Friday, February 17, 2017

How is Saskatchewan doing on its protected area targets?

Sask is the worst of the larger provinces (chart from Environment Canada report)

Next week, environment ministers and parks and protected areas ministers from across Canada will be gathering in Alberta to meet with the federal minister of Environment and Climate Change, the Hon. Catherine McKenna. The plan is to talk about two topics: species at risk, and meeting protected areas targets.

Will Saskatchewan’s ministers be going? I phoned the offices of Saskatchewan’s Environment Minister, the Hon. Scott Moe, and our Minister of Parks, the Hon. Ken Cheveldayoff today to see if they are planning to attend. The woman who answered the phone in Mr. Cheveldayoff’s office said no, he will not be attending. When I called Scott Moe’s office I spoke to a woman in charge of his calendar and she said she cannot share the minister’s calendar details with the public, although yes he did receive an invitation. But, let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he will be there representing the province in this important discussion.

Why are protected areas important? Well, believe it or not, nature is actually the stuff that makes life possible on the planet—the soil, air, water, climate and species that we depend upon. The earth is running out of landscapes where those ecological goods and services are being protected from the kinds of urban, agricultural, and industrial development that harm them. Protected areas are vital sources of ecological integrity and diversity that we will need more than ever under climate change scenarios of flood and drought.

Over the last twenty-some years Saskatchewan has joined with the rest of Canada in signing a series of national and international agreements on protected areas, beginning with 1992’s United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity. That same year Saskatchewan signed on to the “Statement of Commitment to Complete Canada’s Networks of Protected Areas.” At that time, 12% was set as the target for protecting a percentage of each province’s total area. The intention was to protect that percentage of our forests, grasslands, and wetlands, to ensure representation of the full range of the province’s biodiversity.

Saskatchewan got to work and within five years unveiled its Representative Areas Network (RAN), devising a plan to reach the 12% target by the year 2000. While we were making steady progress in the early years of RAN, we stalled out at 8.7 per cent or 9.7 per cent depending on which report you read. Our grassland ecoregions in the south are stuck at well under 6%.

this graph from one of the more recent reports on protected areas
posted by Saskatchewan`s Environment Ministry shows
that we flat-lined in 2004

Meanwhile, the international targets on protection have moved. In 2010 Canada signed the Convention on Biological Diversity, raising the bar to a target of 17% by the year 2020.

So if you were Saskatchewan’s Minister of Environment heading to a meeting to discuss protected areas what would you report? What could you say about what your government has done in recent years and what it plans to do in the next few years?

Well, first you would point to a huge protected area we added to our Representative Areas Network in 2013—the Pink Lake Representative Area Ecological Reserve 160 kilometres north of La Ronge in the Churchill River Upland Ecoregion, the 3600 sq km reserve is our biggest protected area. That addition has the province now claiming that it protects 9.7% of its area—far below the target of 17% and still the worst in Canada excluding the maritimes and NWT.

But believe me it is hard to find any recent reports from Saskatchewan on protected areas progress. However, a friend just today sent me this map recently printed in Canadian Geographic (Walker, N. (2017). ["To preserve and protect: All of Canada's protected areas on one map." Canadian Geographic 137(1): 32-33.) celebrating all of Canada’s wonderful protected areas. ]

a snip from a map in Canadian Geographic article about protected areas in Canada

Yep, it is pretty up to date. There’s big ol’ Pink Lake, all fat and sassy up north so I am sure they got the data from the right source--the The CARTS (Conservation Areas Reporting and Tracking System) geodatabase, which is run by the Canadian Council on Ecological Areas.

But, hold on, down in the south there are all these little green dots that look very familiar (red circle in southwest corner on this map). Hey, what the heck!—Saskatchewan is still claiming the federal community pastures as protected areas!

That can’t be. Those pastures, all 1.8 million acres, are being leased out to cattle producers and run entirely for private profit from grazing. They have no support or programming for conservation, and the Province is trying to get the cattle producers to buy them! Manitoba decided to not sell their 20 pastures but even they have de-listed them as protected areas. Either the Sask. government is practicing make believe conservation here or playing fast and loose with the facts to make it look like we are making progress towards our protected areas goals.

Any way you slice it, Saskatchewan should have to remove 1.8 M acres from its protected areas tally. If we were honest and did delete them, this province would have to admit it is actually losing ground in its protected areas effort, and the grassland ecozone, already the least represented, would be looking very thin in any kind of protection—thank God for Grasslands National Park and the Nature Conservancy of Canada’s preserve at Old Man on His Back.

