Thursday, May 25, 2017

Grassland voices

the Western Meadowlark, one of the many songbirds that thrive on community
pastures--(image courtesy of Hamilton Greenwood)

On Saturday afternoon I am joining Ed Rodger, volunteer caretaker for the Govenlock-Nashlyn-Battle Creek Grasslands Important Bird Area in Saskatchewan's southwest corner, to sample breeding bird populations for the Saskatchewan Breeding Bird Atlas project.

We will head out each morning in time for the dawn chorus of bird song and record every bird we hear or see. (Information on the Breeding Bird Atlas here.)

The IBA is composed of three of the most ecologically significant community pastures in the federal community pasture program, which are all in their final year of operation as pastures managed by Agriculture and Agri-food Canada. Nashyln and Battle Creek are scheduled to be transitioned to private management by the grazing patrons but it remains to be seen what will happen to Govenlock, which, for now, remains federal land. Grassland conservation groups are waiting for the federal government to work out an agreement with the private cattle producers dependent on Govenlock--one that would ensure their grazing rights on acceptable terms while providing support and programming for biodiversity and species at risk conservation.

The vast stretch of native grassland enclosed by these three contiguous pastures (nearly 850 sq kms of land (330 sq. mi.)) hosts some of the greatest densities of species at risk on the northern Great Plains. At this time of year, the air above these lands is filled with the song of thousands of birds--grassland longspurs and sparrows, lark buntings, meadowlarks and pipits. Here are a few of them in living colour and full voice, courtesy of the video work of Wildbird Video Productions and others on Youtube.

First, the Chestnut-collared Longspur:




It's cousin of the short-grass, the McCown's Longpur, (Wild Bird Video):



The Baird's sparrow (courtesy of Birdchick):



Brewer's sparrow (Wild Bird Video), voice of the sage-brush country:


Its much rarer neighbour the Sage Thrasher (Wild Bird Video):


the Lark Bunting, with one of the most distinctive voices on the prairie (courtesy of VHS Ark):


everyone's prairie favourite, the Western Meadowlark (Wild Bird Video):


and finally, the song that falls from the skies, the Sprague's Pipit, which as this video illustrates, is one of the hardest birds to get a good look at (courtesy of Charlotte Wasylik):



Thursday, May 18, 2017

Grassland protection and loss--by the numbers


[Thanks to Katherine Arbuthnott of Public Pastures--Public Interest for gathering the data and research for many of the figures shown below.]

  • We estimate that we have somewhere around 20% of our native prairie remaining but it is a very rough estimate based on old and inadequate data. (See this document by the Prairie Conservation Action Plan.) According to the most recent estimates which are all based on research from the 1994 Southern Digital Land Cover (SDLC) Digital Data--Saskatchewan has lost more than 80% of its native grasslands to cultivation and urban development. We should have a more up to date and accurate figure, but the province has never done a proper inventory of its native land cover south of the boreal forest.
  • Per cent of grassland remaining by eco-region: 13% in aspen parkland, 16% in moist mixed grassland, and 31% in mixed grassland(From Hammermeister, A., Gauthier, D., & McGovern, K. (2001). Saskatchewan’s native prairie: Taking stock of a vanishing ecosystem and dwindling resource. Native Plant Society of SK report. And Statistics Canada census of agriculture, 2006; access here.)
  • Between 1971 and 1986, approximately 25% of grasslands were lost to agriculture, industry, and urban development.
    ( From Coupland, R.T. (1987). Endangered prairie habitats: the mixed prairie. In Proceedings of the Workshop on Endangered Species in the Prairie Provinces, Edmonton, AB, 24-26 January, 1986. )
  • Between 1987 and 2001, an additional 10% was lost across all eco-regions: 15% in aspen parkland, 8% in mixed grasslands, and 5% in Cyprus uplands. This means that approximately 1% of the small areas of native grasslands remaining are lost each year. (From Watmough, M.D., & Schmoll, M.J. (2007). Environment Canada’s prairie and northern region habitat monitoring program, Phase II. Technical report series No. 493. Environment Canada, Canadian Wildlife Service, Edmonton, AB.)























