Tuesday, August 18, 2015

A video: remember the prairie when you vote this fall

Here is a short video I made (with the help of my daughter) showing landscapes from a PFRA community pasture that is a well-kept secret in this province.

To see it in a larger format on YouTube, press the play button below and then mouseover the black area at the bottom of the video image and click on the YouTube logo when it pops up.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Chaplin Lake Shorebird Reserve: we can have both clean energy and birds

Chaplin Lake is one of the most important IBAs in the province
Natascia Lypny's story in today's Star-Phoenix and Leader-Post about the Chaplin wind energy project does what any good journalist does with a conservation issue related to development--it looks for the tension between two sets of interests. But in this instance, because wind energy is also a measure that in the long run helps keep the planet healthy, both "sides" are being expressed by the conservation interests, represented by nature groups and a bird scientist, Dr. Chris Sommers.

Somers and Nature Saskatchewan's Jordan Ignatiuk each make some cogent, fair-minded comments that capture the complexity of trying to balance the need for protecting bird habitat with the need for clean energy. Late in the story Chris says "There's a cost associated with generating any kind of energy, and we really just have to make sure we get the right balance, and I think that's what goes into this kind of decision."

Someone reading the story might think, "where is the conflict here? The bird people are not taking a strong stance to protect Chaplin Lake." 

But that is exactly how it should be--conservation people concerned about birds are not enemies of the wind energy sector; they are natural allies. They want clean alternatives to fossil fuels as much as anyone. They know that any wind farm will kill a certain amount of birds, but they know too that the death toll and habitat disturbance can be minimized with proper siting.

Bird Studies Canada (BSC), an affiliate of BirdLife International, is one of the continent's most important bird conservation organizations. They sponsor or support some of our best avian research and try to help Canadians conserve hundreds of sites across the country where birds congregate, migrate, and breed in large numbers through their Important Bird Areas (IBA) program. Chaplin Lake is one of these IBAs.

Given global concerns about human-induced climate change, Bird Studies is a strong supporter of clean energy. They want to see more wind farms in Canada and are always open to working with the wind energy industry to help minimize risks presented to birds and bird habitat. Here is what their recently updated statement on wind energy developments says on "Location of Wind Energy Developments":

Wherever possible, wind energy projects should be situated in areas that are already highly compromised by human development (e.g., in areas of intensive agriculture or urbanization) rather than relatively pristine areas, to minimize impacts on both wildlife and their habitats. Exceptions include cases where highly compromised sites are known to support important ecological functions such as roosting areas, lekking sites and migration corridors. Wind energy development should avoid natural areas containing populations of species at risk, known migration pathways of national or regional significance, and areas where birds are highly concentrated (e.g., waterbird colonies, shorebird and waterbird staging areas).

There is no need for conflict over wind energy. What is needed is an independent, made-in-Saskatchewan plan that considers all of the factors that must be taken into consideration when siting a wind farm: bats, birds, and other conservation values, social and aesthetic values, acoustic issues, and others.

This may sound like a tall order but it is being done in Europe and elsewhere on this continent. With the wind capacity we have in this province, we have an opportunity to be a leader in developing wind farms that are sited properly. This project at Chaplin is a good starting point. What can we do to bring conservationists and wind energy developers together so we get this right?

Here is a clip I took last week showing sanderlings feeding at Chaplin Lake:

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

77 wind turbines at Chaplin Lake will place birds at risk

The Endangered Piping Plover will be even more endangered if
the Chaplin wind farm goes ahead (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)],
via Wikimedia Commons

It is nearly impossible to keep abreast of the threats to our prairie wildlife that arise each week. I hear or read about some fresh mayhem to be spread upon the land and then I hear of another imminent disaster and the first one slips my mind.

Some time ago I read in the paper that the province had approved a large wind farm project to be constructed at Chaplin Lake. I read the article over a couple of times, thinking at first there must be another Chaplin Lake. Surely Environment Canada and Saskatchewan's Environment ministry would not approve a wind farm near the Chaplin Lake, the one that is an internationally recognized migration stopover for a million or more birds each spring and fall, the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve, the Birdlife International Important Bird Area, the place where one-third of North America's Sanderlings feed each year on their way north, where several species at risk nest, including nearly 4% of the planet's Piping Plovers.

Now, like most people, I like the idea of wind energy. There are some big environmental benefits to be had with wind, but they can easily be negated if the siting is wrong.

as many as 40,000 to 50,000 Sanderlings
have been seen at one time at Chaplin

Still not quite believing our environmental agencies are that far gone, however, I looked for more details online.

I found a "Terms of Reference for Environmental Impact Statement" drafted by Stantec Engineering for Saskatchewan's Ministry of Environment, and paid for by the private company building the wind project.