But let’s back up a minute—Saskatchewan doesn’t get all the blame for the loss of protection for the federal pastures. They were a federal responsibility for 75 years after all. Sure it was the Harper government that pulled the plug on the program, but the current administration can’t just shrug its shoulders and walk away from a process that is removing protection from millions of acres of the most endangered ecosystem on the planet.

It is not too late for Ottawa to do something good for the grasslands that Stephen Harper cut loose. This year will see the transfer of the last twenty or so community pastures. These are the big ones with the highest ecological value and the longest lists of species at risk. Most are in the southwest of the province. 

One trio—Govenlock, Nashyln, and Battle Creek—together make 812 square kms of grassland right along the Montana border—that’s bigger than Waterton Lakes National Park. There is a terrific opportunity here to grant official protection to the remaining pastures being transferred or at least to those three in the southwest. Failing that, the federal government has a responsibility to find its own way to ensure that the conservation legacy on the former federal pastures is not lost in the handoff from their agriculture ministry to the provinces to the private cattle producers who graze them.

But Saskatchewan has ample opportunity too with the transfer of the pastures to increase its protected areas quotient. It would not be hard—in fact, the Saskatchewan Party in its very first election platform promised us it would establish a new wilderness park. They have not delivered on that yet. We have two wilderness parks already in the north—Clearwater and Athabasca—why not make one in the south?

We could grassland wilderness park along Lake Diefenbaker from up river of sk landing to the bend south of Douglas plus parts of Beechy, Matador, and Monet. Gosh that would look good on a map, and make it a whole lot easier to attend ministerial meetings on protected areas.
much of that big streak of green along the South Sask River
could be included in a grasslands protected area or grassland
wilderness park

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Mapping Our Birds--the Saskatchewan Breeding Bird Atlas kicks off in 2017

this image I took of a Long-billed Curlew nestling (and others with parents in view)
 confirms its status as a breeding species in Grasslands National Park
How far south do loons breed in Saskatchewan? Are some songbird breeding ranges shifting north under climate change? Do White-faced Ibis breed in the Qu'Appelle watershed?

In the next five years, fresh answers to those and many other questions about the province's breeding birds will emerge. 2017 will see the launch of five summers of field work aimed at figuring out which species of birds are breeding where in Saskatchewan. While preparations and planning were underway last year, Bird Studies Canada (BSC) and its partners officially launched the Saskatchewan Breeding Bird Atlas in the New Year, with an attractive new website and a solid plan in place. 

To manage the data collection, the atlas design subdivides Saskatchewan into 6,900 10 km by 10 km squares. Even with that army of volunteers and a crack team of scientists, skilled staff people and an energetic coordinating committee, it won't be possible to survey every one of those squares. 

In a recent article posted by Planet S in Saskatoon, project coordinator Kiel Drake said that they will follow "a sampling grid" that will provide representation of the province's geography and birdlife, aiming for somewhere between 1300 and 1500 atlas squares. On each of these he said they hope to get 20 hours of "general atlassing". 

Even at the low target of 1300 atlas squares covered in five years, that amounts to a total of 26,000 atlassing hours--more than five thousand hours a year. That could be achieved with fifty atlasers averaging 100 hours a summer or 100 atlasers averaging fifty hours--or some such multiples.

Daunting? Perhaps, but Manitoba just finished up their five years of survey work--and if they can do it so can we. This is where you and I come in--as volunteers. 

Of course the more skilled you are at identifying birds the better, but not everyone is a hotshot ear-birder who can nail down the hiss of a Nelson's sparrow a half kilometre away. Meanwhile, there are thousands of Saskatchewan people who are confident identifying certain familiar species--for example waterfowl or farm yard birds. They may not think of themselves as birders but they pay attention to the birds they know and leave the rest aside. This too is a perfectly legitimate way to help out as a citizen scientist. For the Saskatchewan Atlas project you could sign up to help in your region (the province is divided into sixteen regions, each with their own volunteer coordinator), and then simply report breeding data on the species that you can comfortably identify.
a screen capture of the southern half of the Breeding Bird Atlas map of regions

And if you choose to, you could take some of the bird ID training that will be available during the atlas project, and increase your list of the birds you can identify. 