  • 85% of the land south of our forest is privately owned.
    ("Game Management Plan: 2017-2027", Government of Saskatchewan).
  • Saskatchewan has 24% of all private land in Canada, but merely 6.5% of the nation's total area ("Land Use in Saskatchewan," P.C.. Rump and Kent Harper, Govt of Sask, 1980). In Saskatchewan most habitat loss is driven by industrialized agriculture on privately owned land.
  • Some areas of Saskatchewan have among the highest rates of grassland habitat loss in the entire Great Plains.
    (World Wildlife Fund Plowprint Report, 2016.). 
  • The transfer of the former federal community pastures has effectively removed all conservation programming and protection from 1.78 M acres of land, which are all listed under Saskatchewan's Representative Areas Network as officially protected. . . at least for now.
  • The Province of Saskatchewan has removed another 1.8 M acres of public land in the grassland eco-zone from the Wildlife Habitat Protection Act to make it available for sale--effectively removing its legislative protection.
  • In its March Budget the Province announced that it is shutting down the Provincial Community Pasture program (another 780,000 acres, 590,000 acres of which have also been listed under Saskatchewan's Representative Areas Network as officially protected).

  • It remains to be seen whether some of these grasslands will be subdivided and sold, but if they are no longer receiving any form of government management or programming and will be treated more or less like any other privately leased Crown grasslands, their status as protected areas will eventually be lost.
  • This brings the tally of acres losing conservation programming and protection in Saskatchewan to more than 2.3 Million. That puts at risk more than one-third of the 6 Million acres in Saskatchewan's prairie ecozone officially protected under our (much neglected) Representative Areas Network.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

A farmer's "next challenge"?



Yes, listen up farmers—if you need advice you can always get it from a mining company’s billboards.

Because mining companies always serve the public good and treat the land really well. PotashCorp really cares about the starving multitudes all over the planet. And it cares about our prairie farmers who have to shoulder the responsibility of feeding the world—guys like the model in the new PotashCorp ads photoshopped in to make it look like he is outstanding in his field.

I bet they care so much they are even working on a program to help our farmers take up the next challenge after they feed 9 billion with unsustainable, petro-intensive, climate-change-driving high-yield agriculture. And that would be helping them come up with a way to explain to their grandchildren (and themselves) just why it was a good idea to remove every shred of natural cover on miles and miles of the land they manage. But that shouldn’t too difficult—you can always appeal to an authority like God or global trade, something like that:

“Well you see, theoretical grandchild, the Good Lord made this land very fertile—good for growing the wheat and canola that starving children eat all over the planet. We’ve been doing it here for almost 100 years. Your great-granddad was the first person to grow wheat in this part of Saskatchewan.” 
“Really? What was here before that?” 
“Oh, not much really. Just a bunch of grass. It maybe fed some buffalo and a few nomadic Indians who came by now and then but they are better off with the real food they have now. Your grandpa used to have a bit of that old grass where the school used to be but we crop that spot now. It’d be irresponsible to keep a piece of land in grass when it could be productive and feed people.” 
“Why are we feeding people who live so far away? Can’t they feed themselves?” 
“Well, that is a good question. Let’s see if I can remember my Econ. 101. Ok, here we have the know-how to use machines and chemicals and thousands of acres to grow a whole lot of food without having to employ many people. And we do that better than anyone on the planet. That is what economists call our ‘comparative advantage’. People who buy our grain and canola in other parts of the world might not be so good at feeding themselves but they have their own things they’re good at—things like, oh I don’t know, digging conflict minerals out of the ground to provide the rare metals Chinese people need to make your smartphone work...that kind of thing. It all works out quite nicely.”

“Yeah, but grandpa....” 
“Now you run along and play . . . grandpa has to go stand in the field and think about how he is going to feed 9 billion people.”

