Monday, December 21, 2009

Dreaming prairie, dreaming big

Sit any prairie ecologist or biologist down for a long enough chat—long enough to get past the litany of dwindling species, the details of research, and the cultural, political and economic obstacles in the way of recovery—and sooner or later you will hear, quietly, even reluctantly, a description of what could be done to restore the health of our beleaguered prairie ecosystems.

“Well, if we really wanted to help out the birds,” they say, “we’d have to find a way to set aside some very big pieces of prairie and manage them for biodiversity. You know, make a huge grassland reserve.”

The proper scale for a functioning grassland can be debated, but most ecologists would agree that big is good and bigger is better. Any hope we have of restoring and conserving even a facsimile of the original prairie wildness that greeted our settler ancestors will require some big thinking.

In recent decades, there have been a few different versions of this grand vision of renewing the plains over thousands of square miles. Some speak of a “prairie wildlife corridor,” similar to the Yellowstone to Yukon project, focussing on conserving the Rockies north to south in ways that protect wildlife that depend on the mountains. Some focus on the appealing idea of returning key species, in particular the buffalo, to large, unfenced sanctuaries. Others talk of targeting a percentage of grassland that governments around the world should be lobbied to conserve as a minimum.

It may have started with those much-maligned Eastern geographers, the Poppers, Frank and Deborah, when they made their proposal to create a “Buffalo Commons”. That was back in the 1980s. Prairie conservationists winced and ducked as the brickbats went overhead across the 100th Meridian. Prairie farmers don’t like having urban experts tell them what to grow, much less that they are a lost cause that has become too expensive to subsidize and their land should be returned to the buffalo.

When the Poppers came west on speaking tours in the ‘80s they needed armed guards to escort them in and out of venues. Conservationists and biologists have encountered the same hostility to any large scale grassland preserve proposals—especially if the proposal requires the removal of cattle. “You can’t do that. That’s taking the land out of production.” Prairie people harbour deep-seated assumptions that the prairie was made for them to produce high-yield crops or at least fat cattle, and any other use or purpose is unacceptable. It is this attitude that makes any ecologist hesitant to speak their mind on how to restore health to grasslands.

The Poppers are still working on the idea these days and have learned a great deal from their first forays into the re-imagining of the Great Plains. Here is a recent article they wrote on the subject.

Meanwhile, other groups have scaled the concept back down a bit. “The American Prairie Foundation” has a smaller, but still large enough, project underway in the United States. They say that their goals are as follows:

1. “To accumulate and wisely manage, based on sound science, enough private land to create and maintain a fully-functioning prairie-based wildlife reserve.
2. To provide a variety of public access opportunities to this wildlife amenity.
3. To ensure that the land remains productive in a way that contributes significantly to the local economy.

Sounds pretty harmless, but they are meeting some resistance from ranchers in the Montana area where they have been buying up land. Orion Magazine, one of my favourite publications, published an article on the foundation in 2006.
And here is a link to the APF website.

Yurt village for APF donors to visit the grassland project

This article in yesterday's Billings Gazette gives a more detailed and up-to-date account of the concerns of ranchers, which cannot be merely dismissed. The interesting thing about this controversy is that it has the Montana ranchers working to find new ways (they have always seen themselves as stewards of the grassland) of building conservation values into their operations.

People often ask me if there is any hope for our grassland birds, and I never know exactly what to answer with, but I can say that one of the places I find hope in our prairie landscapes is in the big dreams of people who are working hard to bring about big prairie preserves. APF is one way, The Nature Conservancy in the US is another, and the Nature Conservancy of Canada here north of the Medicine Line has its own approach. (Here are some others: Texas-based Great Plains Restoration Council; New Mexico-based National Center for Frontier Communities, which does research and advocates for small isolated communities in the Plains and across the country.) Because APF is a little more aggressive in its methods of buying land, they will run into some conflict. Land that once supported a handful of ranchers and their families may no longer be available for ranching, but there will be plains bison where the land has not had any for far too long and a big chunk of grassland will be managed primarily for biodiversity rather than economic gain. Is that not a reasonable compromise for a nation to make?

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Some News about Sprague's Pipits and Greater Prairie Chickens

Here are a few news items about grassland birds worth checking out:

Farmers already worried about listing the Sprague's Pipit in the U.S.