The plan, indeed, is to erect 77 massive wind turbines just north of the Chaplin Lake reserve and start operating in 2016. Here is a map showing the area affected by the turbines.

I also found a slide show put together by Stantec for an open house in 2014, in which they reassure everyone that there is a very low risk to birds.

I not convinced. Why? First, because people who have worked for these consulting companies have told me how frustrated they are knowing that the work they do is not sufficient to assess the risk to the habitat and species concerned. They put in the hours and do their best, but in the end they know that their research is just not up to the job.

Second, independent grassland biologists have told me in confidence that no scientist would take the research of companies like Stantec seriously; that their "science," often conducted by people with undergrad degrees in biology, is bogus; and that they are sent out to do a minimal amount of field work in studies that are not properly designed--all to jump through the hoops and satisfy the Environmental Impact Assessment requirements, which in this province have proven again and again to do very little to protect our environment.

To properly ascertain the threat to birds that nest in the native grassland where the turbines will go and to the waterbirds that use the wetlands at Chaplin, you would need several skilled field technicians on the ground for at least a couple of years, spring, summer and fall. What's more, their data gathering methodology would have to be designed by a qualified scientist to ensure that it has some integrity and rigour. If Stantec's "research" at Chaplin were ever submitted to a refereed journal on avian ecology my guess is that it would be promptly filed under "G" (garbage or greenwashing, take your pick).

Seventy-seven turbines sited next to a globally significant shorebird reserve, but not to worry. The presentation by Stantec states that "WTGs [wind turbine generators] present low collision risks to shorebirds."

Gee, they better have that right because hundreds of thousands of shorebirds head directly north of Chaplin every spring. Are they all going to dodge the gauntlet of whirring blades?

Let's see what another study says on shorebird mortality--a study that is not paid for by a wind farm company. A Montana study sponsored by The Nature Conservancy (totally independent from the Nature Conservancy of Canada) looked into how best to site wind farms in that state without hurting prairie ecology. (Hmm--what a great idea.) Here is what they said about shorebirds and wind turbines:

"Stewart et al. (2007) reviewed numerous avian and wind studies and noted that birds in the order Charadriiformes (shorebirds) were among those most impacted by wind energy globally (second only to waterfowl)."

Go the executive summary of that paper by Stewart et al and you find this statement which mentions the high risk to shorebirds and also calls into question the often slap-dab approach used to assess risk for birds:

"Windfarms may have significant biological impacts, especially over longer time scales, but the evidence-base is poor, with many studies being methodologically weak, and more long-term impact assessments are required. There is clear evidence that Anseriformes (wildfowl) and Charadriiformes (shorebirds) experience declines in abundance, suggesting that a precautionary approach should be adopted to windfarm development near aggregations of these taxa. . . ."  

Now, this is the point at which proponents will argue that, while wind farms may kill some birds, high rises and roads kill many more. This is dubious logic at best, in part because we have far more buildings and roads than we have wind turbines on the landscape. Also, we generally try to keep glass high rises and roads out of internationally important bird migration and breeding habitat.

Wind power is a great thing--we need wind farms, but why site them on native prairie in a place through which great multitudes of birds move each year? In a single day there can be as many as 73,000 shorebirds pass through Chaplin.

We have all kinds of windy landscapes in this province where there is little habitat to attract birds--we call it cropland. A lot of our cultivated landscape is an ecological desert--birds stay away in the thousands and go to places like Chaplin. There is no good reason to site a wind farm in native grassland next to a wetland of international significance. Period.

The conclusion of the Montana study is instructive here:
"We estimate that in total about 17 million acres of available good-to-superb wind energy potential exists within Montana. Of that total, we have identified roughly 7.7 million acres with high risk [for wildlife]. We strongly suggest that these areas be avoided as locations for wind energy development, rather than considering mitigation approaches, as the lands identified are often critical habitat for multiple species. Through our analysis we have identified about 9.2 million acres that most likely present a lower risk of impact to resident and breeding species. This total includes the roughly 4.4 million acres of cropland we noted earlier in the report." 

Anyone can see that this just makes sense.

Here are some more photos of the shorebirds that come to Chaplin each year and will be placed at risk by the wind farm if it goes ahead:

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Photo gallery: watching the birds of Saskatchewan's native grassland

Earlier this month photographer Branimir Gjetvaj and I spent a couple of days driving and walking through parts of the province's southwest. Ed Rodger, who is Nature Saskatchewan's Important Bird Area (IBA) caretaker for a big stretch of grassland in that region, joined us. Fire bans kept us off the three big PFRA community pastures in Ed's IBA, but we drove the roads on their margins, and spoke to the manager of Govenlock pasture and the manager of Battle Creek pasture.  By the time we turned north to drive home we had seen a lot of grassland managed very well by both private and public managers.