And now, it might be a good idea to clear the palate with some food for thought from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (click on the image below to see a larger version):

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Road Allowances: Restoring the Lost Kingdom of Monarchs and Lady's Slippers


Every scrap of public land is precious in a province that has privatized 85% of its prairie ecozone (and is working hard to sell off the rest). One type of public land that gets little attention is the undeveloped road allowance, a strip of natural landscape that is supposed to run along the edge of many sections of farmland in Saskatchewan.

Our road allowances—surrounding all land south of the forest in a grid every mile east and west and every two miles north and south—are often used to provide and maintain transportation and utility access through the landscape, serving the public interest. They form a network of commons upon the land that connects us to services and to one another. But road allowances that are not used for roads and other infrastructure have also historically provided refuge and connectivity for nature in agricultural landscapes—supporting the commons of healthy, diverse ecosystems we depend upon for our own health and wellbeing.

All told, these strips of public land only a generation ago protected hundreds of thousands of acres of habitat in this province. At sixty-six feet wide, each mile of undeveloped road allowance provides eight acres of habitat for an array of plants and animals. When they are left alone, they support a mix of native and introduced grasses and forbs, shrubs and trees in moister areas, and small wetlands. Here and there, scraps of native prairie will persist if no one has put them to the plow.

Historically, road allowances formed ribbons of nature around cultivated land, a wild kingdom belonging to no man where anyone was free to hunt, walk, camp, pick berries; where badgers, meadowlarks, and burrowing owls thrived, and where the lady slipper and the monarch butterfly took refuge.
Yellow Lady's Slipper in a road allowance in the RM of Indian Head


What happened? Farmers got scarce and farms got huge as the drive for efficiency took over. Now our few remaining farmers, using larger equipment and satellite guidance systems to seed, spray, and harvest tens of thousands of acres, have begun to look upon undeveloped road allowances as obstacles that can often be eliminated and converted into tax-free acres to bring under production. It’s just waste land—why not use it to feed the world with the cheap food it seems to want?

In some cases farmers go to their local Rural Municipality (RM) to request authorization to include the road allowance into their operation, but often they proceed without permission. A few hours on the right piece of heavy equipment, and any modern farmer can easily remove the natural cover, break the soil, and start treating the public land like it is theirs to seed and spray. In short order, the meadowlarks lose their nest sites, Monarch butterflies lose the milkweed they need to lay eggs, and the lady slippers and anenomes are replaced with canola and wheat.
a road allowance filled with Canada Anenome in the RM of Indian Head


What needs to be done? For thirty years or more, the Saskatchewan Wildlife Federation, with 25,000 members spread across the province, has been trying to work with RMs to conserve undeveloped road allowances. They urge RMs to voluntarily protect their undeveloped road allowances as habitat, by leaving them natural, discouraging unnecessary traffic, and posting them with signs.

But voluntary programs work better when the public gets involved and supports the effort. If you live in the country, talk to your RM and ask what they are doing to protect road allowances that do not have roads. See if they might consider instituting the Wildlife Federation’s Wildlife for Tomorrow program for road allowances. If your RM is already signed up, make sure you thank the reeve and let them know you support the protection of road allowances.

We will not be returning vast stretches of the native prairie to their former grandeur any time soon, but we do have it within our reach to surround our farm fields with strips of land that are sanctuaries and corridors for wildlife and carbon storage, natural protection against wind and water erosion, and places for the public to hike, ride horseback, pick berries, and let nature restore our senses.

[This post owes much to the work and insights of the great and gracious Lorne Scott, former Reeve of the RM of Indian Head, and a farmer-conservationist of wide reknown.)

Monarch butterflies, an endangered species in steep decline, depends
 on marginal habitat like road allowances where milkweed does not
get poisoned by roundup

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Conservation Saskatchewan Style: 15 of the species you can shoot get a ten-year plan

Nice bird, but it doesn't belong here and it gets more management attention
than at risk birds like the Chestnut-collared Longspur
(image courtesy of Hamilton Greenwood)
Saskatchewan's Ministry of Environment will soon be releasing its “Game Management Plan: 2017-2027.” 