The Sprague’s pipit announcement in the US is getting a reaction from farmers worried that it might limit their freedom to use land the way they want to. Check out this recent newspaper article.

A male Sprague’s pipit keeps himself busy at two nests

In Grass, Sky, Song, I pose the possibility that many grassland birds may prefer to nest in loose colonies because adults like to maximize opportunities for having more than one mate at a time. Proving this would help biologists understand the dynamics of local bird decline, because birds with polygamous mating systems tend to need a certain number of their own kind to attract a mate and successfully reproduce. Unfortunately, we can’t prove this because so little research has been done on grassland birds’ breeding biology. Forest bird researchers have done more work in this area by marking adults and doing genetic analysis to prove that these “extra-pair copulations” are common and may ensure that the best genetic material gets passed on to each generation. Well, recently a Wilson Journal of Ornithology (121(4):826-830. 2009) article by Saskatchewan's Kim Dohms and Stephen Davis (who appears in GSS) proved that the male Sprague’s pipit can at least some times be polygynous and even tend two separate nests simultaneously. This was discovered not with DNA analysis but with a video camera recording the same male tending two nests. A couple of years of DNA analysis could show that there is a lot of extra-pair copulation going on in the world of pipits, and in turn help us understand why they are declining and what they require to maintain a healthy population.

Greater prairie chicken declared extirpated in Canada; was ignorance a primary cause?

The CBC web site made a valiant effort at attempting to explain why the Greater Prairie Chicken has been officially declared extirpated in Canada, but stirred a lot of confusion in the bargain. Read their item first and then take a look at the many pages of comments from readers, some of whom are sure that the report is simply wrong because they saw a “prairie chicken” just yesterday (i.e. sharp-tailed grouse, ruffed grouse, you name it), or that the bird never really belonged here in the first place and was somehow introduced by settlers!!

I sometimes find myself trying to convince my wife Karen that knowing the names of things is vital, that you need to actually learn the names of the creatures you share the land with if you want to live well with them. It is easy to say you love nature, but you only love and care for the things you know, and if you cannot recognize the difference between one creature and another, how could you even begin to understand its needs and how to live in ways that allow it to thrive? The confused comments from the folks who read this CBC report on prairie chickens show exactly why it is important to know the birds of the place you live; confirming the thesis that it is our very disconnection from wildness that keeps us in a state of chronic immaturity in which we not only destroy the things we say we love but cannot begin to understand or argue cogently for their value and protection.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Chestnut-collared Longspur hits Canada’s COSEWIC list; Sprague’s Pipit being considered for American listing

Chestnut-collared longspur photo graciously provided by Allan MacKeigan

Reading a posting on Christian Artuso’s birding blog (artusobirds) today, I got the news about Chestnut-collared Longspur being added to the list of threatened species maintained by COSEWIC (Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada).

Here is the official reason for designation given by COSEWIC: “Reason for Designation
This species is a native prairie grassland specialist that occurs in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. The species has suffered severe population declines since the late 1960’s and the results of several surveys suggest that the declines have continued over the last decades albeit at a slower rate. The species is threatened by habitat loss and fragmentation from road development associated with the energy sector."

I found this notice on a page buried in the COSEWIC website.

Not sure why, but I could not find a news release from COSEWIC on this new set of assessments. Other than Christian’s blog, there is nothing on the web so far covering the COSEWIC status changes, which should be worthy of news. Or are we becoming blasé about the decline of our native wildlife?

Sprague's pipit image provided by Stephen Davis

Contrast this with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who today announced in a press release that they are investigating the Sprague’s Pipit to see if it deserves federal protection as a threatened or endangered species.
A little more than a year ago, WildEarth Guardians petitioned the Service to list the Sprague’s pipit as threatened or endangered under the ESA. Here are some words from the press release: “The Sprague’s pipit may warrant federal protection as a threatened or endangered species, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced today, following an initial review of a petition seeking to protect the Sprague’s pipit, a prairie songbird, under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
The Service will undertake a more thorough review of the Sprague’s pipit to determine whether to propose adding the species to the federal list of threatened and endangered wildlife and plants. Today’s decision, commonly known as a 90-day finding, is based on scientific information about the Sprague’s pipit provided in the petition requesting listing the species under the ESA.”

