Thursday, September 24, 2015

Photos and a video--from this summer's research

sunset on the northern range at Old Man on His Back
This summer photographer Branimir Gjetvaj and I began working on a book that will use photos and stories to draw attention to the human and natural heritage at stake on our remaining wild prairie in Saskatchewan.

While Branimir was crouching over things with his camera or running to catch the last rays of magic hour, I would often take out my point and shoot and snap a few shots. This post shows a few of those moments, as well as a short video I made using clips during a tour of grassland places with ranchers and conservationists and Canadian Wildlife Services staff.

Just across the border into Manitoba there is a PFRA community pasture that contains a historic site and active cemetery where the Metis settlement of Ste. Madeleine lasted from 1880s to 1939. The local Metis still come to celebrate their culture and ties to Ste. Madeleine, as well as to bury their loved ones.

Three-flowered avens, chickweed and native grasses surround the headstones at Ste. Madeleine

In early August we went to Caledonia-Elmsthorpe PFRA pasture--one of the prettiest pastures and only an hour south of Regina. The Saskatchewan Trails Association and Public Pastures – Public Interest sponsored a weekend of exploring the pasture on horseback and on foot. Here is a shot of Branimir with two horses and their riders (on left is Sharon Elder, the dynamo who did all the work organizing the event).
Branimir at work on Caledonia-Elmsthorpe Community Pasture

A creek at Caledonia.

This is Nick Schmidt, the new manager at Lone Tree Community Pasture south of Val Marie right on the Montana border. Lone Tree is now managed and leased by a grazing corporation made up of former patrons. Nick lives on the property and is working with the leaseholders to manage the pasture.
Nick Schmidt, pasture manager at Lone Tree Community Pasture

Nick was one of the many people kind enough to host those of us who were on tour sponsored by the South of the Divide Conservation Action Program (Sodcap).

SODCAP seems to have some good energy and good people on its side--I think we can expect to hear some good pilot projects coming from them in the next year.

I learned a great deal on the two days of that tour sitting between ranchers and conservationists and Canadian Wildlife Service representatives--all equally motivated to find ways to ensure our grassland species will survive in healthy populations.

This photo shows our tour surrounded by the hills of Lone Tree pasture.
Sodcap on tour at Lone Tree Community Pasture

The day before we visited a ranch managed by Orin Balas, chair of the Prairie Conservation Action Plan. Here he is talking to Bob McLean, Executive Director at the Canadian Wildlife Service.
Rancher Orin Balas (left) and CWS Executive Director, Bob McLean
Orin's rangeland was possibly the healthiest looking piece of native prairie I saw all summer--almost no weeds, and grazed enough to keep the grass in good condition. It looked like excellent Sprague's Pipit habitat, and Orin is doing what he can to help provide the pipit with the right habitat.

Here is a close-up shot of speargrass and dotted blazingstar on the uplands on Orin's pastures looking south toward the Frenchman River north of Val Marie.

And here is a shot of rancher Tara Mulhern Davidson, who works for SODCAP, helping us identify grasses at Orin's place.

And here is a video showing footage from Orin's pastures and a broad valley at Lone Tree where we spent the afternoon.

And, finally, a gratuitous bluebird shot, just because.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

US Sage Grouse decision only days away

The deadline is September 30th but there are indications that the US will make a decision to list or not list the Greater Sage-Grouse as an Endangered Species as early as September 15.

The video shown above--a trailer for "The Sage Brush Sea" airing Sept. 16 on PBS--is from a documentary produced by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, one of the conservation movement's brightest stars. The lab also published on their web site a very helpful piece entitled "Five Things You Need to Know about Greater Sage-Grouse and the Endangered Species Act."

The story includes the following map, showing how the range has retracted and how the overall population has declined by 95%--most recently and dramatically due to oil and gas development in the species' range.

Whether the species is listed or not, the massive conservation efforts launched on its behalf south of the border will continue and the entire ecosystem and its increasingly rare species stands to benefit.

The American program to save the Greater Sage-Grouse is the largest single-species effort ever for conservation. And part of what is making it work so well is that hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested into the private lands of ranchers to make their land healthier.