On our drive south we passed a spot where a landowner had just begun plowing a pasture of native grass, a few miles north of Maple Creek. People in Saskatchewan Agriculture often say that no one plows native grass any more. Folks who live in the southwest and are concerned about the remaining native grass will tell you otherwise. (That is Branimir in the photo taking much better images.)

Camping at NCC's (Nature Conservancy of Canada) Old Man on His Back (OMHB) headquarters, we were surrounded by Common Nighthawks  (threatened species on the Species at Risk list) roosting on corral rails during the day waiting for the dusk sky to bring the insects out. I counted 13 on the rails during the day.

Another threatened bird we found at OMHB and at several other locations was the loggerhead shrike. This one was at the home of Sue Dumontel, who works for NCC.

The most abundant bird at OMHB and on many other grasslands we travelled through was the threatened Chestnut-collared Longspur.

The second most numerous songbird was the Baird's Sparrow--here are two shots

But the Sprague's Pipit (threatened) was almost as common. This is one of only three times I have seen a pipit on the ground so I am including this photo even though it is very poor.

My favourite bird moment of the trip was watching this Long-billed Curlew (threatened) in Arena Community Pasture (provincial), a lovely grassland of rolling hills west of OMHB.

We also found a few Ferruginous Hawk nests. At the road side in Govenlock PFRA community pasture we found a pair nesting atop a small building.

We conducted a nightjar survey one evening on a trail that started in OMHB and then passing through Arena community pasture.

Here is a really nice photo Branimir took of Ed and I listening to nighthawks as the sun set through a smoky sky.

image courtesy of Branimir Gjetvaj (branimirphoto.com)

During the survey we recorded several nighthawks and had a good look at a Burrowing Owl (endangered), one of Canada's rarest breeding birds. Here is a photo and a short video of the owl.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Photo gallery: the birds and landscapes of spring, 2015

Here are some photos of things that have caught my attention in May and June this year:
At Point Pelee we had long looks at this very famous and reliable
Rufous-phased Eastern Screech Owl



The breeding Prothonotary Warblers of Pelee Island where I attended the
Springsong Bird Festival again as guest birder, helping Graeme Gibson and
Margaret Atwood celebrate Canada's birds of spring.


Scarlet Tanagers lit up the Carolinian Woods on the island and
at Point Pelee
back home I visited the Spy Hill-Ellice PFRA Pasture
straddling the Sask/Manitoba border, working on a new
book with photographer Branimir Gjetvaj

This pasture is a wonderful piece of Aspen Parkland prairie and had
great expanses of Three-flowered Avens in bloom

Tufts of spear grass at dawn on the Spy Hill-Ellice PFRA pasture

 Yellow Lady Slippers in mid-June when we find them in ditches and
 nowhere else.

A calm morning on Cherry Lake

On windy days we see this large floating island of
cattails venture out across the lake and back again before settling
against the shore again until the next big blow.

A Cliff Swallow decided to renovate and take over an old barn swallow nest under
the eave of our cabin. Odd to see this colonial species all alone.


A strange sight on my Tyvan Breeding Bird Survey last week--
Ed Rodger and I found six Pronghorns near the town of Francis,
on a cultivated field, far from any native grass. A buck and five does.



Thursday, June 18, 2015

Making good on ecological goods: grassland carbon offsets?

Native prairie sequesters a lot of carbon so why can't landowners be paid for protecting it? (Image courtesy of Hamilton Greenwood)

Today an article on carbon sequestration in grassland came my way thanks to rancher and biologist Sue Michalsky. The story was posted on the website for Alberta Farmer Express and it is worth a look.

The writer, a range manager and mixed-farmer named Jill Burkhardt, opens by mentioning the provincial carbon offset program out of which many of Alberta’s no-till farmers receive payments. Now, of course, native grassland does a much better job of sequestering atmospheric carbon than even the best conservation tillage system so Jill asks a natural question: “why aren’t landowners with pasture getting paid for their contribution?”

I have wondered the same thing so I posed the question once to a lawyer who has done some work on carbon offset or carbon credit programs. He said that carbon credit systems depend on a protocol that can measure and prove what he calls “additionality.”

Additionality asks the seller of the carbon credits the following question: is the activity providing the carbon sequestration or emission reduction something that would happen even if it were not being used as an offset project? I.e. would it have happened anyway? If the answer is yes, then there is no additionality and nothing that can be legitimately sold as a carbon credit.
Sagebrush prairie (image courtesy of Hamilton Greenwood)

This means that native grassland that has been well managed by a single family for generations would not really be seen as providing any additional carbon sequestration, yet someone who buys a piece of broken land might theoretically be eligible for some credits if he plants it to perennial cover, because suddenly that piece of land would be sequestering a measurable increase in carbon.