Regardless, throughout the five years, there will be help on hand if you are uncertain of the identification of a particular bird. Of course it helps if you can take a photograph, even a fuzzy one, and email it to your regional coordinator.

As for the more skilled birdwatchers out there--now is the time for you to step up and give something back to nature. You have had many pleasant hours chasing vagrants, watching the warblers pass through on a spring morning or the hawks head south in fall. The birds need you to give a few of your mornings this summer to the atlas. The breeding data you help gather will provide the kind of information we need to recognize, defend and protect breeding habitat from south to north in the province. Without solid data on breeding bird populations, the pressure to reduce regulation and government oversight, and the logic of endless economic growth will continue to destroy the places our birds need to nest and rear their young.

Healthy landscapes that support a diversity of breeding birds are healthy landscapes for all of us. 

Please register to help with the atlas when you get a minute--using this web page from the Saskatchewan Breeding Bird Atlas site.

this dapper fellow, a Black-crowned Night Heron, breeds at certain choice
wetlands throughout Region 8 of the Sask. Breeding Bird Atlas

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Grasslands National Park--finding your "prairie eye"

Grasslands NP in October, image by Andy Goodson
What do you see when you head out on the prairie?

Bill Holm, the great poet of Minnesota prairies, wrote about the “horizontal grandeur” of prairie, that it “unfolds gradually, reveals itself a mile at a time, and only when you finish crossing it do you have any idea of what you’ve seen. Americans don’t like prairies as scenery or for national parks and preserves because they require patience and effort. We want instant gratification in scenic splendor as in most things, and simply will not look at them seriously.  . . .There are two eyes in the human head – the eye of mystery, and the eye of harsh truth – the hidden and the open – the woods eye and the prairie eye. The prairie eye looks for distance, clarity, and light; the woods eye for closeness, complexity, and darkness. . . . One eye is not superior to the other, but they are different. To some degree, like male and female, darkness and light, they exist in all human heads, but one or the other seems dominant.”[i]

[i] Bill Holm, The Music of Failure, Prairie Grass Press, 1990

If you have a minute and want to exercise your "prairie eye," take a look at this photo essay, with photos by Andy Goodson and Sean Hootz and story by Goodson. At the end of last October, the two of them visited the West Block of Grasslands National Park with some friends and then posted a photo essay on a beautiful website they maintain, featuring landscapes and wildness in

These guys have a feel for how to photograph big landscapes. There are several terrific images of the bleak beauty and grandeur of the park as it settles in for winter.

Part of the charm of the story is Goodson's candour in relating their apprehension as they arrived at the park and got their first look at the landscapes and campground. People like Goodson, who have seen a wide range of native prairie landscapes in Saskatchewan, know that the west block of GNP does not have the immediate postcard appeal of some other places--Jones Peak, the Matador, Swift Current Creek, Wood Mountain, the Cypress Hills, and the Killdeer Badlands of the East Block, but, as the story attests, once you get away from the Ecotour and wander over a few buttes and coulees, the scale and sweep of the land, the sense of liberty it inspires, just overtakes you.

The secret is to spend at least two or three days. A three-hour tour won't do it. Luckily, their group stumbled on the North Gillespie range east and north of the campground where there are miles and miles of native grass and a powerful sense of prairie wildness.

If you plan to go to the West Block, that is the section with the best hiking and feel for prairie solitude and wildness. Here is a map with the best areas circled in RED.

Map from GNP West Block Brochure, showing in red some of the wildest landscapes (click to enlarge)

But do check in at the Park Centre in Val Marie to get access and road condition details and a good map--you'll need it. (Park Brochure here.)

An October ramble through the North Gillespie range at GNP, image by Sean Hootz

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Farmers hurt by Yancoal’s divide and conquer strategy: a guest post

Residents of the area surrounding the proposed Yancoal mine gathered Tuesday afternoon in Earl Grey to voice their opposition to the project. (image from CBC News site )

From an enthusiastic note in a Kijiji notice posted by someone in Ontario who wants to sell his mineral rights for $1000 per acre to cash in on the Yancoal potash interest in the region north of Regina:

"Saskatchewan is already well known for its potash mining and now another massive, multi-billion dollar project could soon be developed north of Regina.  
Chinese-based Yancoal has been exploring and studying a potential site about halfway between Southey and Strasbourg. The company recently carried on to the feasibility stage. 
"It looks pretty promising," said Strasbourg Mayor Ken Swanston. 
Swanston indicated Yancoal is getting pretty close to the start of construction. He figures shovels could be in the ground as soon as next year. The company's website confirms that plan, with the mine scheduled to be in operation by 2020. Their goal is to produce 2.8 million tonnes of potash annually. 
"The longevity of the mine, they figure it'll last anywhere between 65 and 100 years," said Swanston. "We're hopeful around here in Strasbourg that we get some spinoffs, and I'm sure Southey as well, whether it be for housing or shopping."