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Grass, Sky, Song makes three "Best Books of the Year" lists

At year end,, The Globe and Mail and Quill and Quire make lists of the year's best books. Q & Q's paper edition and website call it, "The 15 Books That Mattered--Some are critical smashes, some are bookstore blockbusters. Some tackle difficult subjects, some are pure entertainment. Together, these are the books that had the biggest impact in 2009."

Here is a link to the entry for Grass, Sky. Song, where they (*blush*) say, "With a smattering of awards nominations this fall – for the Governor General’s Literary Awards, The Writers’ Trust Non-fiction Prize, and the Saskatchewan Book Awards – Grass, Sky, Song confirms Herriot as the pre-eminent prairie naturalist of his generation." GSS sits on the list with three other non-fiction books.

The Globe & Mail lists the top 100 books by category. GSS appears in the "Science, Religion, and the Environment" category (this is a category that might annoy some people but makes sense to me). The reviewer, well-known Winnipeg writer, Jake McDonald, calls GSS a "book-length prayer for the preservation of the last native grasslands and the birds that call them home. The book is as beautifully rendered as the land it celebrates. The writing, the illustrations and the design all rise to the level of art. Grass, Sky, Song is a mandatory buy for anyone who cares about birds and wild places."

Here is a link to the page listing Grass, Sky, Song in their top 100 books for 2009.

The listings have links to the original reviews of the book.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Coyotes bad; ponies good

More on coyote bounties:

This comment came from an ecologist who read the post on coyote bounties and adds. . . .
“The coyote is, technically speaking, a K-selected species - but the useful point about the r-K selection continuum concept, in speaking of the coyote, is that the coyote is on the r-selected end of the spectrum because it responds to an elevated mortality rate by producing more off spring. A very strongly K-selected species, such as a blue whale or a giant redwood, would respond to elevated mortality by going locally extinct (or maybe globally extinct if the increase in mortality rate was great enough). So the r-K selection idea is useful in talking about whether one species is more r-ish or K-ish compared to another species. It's a nice shorthand but, strictly speaking, most of the big, long-lived species are more K-selected than r-selected (in the classical sense). I think a good website for your readers might be this one.”

While taking a bounty out on a native predator, the Saskatchewan Government yesterday passed legislation to protect one population of a feral introduced species—the horse. (Here is a Youtube clip showing the backbencher who introduced the legislation.)

I love ponies as much as the next person, but horses do a lot of damage to native grassland when they are unmanaged and left to multiply. It is so much easier to get people to love and protect a charismatic creature like a wild pony, than it is to get them interested in the native prairie and the many grassland species in trouble in Saskatchewan. And it is frustrating to think that this kind of naïve, misguided gesture is made on behalf of a species that is merely an escaped population of farm animals—and a threat to the ecological wellbeing of our grasslands. Fortunately, this particular group of 40 horses is in a wooded area with perhaps little native grass. But what if another herd becomes established in a vulnerable piece of grassland—e.g. the Great Sand Hills—and the same legislation is applied? Here is what a conservationist friend (who wishes to remain anonymous) had to say about the situation:

“If we can't be bothered to protect our indigenous wildlife then we definitely shouldn't be putting legislation in place to protect some feral livestock. I do not know if Saskatchewan’s wild horses are damaging habitat in the Bronson Forest, but I have done a lot of work in the Alberta foothills where they have wild horses and I can tell you that they are causing a lot of damage there. Like many invasive species, horses have advantages that the indigenous wildlife do not have. Unlike bovids, they have both upper and lower front teeth which allows them to graze very close to the ground. In addition, they are the only ungulate out there without a cloven hoof - as you can imagine, the uncloven hoof makes them much harder on the soil. As unmanaged livestock, they are causing considerable damage. Unlike cattle, the wild horses in Alberta are out grazing fescue grassland just as it greens up in the spring which is the most damaging time of year. The wild horses in Alberta also tend to hang out in the same general location year round - close enough to human development so they don't have trouble with predators and on the most productive grassland. Alberta has a huge wild horse support lobby, as well as legislative protection for their wild horses, so it is difficult for Alberta Sustainable Resource Development to do anything about the ever-expanding wild horse populations. I would hate to see Saskatchewan put in the same position.”