People in Canada's government wildlife agencies and in the conservation and ranching NGOs are beginning to see that a parallel effort in SW Saskatchewan and SE Alberta will be necessary if we hope to hold onto our remaining Sage Grouse and many other grassland species at risk.

All that is missing is the political will and funding to get some pilot projects and programming underway.

Here is one more video from the Cornell Lab.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Ask your local candidate what they will do to protect the prairie

Taken in a coulee at the south end of Lone Tree pasture (former PFRA, now privately managed)

With a federal election on the horizon, we have a chance to ask candidates what they will do to foster the kind of private and public stewardship that will protect our native grasslands and the many rare creatures they contain.

There are lots of things you could throw at the candidate standing on your doorstep looking for your vote, but here is a quick review of what has happened to Canada’s best protected grasslands since 2012. [If you know this stuff, skip to the bottom of this post for a couple of questions you can use when speaking to political candidates and their supporters.]

That was the year that the federal Agriculture minister, Gerry Ritz, announced that his ministry was discontinuing the federal community pasture program, turning 2.2 million acres of grassland, much of it native, over to the provinces of Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Saskatchewan chose to lease out the pastures to the grazing patrons who use the pastures, just as they lease out smaller co-op pastures and private leased Crown land. 

But there would be no effort to continue any conservation programming for species at risk, and most of the provisions under the federal Species at Risk Act would no longer apply to the rare plants and animals on the land. The conservative stocking rates of the PFRA system to conserve the ecology and viability of the grass would be replaced with higher rates set by the province and the leaseholders. And the stronger federal restrictions governing oil and gas development on pastures would no longer apply.

So, what does this mean to our native prairie? What is being lost? In Saskatchewan: Geographic Perspectives, Bernard Thraves described the federal PFRA pastures in Saskatchewan as “vital reservoirs of biodiversity . . . [that] deliver essential ecosystem services, such as protecting watersheds and soils.” In the same paragraph he mentions that the World Commission on Protected Areas lists the PFRA pastures as Class VI protected areas, providing critical habitat for endangered species, and says these public lands were recognized in the International Convention on Biodiversity, adopted in Rio at the Earth Summit in 1992.

Justifying his decision, Mr. Ritz said repeatedly that the PFRA program had achieved its goals and therefore could be discontinued. Really? Have I missed something? Have we somehow once and for all managed to conserve our soils, watersheds, and grassland ecosystems into the future? Then how do we account for scenes like this being played out each summer in Saskatchewan?
native grasslands ploughed up north of Swift Current this summer

But even if the grass is not ploughed, a healthy grassland can become overgrazed and infested with invasive species, and lose its species at risk within a few years if pressure to increase revenues overtakes conservation values. 

This summer the southwest of the province had a reminder that drought changes everything. What if we receive the longer, more intense droughts widely predicted by climate-change models? All too soon, we could be wishing we still had the research capacity and rigorous management systems of the PFRA to fall back on.

The PFRA has been a smart investment for Canadians, returning far more in public benefits than its meagre costs.

A study sponsored by Agriculture Canada in 2006 estimated those benefits at $55-million a year, compared with the $22-million required to administer the pastures, more than half which was covered by fees charged for grazing cattle.

Phrases such as “food security” seldom arise at the coffee shop or rink, but many farmers know the PFRA was a bulwark against the forces now consolidating and globalizing the beef industry. With large feeder cattle operations and foreign-owned meat processors tilting the marketplace their way, community pastures have at least the capacity to sustain smaller operators, keeping our national livestock herd connected to local economies.

So that is what Stephen Harper’s government abandoned when Gerry Ritz cut the PFRA pastures. Here are a couple of simple questions to ask a candidate looking for your vote in the upcoming election:
the grace and beauty of Caledonia-Elmsthorpe PFRA pasture, one year away from its transition to private management
  1. The federal government recently abandoned the PFRA pastures system. How will you and your government ensure that there will be publicly accountable management of these important grasslands and other Crown grasslands managed by private producers?

  2. How do you intend to protect the environmental benefits and the cultural heritage our Crown grasslands provide for Canadians, and the grazing opportunities that they offer for smaller livestock producers?

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 (],
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 (

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.

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