I don't know everything there is to know about Yancoal but many people in the Southey--Earl Grey region, especially those without land or mineral rights they want to sell, are upset and feel the Province is not listening. (See this CBC story when the Province approved the environmental assessment for Yancoal in August.)

Nearby, in Fort Qu'Appelle, the Qu’Appelle Valley Environmental Association has opposed the project citing concerns over the amount of water the mine will use and the likelihood of contamination to watersheds.

Living in a dry land with a vulnerable and limited water supply, everyone in Southern Saskatchewan should be worried about letting a Chinese company use 11 to 12 million cubic metres of water annually from the Buffalo Pound reservoir to dissolve potash. 

And a lot of people are worried. Last year the Province received more than 800 public submissions to their environmental assessment for the project--a huge number. No one will say how many of the submissions were opposed to the siting of the mine and its projected extraction of water from the Qu'Appelle system, but it seems likely that most were.

At the same time, town administrators in Southey and Earl Grey are boosters for the project and a small number of area farmers like the idea.

For some insight into the people who are in favour of the Yancoal project, take a look at the following guest post from Braden Schmidt, a farmer in the Earl Grey area who speaks to a common concern for wildlife and habitat that may be affected by the Yancoal project:

Yancoal Canada Resources Co. is a subsidiary mining company of Yanzhou Coal Mining Co., owned by the government of China. With the support of the Saskatchewan government, they are charging forward with plans to build a solution mine on top of local farmers north of Earl Grey in the Rural Municipality of Longlaketon #219. With world-wide operations in China, Australia, and South America, Yanzhou has the capital to bribe locals with enormous sums of money. And that is exactly what they have done.

One farming family sold several quarters of land to Yancoal for as high as $720,000 per quarter, well beyond what neighbors would be able or willing to pay. That is about five times the current market value of farmland for the area where a good quarter could fetch anywhere from $120,000 - $150,000. Any farmer can quickly confirm that commodity prices have not jumped in price by five times, nor have input costs dropped by this factor. This payout is certainly a boon for those who own the land desired by Yancoal, but what about the remaining landowners who want to continue their operation? Many of these are multi-generational family farms with a deep commitment to their rural lifestyle and community. For some it would not be so easy to take the cash, uproot their lives, and move away. For others it would be downright out of the question. Farmers stuck with the land in the surrounding area will have to contend with the air pollution, increased noise and traffic, and groundwater contamination.

"What happens when the cement drill casing fails and salty brine enters the pristine water table?"

Yancoal insists that their extraction methods will not endanger the integrity of the Hatfield aquifer, which provides drinking water for not only the community and several towns but also their livestock. What happens when the cement drill casing fails and salty brine enters the pristine water table?

Needless to say, the mining proposition has caused some contention among landowners as Yancoal continues to drive the community apart on this issue. Yancoal is not here for the good of the people of Earl Grey, Strasbourg and Southey. They don’t actually care about any of us despite what your gullible neighbor may be telling you. They are a large, faceless, foreign mining company and will do whatever it takes to get that potash on a train and send it to the Port of Vancouver. Despite increasing opposition to Yancoal from local landowners, the project seems poised to move forward.
three whooping cranes were spotted this past spring near the Yancoal site. (This lovely image courtesy of the ever-generous Kim Mann)

However, a sighting of whooping cranes near the proposed mine site last spring may provide yet another reason to stop Yancoal. The cranes were spotted in April 2016 resting on their route from their wintering grounds in Texas to Wood Buffalo National Park. They came very close to extinction in the 1940’s when only 20 individuals remained on the entire planet. The population has recovered with a rigorous captive breeding program but they are still considered critically endangered.

Unlike mining, grain and livestock production can still occur without completely wiping out the landscape and polluting aquifers. It is sad that locals need to seek out endangered species to provide a solid platform on which to argue their right to continue farming and uphold their rural lifestyle.