Once again, we seem eager to adopt the worst of Alberta’s mistakes and turning them into law.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Coyote—predator as scapegoat

The Saskatchewan government has placed a bounty on coyotes. It came from the Agriculture minister because sheep and cattle ranchers have been demanding something be done to control coyotes. The provincial Environment department has ecologists who know that this kind of measure does not stop coyotes from eating livestock. Our universities have biologists and ecologists who could explain what happens when bounty hunters start killing a predator like the coyote. As a “k-selected” species, the coyote regulates its population according to food supply and mortality rates.
If there is abundant food but adults are being killed, the survivors, who are also the more successful and wise, immediately increase the brood size and numbers of pregnant females within the pack. Trying to control coyote populations by killing them has been compared to bailing a boat with a sieve.

Food is the main limiting factor for our coyote populations. One way to control their numbers would be to limit some of their food sources, but instead we have spread a banquet for them: road-killed deer are always left to be scavenged, dead farm livestock are dumped into the bush or ravine, pet food is left outside, cats run wild and feral over the countryside, gophers and mice multiply in the absence of the raptors that hunt them.

If there is a lot of food, there will be a lot of coyotes—no matter how many the bounty hunters kill. On the other hand, if people do not take measures to minimize food sources and scare away coyotes from their livestock and yard sites, they will continue to have encounters with “brazen coyotes.” This phenomena of the “brazen coyote” is new, not simply because there are more coyotes, but more importantly because there are more rural people today who inadvertently spread the banquet with their pets and garbage, but do not do anything to discourage the coyotes. Acreage people and often farmers themselves do not have the rifles at the ready and the inclination to use them to scare off or kill problem coyotes. When farmers do their own coyote control, any coyote who doesn’t have the sense to run from a human being or stay away from a yard site is not going to have the chance to pass on its genes.
A random bounty program to kill coyotes may eliminate some of the problem coyotes, but many more will be born to survivors as long as the food supply remains high and rural people encourage coyotes to associate farms and human habitation with food.

An interesting sidelight on the coyote bounty: I have heard via the grapevine that some of the loudest complaints have come from sheep farmers north of the Qu’Appelle in the Cupar/Lipton area, where British farmers have moved in recent decades to set up farming (here is a story of a sheep farmer who came from Scotland and who is now on the Saskatchewan Sheep Breeders Association Board.) They are undoubtedly a welcome addition to the local farm community, but if they come from Scotland or England they arrive with a certain set of expectations and experiences—about wildlife and about the government’s role in making the land safe for farming. Livestock farmers in the Old World got rid of all wild predators centuries ago, in an era when wild canids were thought to be evil and destructive vermin who have no value and should be eliminated.

We are supposed to be past that kind of superstitious scapegoating of predators, but this new coyote bounty seems like a lapse back toward that same old approach to our problems. Livestock producers have their share of real problems these days. With livestock prices low and feed grain prices high, it is a rough time for anyone trying to make a living by grazing animals. The long term solutions—disengaging from the unsustainable grain industry and getting prices for meat that would help producers balance the books while applying more ecologically sound practices—are not easily achieved or even accepted by our policy-makers right now. They hear all kinds of complaints from producers and want to respond but feel powerless in the face of systems controlled by multi-national corporations and global trade realities. The producers feel the same way and look around for something they think they can act upon—and all too often it is nature. When it doesn’t rain, grasshoppers give people something to focus on; when it rains too much, water is the enemy and must be controlled. In between, there are always unwanted grazers (gophers, and, formerly, bison), and if nothing else, unwanted predators.

I buy my chickens and some grass-fed beef from Leonard and Janet Piggot who ranch in that same Cupar/Lipton/Dysart area (here is their website). Last year, Leonard was noticing that some of the chickens were vanishing from his chicken pens. He keeps his chickens in large enclosures that he can wheel over the pasture day by day, spreading their manure and giving the birds fresh grass and bugs to eat. When I was visiting this spring I helped him build one of these enclosures and he told me the story of how he figured out the cause of his disappearing chickens. One night, he sat in his truck with his rifle at the ready and watched his chicken pens. Darkness fell and in the low light he saw a coyote sneak up to one of the enclosures and along one side to a spot where the bottom bar crossed over a small dip in the ground. As Leonard watched the coyote over the bead at the end of his rifle, he saw that the dip allowed enough space for the coyote to reach under the bar and grab a chicken. That’s when most of us would have shot the coyote, but Leonard didn’t. He told me it suddenly occurred to him that the coyote was just being a coyote. “I should’ve made the enclosure better” he said, “The coyote was just doing his job but it’s my job to make sure he doesn’t get a free meal off me.” This year his enclosures had flaps along the bottom bar keeping the chickens alive and the coyotes wild. Wildness is part of the reason Leonard ranches—it’s in his holistic plan for the land and his family and it was on his mind when he decided not to pull the trigger.