I had a look at a draft a couple of weeks ago. Nothing wrong with it, for the fifteen game species it covers (two of which are not native to the continent).

But it is impossible to read such a plan without thinking of the side of wildlife conservation that is not getting this kind of long-range planning and programming in Saskatchewan.

When are we going to see a provincial plan for biodiversity, for our degraded and disappearing prairie wetlands and grasslands, and for the thirty-plus species at risk trying to hang on to the last scraps of prairie or make a go of it in private farmland that is being ditched, drained and bulldozed at a ferocious rate?

How about some a plan and equivalent funding for Representative Areas and Protected Areas programming?

Remarkably, at least in the draft document, the authors of the plan list the following as the plan’s first principle:

“1. Public lands, waters and wildlife are held by government in trust for the benefit of all people.”

Wow. Now that is crazy talk. I thought we were all about getting rid of public lands because our private landowners are so darn good at looking after habitat and wildlife needs. Or did these folks in Environment miss that memo? Or maybe they are just talking about forested public land and this kind of thinking doesn’t really apply to native grassland.

I have met some of the people who would have worked on this plan. The Saskatchewan Ministry of Environment has some terrific scientists, people who made a long investment in their education and graduated with high ideals. Some of them have done graduate work on the non-game species most endangered in this province, have studied the habitats we are losing, but now they spend their days counting white-tailed deer or moose and devising ten-year plans for “the responsible use and conservation of resources.”

Really? That’s it—“use of resources”? I thought Aldo Leopold put that ‘wise-use’ jargon to bed back in the 1940s. 

We can do better than this.
























It is embarrassing to live in a province whose only long-range planning for the wildlife we share under treaty is limited to 15 huntable species. Here is a list of the fortunate few who get the lion’s share of attention from our Ministry of Environment:

White-tailed deer, Mule deer, Moose, Elk, Barren-ground and Woodland caribou, Black bear, Pronghorn and these birds: Sharp-tailed grouse, Ring-necked pheasant*, Spruce grouse, Gray partridge*, Ruffed grouse Willow and Rock ptarmigan (*European species).

The other prejudice revealed in this plan is for forest over wetlands and grasslands. In the text of the plan, the word “forest” appears seventeen times, but grassland appears only four times and wetlands three times. Why is that? Only half of the province is forest. What about the wildlife where most of us live—in the south?

To answer that you have to go back to the plan’s first principle: “Public lands, waters and wildlife are held by government in trust for the benefit of all people.”

Our forests are 95% Crown land and that means we have some capacity to manage them for public values such as wildlife protection. Under “Maintaining Habitat on Crown Land,” the document goes on to say “the majority of remnant natural lands such as forests and native grasslands in Saskatchewan are publicly owned and confer a range of benefits to people including wildlife and habitat, water quality protection, climate regulation and recreational values. Effective management and stewardship of this public natural capital is critical for the achievement of the GMP vision and other ministry objectives.”

That sounds so good. What about south of the forest? As the plan states under the heading “Consideration for Game Management,” 85 per cent of Saskatchewan lands “south of the forest fringe are privately owned or managed. As such, the success of wildlife management programs largely hinges on the support of Saskatchewan landowners.”

How is that working out? According to the text under “Maintaining Habitat on Privately-owned Land,” there are some voluntary programs mostly funded by private NGOs, a couple of landowner recognition awards—again, NGO driven—and oh yes, some policies and legislation “intended to protect wildlife habitat.”

Well, this side of those best intentions and all that hinges on the support of Saskatchewan landowners, any reasonable assessment of the prairie eco-zone would have to conclude that things have become unhinged.

We have a government that wants to protect wildlife by looking for the support of private landowners and private landowners who would like to protect wildlife but want the government to support them. Caught in the middle, more prairie species are added to the endangered list every year, and more privately-managed habitat disappears down the throat of industrialized agriculture.

The plan opens with these words:

“Saskatchewan’s many and varied wildlife are a public resource belonging to all Saskatchewan residents. The responsible use and conservation of these resources, on behalf of the public, is the responsibility of the Government of Saskatchewan.”