I realize that that just seems wrong in a whole lot of ways so it is tempting to think maybe we can just ignore this additionality thing and go ahead and establish a carbon credit payment system for people who hold title to native grassland.

Maybe, but not likely. Governments that signed the Kyoto accord have to follow something called the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), a strict mechanism that is under increasing pressure from scientists and environmentalists to ensure that carbon offset programs, among other instruments, are legitimate and provide an actual net benefit.

Many ecologists and scientists—including Pope Francis in his new Encyclical on the planet’s ecological crisis (see point 171 in this pdf of the encyclical)—have criticized carbon offsets, saying they do not reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions (see this article inThe Guardian).
If additionality is a deal-breaker—and I think it is—then we are going to need to find a protocol that somehow measures and demonstrates real additional benefit with enough rigor to satisfy the accountants of the carbon offset world.

I am not sure how we can do that, but let’s hope there are some agile economic minds out there working on this very question, because it is indeed a challenge that besets the overall effort to compensate and recognize ranchers for their good stewardship. Whether it is carbon offsets or biodiversity offsets, we need real accountability for real and measurable benefits—anything less could backfire on us all in more ways than one.
image courtesy of Hamilton Greenwood

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Sheri Grant: A rancher’s photo album

at the Grant Ranch (all images copyrighted by and with
permission of Sherri Grant)
I spend a lot of time--some would say too much--talking about the forces that threaten the survival of Canada’s remaining native grassland, and a fair bit of my concern is based on a fear that those forces will make it harder for private ranching stewards to continue protecting the prairie.

(Not everyone would agree on what those forces are but here are the ones I would list: 1. the oil and gas industry, 2. agricultural policy that does not recognize the heritage and ecological values of native grassland, 3. economic pressures driving increased stocking rates; 4. ranchette development; 5. Privatization of public grasslands, 6. Miscommunication and division between rancher-stewards and scientists and conservationists, 7. the development of new crops that can be grown on marginal and sub-marginal lands, and 8. Lack of government funding for retaining range management specialists.)

The best cure for that worry is to talk to a rancher who pays attention to the birds and the plants on his ranch. These folks, and their culture of protecting the grass, form the linchpin of prairie conservation. If we expect the grass and its rare creatures to remain, the first job of our public policy on native grassland conservation should be to find ways to protect and support the kind of private management our best stewards provide. Government agencies and conservation groups simply do not have and will never have the resources to replace the stewardship role played by the many private cattle producers who know their land intimately and when and where and how much to graze.

A couple of weeks ago I received an email from Sherri Grant, who, with her husband Lynn and brother-in-law Dean, raises 1,600 head of cattle on more than 11,000 hectares of land near Val Marie, Saskatchewan. She had taken a couple of bird photos and wanted to confirm the identifications she had made. I replied and mentioned that I had interviewed Lynn many years ago for a CBC Ideas radio documentary I wrote on grassland birds.

Then, a week later this lovely shot of a grasshopper sparrow landed in my in-basket.
one of my favourite grassland birds--Sheri managed to catch the bit of green at the bend of its wing

This photo was clearly of a different order so I checked on Google and found her website . Turns out Sherri is a serious photographer and has a gallery of impressive images of flowers, landscapes and wildlife, all available for purchase online. That was when I wrote her again and asked if she would let me show some of her photos here on Grass Notes.

“First and foremost I am a rancher,” Sherri wrote in an email she sent, along with permission to borrow a few photos from her gallery, after returning from the Saskatchewan Stockgrowers Meeting in Swift Current earlier this week.

She says her passion for agriculture led her to become involved in agricultural education. She created a website of beef industry resources for teachers as well as the photographs and design for a children’s book, “Where Beef Comes From”.

Sherri took up photography when she heard complaints about the lack of beauty in her part of the province. She started by photographing local flowers on the native pastures where she lives and soon had a photographic collection of more than 70 species.

Here is a sampling of the photos she takes (click on any of them to see a larger version), but please pay a visit to Sherri’s website where she shares her images: www.sherrigrant.zenfolio.com

Calving time: Lynn out in the winter dawn light to help a calf in trouble

A bull snake, one of the reptiles found on native prairie

Gumbo evening-primrose (Oenothera caespitosa Nutt.), a flower that transforms
 from pink to white as it blooms by day

Smooth blue beardtongue (Pentstemon nitidus) one of the showiest of blooms
in the Frenchman River Valley

the future of prairie stewardship, heading for the buttes

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