The farmers and locals of RM #219 don’t necessarily have to be bird enthusiasts or conservationists to appreciate what the occurrence of these critically endangered species might mean for their community as they continue to struggle with a foreign bully such as Yancoal. The protection of wildlife habitat may not be near the top of the list for reasons not to develop a mining project but it should be.

If there is something to learn from the visit of the whooping cranes, it is that the local people have maintained agricultural land that supports wildlife, even endangered species. Placing it in the hands of a Chinese mining company with a poor environmental record puts that agricultural land, and any habitat it provides, at risk.

another great photo courtesy of Kim Mann

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

BBC on Grassland: Planet Earth 2

BBC's new Planet Earth episode on grasslands
David Attenborough has finally brought his dulcet tones to bear on the planet's grasslands in episode 5 of Planet Earth 2. Cue posh public school accent:

"One quarter of the earth is covered by a single, remarkable type of plant . . . Almost indestructible, it can grow two feet in a day and be tall enough to hide a giant."
It is available online for viewers in the UK at the BBC website. Others have found it in other places online but I couldn't tell you exactly where. . . .

My review? Well, it contains the usual stunning imagery and life and death drama you see on BBC nature programs, but if you are looking for north America's grasslands you may be disappointed. There is one short segment on bison and red fox (!?!) in winter on the Great Plains--the rest is shot on other continents.

Here is a bison....

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

WWF report: 53 M acres on Great Plains converted since 2009

a page from the just released WWF "Plowprint Report" for the Great Plains
According to The Washington Post, a report just out from the World Wildlife Fund "argues that the continued expansion of cropland in the region may be threatening birds, pollinators and even drinking water, while releasing millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year."

WWF data shows that 53 million acres of land in the Great Plains have been converted to cropland since 2009. From 2014 to 2015 alone, approximately 3.7 million acres were lost. 
when native grass is plowed as this was in the summer of 2015, tons of carbon are released

According to the WWF's annual "Plowprint Report" ,published annually to show the loss of grassland habitat, "in 2014, the Great Plains lost more acres to conversion than the Brazilian Amazon."

Where is this happening? Right here in Saskatchewan. In fact, Saskatchewan's White Valley Rural Municipality (Eastend area in the southwest of the province) had the highest rates of habitat loss among regions where there is important grassland bird habitat.

In general, though, as the report says, "the highest rates of loss occurred in the Prairie Potholes Region and specifically in the Canadian portion of that region. The rate of loss in this region is about twice that of the larger study region."

Here are the maps from the WWF Plowprint Report for 2016 (pdfs here for general info and here for facts and figures). Red areas in the map on the left show regions where the rate of grassland loss is highest (Saskatchewan is among the worst) and green in the map on the right shows what remains of native cover on the Great Plains:

Areas of greatest grasslands loss on the Great Plains, courtesy of WWF 

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Grassland Matters--talking to the Canadian Forage & Grassland Association

Baird's Sparrow in a hayfield

Next Wednesday, November 16, I have the privilege of addressing a national gathering of men and women who manage grass.

The Canadian Forage and Grassland Association is hosting its 7th annual conference next week in Winnipeg, Nov. 15 to 17. This is Canada’s only national forage-based conference and will highlight how the forage and grassland sector is a critical foundation for sustainable growth and development throughout the Canadian agriculture industry.

This year's theme is "Grass and Green in 2016" and begins with an optional pre-conference tour to Brandon on Nov. 15 to SG&R Farms and the Manitoba Beef & Forage Initiatives research farm. The main conference includes a trade show, several virtual farm tours, a banquet where the organization presents its New Holland-sponsored CFGA Leadership Award, and a full line-up of speakers on such topics as environmental protection, research at work, sustainable agriculture systems and forage export development.

During my presentation, "Grassland Matters: Some Thoughts on Grassland, Native and Tame, and Why We Need More of It," I will speak about why perennial grasslands, both native and tame, are important not only to the animals that graze them but for everyone; why they are overlooked as lands that must be conserved and fostered; and how producers and consumers, rural and urban, Indigenous and settler people, can work together to conserve, and expand, Canada's grasslands.

While our native grasslands are in trouble, there is an important role for the tame forage community to play in addressing at least some of the issues associated with losing our old growth prairie.

So I will be talking about how not to give up on the life of the prairie that underlies the land no matter what is growing on top—and how the livestock and forage and grassland management world can be part of restoring health to the land.

Looking forward to meeting grass people there!

Bobolink on Smooth Brome

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