Yep. Except when we are offloading that responsibility to private landowners and hoping for the best.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Inspiration from the best of our ranchers


Ponteix rancher, Orin Balas (left) showing his excellently managed prairie to
Bob McLean from the Canadian Wildlife Service

The Province is saying it will dismantle Saskatchewan's provincial community pastures system. Not good news, but here is a four-step process on how to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear:

1. First, for inspiration and food for thought, take a look at this short, ten minute video (below) put out by the South of the Divide ConservationAction Program (Sodcap). It is called "Prairie Pride" and features some of Southwest Saskatchewan’s best private managers of native rangeland, ranchers who graze large expanses of Crown grasslands on long-term private lease holdings—much of which would be included under the Wildlife Habitat Protection Act.

Listen to what they have to say. The video contains a hopeful, aspirational message that speaks to possibilities that could help us make that silk purse.




2.
Now, keeping in mind the stewardship ethos expressed so well in the video by those three ranchers—good people I have had the privilege to meet—let yourself imagine a partnership between private interest (cattle producers), the wider public interest (government administered Crown grasslands of various kinds), and the local community interest of rural areas—a partnership that would aim to foster a mix of private and public benefits: economic, cultural, social, and ecological, including improved carbon sequestration and climate resiliency.

How? Take the gospel of stewardship and prairie protection we heard from the ranchers in the video and use public policy to help it spread across our prairie ecozone to all land managers—First Nations, farmers, mixed farmers and other ranchers.

3.
Next, consider the moment and its rich possibilities:

a.) The last of the former PFRA federal community pastures, and the biggest ones with the highest ecological values in terms of biodiversity and species at risk density, are poised to be transferred to Saskatchewan and then placed into private management for cattle production by groups formed by the former grazing patrons.

b.) First Nations in the province are concerned about the sell-off of Crown lands and meanwhile are increasingly interested in land management opportunities.

c.) Organizations launched by ranchers, from Sodcap to Ranchers Stewardship Alliance to the Prairie Conservation Action Plan (PCAP) are concerned about the business risks that Species at Risk pose for private producers. This is a reality. If land managers see SAR as a liability, bad stuff happens.

d.) The Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture just announced that it is planning to close its provincial community pastures program, but it is inviting the public to join in a discussion on what should happen to these fifty pieces of land containing 780,000 acres, some of which is native and some of which is tame grass.

4. Finally, take a look at maps that show the federal and provincial pastures, as well as the Wildlife Habitat Protection Act grasslands nearby—here is an example below.
click on the image to see a larger version: pale green pieces are PFRA pastures,
the baby blue in the middle is Arena Provincial Community pasture, and the
small violet squares are WHPA lands leased as private holdings. Most of the dark
brown area remaining is private land that has been cultivated.


Now, keeping the grazing needs of cattle producers in mind, consider that as of today all of that land is still Crown provincial land—most of it leased out or soon to be leased out privately—but as Crown land it remains an instrument of public policy. Interesting possibilities come to mind, but any seizing of this opportunity would have to arise from the cattle producers of the region, but then widen to include the interests of the public that would ultimately be helping to absorb the costs of any programming or support.

Each region has its own soil and climate and therefore may need its own solution—a solution initiated locally that would honour and take advantage of the two kinds of range management knowledge that have been keeping the best of our Crown grasslands in good condition for generations: one, the traditional, intergenerational knowledge of private managers, which reaches back through some Indigenous land managers into the distant past, and two, the science of the range ecologists and biologists who support and work closely with private cattle producers.

With a new vision of how public lands, private interest and the community can work together in grassland regions, and the right support from the conservation community and federal and provincial governments, those two sides of range management knowledge and science could ensure that the example of stewards like those shown in Prairie Pride will not only live on in one corner of the province but will begin to spread to other areas as well.

