests. It needs to be recognized that with compensation to landholders for assistance in species recovery it will happen faster and with less conflict between the different interest groups.

There is much at stake here and we need to get it right for the benefit of all concerned. I hope this sheds some light on how we feel.

Randy Stokke
Sage brush habitat (image courtesy of Hamilton Greenwood)

Friday, March 14, 2014

American Sage Grouse authority laments Canada's failure to protect the species

one of many empty Greater Sage-Grouse Leks in Saskatchewan
The Sage Grouse Emergency Order declared by Environment Canada appears to be going sideways.

So far, we have a commitment of millions of dollars to let the Calgary Zoo try captive breeding of the birds, and ranchers all over south-eastern Alberta and south-western Saskatchewan severely ticked off and feeling like the government and conservation groups never listen to them.

More than one ranchers has used the term "Marshall Law" to describe the way the order came down and some of them, unfortunately, are blaming the conservation NGOs for the contents of the order and the way it was rolled out.

To be clear, the conservation community was as surprised as the ranchers have been over the approach that Environment Canada has taken.  And most people concerned about the species are wondering why the lion's share of the money seems to be going to a zoo for captive breeding.

Last week, I received an email from Stuart Houston that included a statement from his American friend and colleague Clait Braun, one of the continent's foremost authorities on Sage-Grouse conservation and recovery.

Braun has published more than 200 scientific peer-reviewed and technical publications, and is a past president of the Wildlife Society, of the Wilson Ornithological Society, and of the Colorado-Wyoming Academy of Science

Perhaps most famous for conducting the studies that led to the Gunnison Sage-Grouse being declared a separate species of Sage-Grouse, he is a forthright voice for the conservation of native birds and wildlife on American public lands.

The author of the solicited paper "Blueprint for Sage-grouse Conservation and Recovery" , Clait Braun knows Sage Grouse (he has banded more than 13,000) and is well aware of the story unfolding now on the Canadian Plains.

Dr. Clait Braun (image courtesy of Youtube)
In his message to Stuart, Braun spoke candidly of the situation north of the 49th parallel.

His words are direct and carefully chosen. We would do well to listen--and it is also time we started to listen to the very real concerns of the cattle producers who feel like they are being asked to shoulder the costs of implementing the conditions of the Emergency Order:

"Canada has treated their small population of Sage-Grouse very poorly through their Species at Risk Act and predecessors. Ottawa and the Provincial governments in Alberta and Saskatchewan knew from the work of Cameron Aldridge near Manyberries in the late 1990s and early 2000s that the population was in a free fall as a result of grazing, plowing of grasslands and planting of cereal grains, and oil development. Government just ignored the science. Ottawa still seems less than interested and the 4.2 million $ over 10 years to the Calgary Zoo to develop and implement a captive breeding program does not address the main problem---loss of habitats---which is not easily reversed. The 4.2 million $ will be mostly squandered as others have learned it is very difficult to keep Sage-Grouse alive in captivity let alone produce enough offspring for release to maintain the Canadian genotype. It is likely to be what Aldo Leopold termed a 'straggling' failure. Sad."

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Selling the Crown jewels of our grassland ecology

who will ultimately end up owning the community pastures?
A lot of water has gone under the bridge since the Province first announced it would sell the 60 PFRA community pastures which comprise some of Canada's most ecologically important remnants of native prairie. 

No pasture patron group to date has offered to buy one, choosing the lease option instead. In fact, so far, only a couple of pasture patron groups have come to terms with the Province and agreed to lease.

Meanwhile, although it is not mentioned that often, the Province is not backing down on its ultimate plan to sell off, piece by piece, our heritage and birthright as prairie people.

If you look at the Powerpoint presentation that Sask Agriculture has been using to explain how it is handling the transfer of the PFRA community pastures from federal to provincial jurisdiction, there is the following slide announcing that "Sales can take place any time after the transition date."

Further on in the same presentation, there is another slide that talks about pricing, using the example of one of the first pastures being transitioned, Lone Tree, down on the Montana border south of Val Marie:

Eight million dollars is hard for a small group of pasture patrons to come by on their own so the sale option seems to be less of a threat for now. 

For now, but not for long. 

By 2017 when these pastures are all transferred, half of the patrons will be 60 years old or more and ready to retire. There are not a lot of young cattlemen coming along to replace them, thanks to years of bad agricultural policy and rising land prices, so the patron groups may end up having to give up their leases because they do not have enough cattle to fill their respective pastures.

So what happens to the pastures then? When the patron groups default, the province may well begin to sell off the land to outside investors. It could be big players in the cattle industry, large feedlot operators, feeder cattle operations, or meat packing companies. But it could also be oil and gas companies, who would be more than happy to purchase hassle free access to large stretches of grassland where they operate.

Meadowlark with mayflies, courtesy of Hamilton Greenwood
The Province assures us, however, that selling the land is just fine because they are putting conservation easements on anything they sell.

Conservation easements may stop new owners from ploughing the land, but that assumes they will be monitored and enforced. History has shown how little environmental monitoring and enforcement our provincial governments have been able to manage in the past. Just ask anyone who has reported a neighbour channelizing and draining land illegally. Even more important, though, a conservation easement does not ensure proper grazing management and stocking rates, and does not protect the land from market pressures that could lead new owners to favour short-term and private gain over long-term and public ecological values. 

A conservation easement will not on its own replace the prudence, stewardship, and vision that has for decades led the decision-making and planning for these lands while under Crown control. Even if we are lucky and conservation-minded ranchers buy the land and steward it well for a few years, eventually they will sell the land. No one lives forever and younger people are not staying at home on the ranch. Eventually, the good stewards will end up selling for one reason or another. 

And it is that second generation of ownership that is most worrisome of all. Sooner or later the land will end up in the hands of someone who will not be as good at balancing economic and ecological values. Crown ownership protects land from this kind of abuse. That is why governments own land of high ecological value and that is why we must do what we can to ensure that this land remains part of the public trust.

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