Who knows? One day the pipits, longspurs, shrikes and burrowing owls that have vanished from large portions of their range might return. Once a better private-public bargain is in place and producers are feeling supported and appreciated, the ethic of stewardship could even extend to grassland restoration, helping to connect some of our isolated expanses of native grassland with richer habitat suitable for cattle production as well.

In the bargain, Saskatchewan could be proud of its contribution to national protected areas and carbon sequestration targets by working with land managers to increase our percentage of the prairie ecozone under protection and our net storage of carbon in soils under well-managed perennial cover. 

Now that would be prairie pride times ten.
Govenlock area rancher Randy Stokke on a Sodcap field tour


Thursday, March 23, 2017

Keep your hands off our public lands

image courtesy of Hamilton Greenwood


Ok, the vandals in charge of the legislature have delivered another sucker punch to our natural prairie, announcing in the budget that they will be disposing of the 51 provincial community pastures, likely putting them up for sale.

Among our large provinces and territories (i.e. excluding the Maritimes), Saskatchewan already leads the nation in the ratio of private land to public. Across Canada, 11% of land is privately owned. In B.C. 7% of land is private. In Alta, 30%. Saskatchewan is at 40% but south of the boreal forest in this province the figure is 80% and rising. In fact, believe it or not, by 1980 24% of all privately held land in Canada was in Saskatchewan[i]—almost all of it in the Prairie Ecozone. And now we are adding more?



southern Saskatchewan has 24% of all private land in Canada

Canada keeps its forested ecosystems public (94% of forested lands are Crown owned) to ensure they are managed for a mix of private and public interests. What about our grasslands, which have very little protection and are much more endangered than our forests?

Once we privatize Crown land, easements or not, we severely weaken our ability to create and enforce the laws, regulations and policies required to meet any priorities for sustainable grassland management for the wider public interest: climate change mitigation and carbon management, species at risk, biodiversity, soil and water conservation, heritage conservation, access for education and recreation....and so on.

Our Crown lands—so scarce in the south—are the last shadows of the prairies we were entrusted to share and protect together under treaty, the closest thing we have to land held in common for the benefit of all treaty people.

If we stand by and let this government sell them off, we will be abandoning any possible renewal of the spirit in which the treaties were signed, and inviting a new form of colonization taking us even further from any legitimate social contract with the land and its first peoples.

There is no dressing up this kind of decision—when you strip the protection from large expanses of old growth prairie that were listed under the province’s Representative Areas Network (RAN) you are essentially saying that their protection does not matter.

Crown conservation easements on their own cannot protect the habitat and its many rare and threatened species. Saskatchewan Agriculture has neither the staff nor the desire to monitor and prosecute private producers who violate any of its existing regulations—are we to believe they will enforce easements on all of the public lands they are selling off?

Twenty-eight of the provincial pastures totaling 240,000 ha (593,000 acres) are listed as protected areas under RAN, which contributes to Canada’s national totals of protected areas it reports to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Until the Wall government got hold of our Crown lands, Saskatchewan had 2.4 M ha (5.9 M acres) of land in the Prairie Ecozone under RAN protection. You could call that 2.4 M ha a good start but this government is taking the scant RAN protection we had in the prairie ecozone and slashing it by thirds.

First the PFRA federal pastures lose their protection and conservation programming. That subtracts 720,000 ha from RAN. Then they sell another 720,000 ha of Wildlife Habitat Protection Act lands that were also listed under RAN. Add the 230,000 ha portion of the provincial pastures that have been included in RAN and now instead of Saskatchewan protecting 2.4 M ha of the Prairie Ecozone, we are down to a mere 760,000 ha—which is about 3% of the ecozone’s 24 M hectares, and abysmally short of the Canada 2020 target of 17% protection for Canada’s ecozones.

Stay posted. This land is worth fighting for. On a stage in downtown Regina tonight, I heard Joel Plaskett and his father Bill sing a new song that ends with these words:

The next blue sky is ours. 
We're in this fight to win
and we will.

[i] Land Use in Saskatchewan. P.C. Rump and Kent Harper. Saskatchewan Environment. 1980. p. 56

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