Leonard Piggot is an uncommon livestock producer, more focussed on the grass and the health of his land than on the bottom line, but I truly believe his way of being on the prairie is beginning to catch on—coyote bounties notwithstanding.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

An apology and retraction

Rock Creek in East Block of Grasslands National Park

I would like to apologize and retract most of what I said in my last posting here on Grass Notes. After receiving an email from someone who is helping to put together the Balancing the Bottom Line conference to be held next week in Saskatoon, I realized I had been far too harsh and dismissive in my remarks. The fact is, I don’t really know exactly who is going to that conference or what will be done and said there—I was just guessing, and being far too free with my opinions, which I based recklessly on the sponsoring organizations and the language being used in the promotional material.

When I got the email, I looked again at my posting and I could see that my remarks may be easily misinterpreted as blaming our unsustainable agriculture industry on conventional farmers. Right away my mind went to Troy Roush, an Indiana corn farmer who is featured in the documentary Food Inc. At the end of the film, after giving his humble assessment of the bind he and other farmers find themselves in, he makes a kind of pledge and it is the most moving statement in the whole film. “People have got to start demanding good, wholesome food of us and we’ll deliver, I promise you. . . That’s about all I’ve got to say.”

Troy Roush, Indiana corn farmer featured in Food Inc.

That is the real truth—until we begin asking (and paying) for healthy food grown in healthy ways, our farmers cannot be blamed for choices that we make first in the food aisle. If there are villains, it is our own government and the big agribiz corporations who profit most from the system—the rest of us, farmers and consumers alike, are victims of our own choices. All us are morally compromised to the degree that we benefit from a system that is unhealthy for people, rural community, and the land itself.

Most long-lasting social change is incremental and so it is encouraging to hear that farmers will be going to this conference and discussing how they might find ways of growing food that are better for people and for the environment. I am sorry if I in any way discouraged anyone from attending the conference and if someone attends and would like to send me a report of what they saw and heard, I would be happy to publish it here in this space.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Lies about agricultural sustainability; truth about education

rose hip along the North Saskatchewn River

[Update: Since writing the following post, I posted a retraction and apology. See my November 10 posting.]
In a given day, like anyone, I hear my share of lies and then every so often a piece of truth falls into my lap. The lies are plentiful, comforting, and easy to act upon. The truths are rare, disturbing, and, all too often, hard to act upon.

Today I received another notice inviting me to attend a conference about “agricultural sustainability.” They are calling it “Balancing the Bottom Line: practical tools and solutions for successful, sustainable prairie farms.” Over the past few weeks I have received several notices about the conference and while I could not tell right off where they stand on questions of agricultural sustainability, things became clear soon enough. The conference is funded by Viterra (the Wheat Pool updated with a corporate-sounding name concocted by an ad agency). I am sure the people attending this conference will all be fine gentlemen (very few women seem to be involved; contrast that with the food security alternatives conference I attended recently, which was 80% women), but I am also pretty sure they are conventional farmers who run massive, high input, high impact farms as they ride the monster that grain and oil seed farming has become today. Their idea of sustainable farming is using pedigreed GM seeds, high doses of glyphosate and artificial nitrogen to make their beleaguered soils produce maximum yields with minimum interference from weeds and other unwanted organisms. Yes, they are becoming more aware of the environmental issues that farming faces, but they don’t want to be outflanked by environmentalists, or by alternative agriculture and organics so they have caught onto the concept of “ecological goods and services.” In fact they are only too happy to point out that they are providing such services—and therefore they should be receiving payments or else why should they continue to keep that slough or patch of bush when it is clearly a liability?

In the end, there is a deep cynicism running through this kind of agri-business speak that comes from the technocrats and businessmen who run the grain industry. The farmers themselves are either naive or willing to take some comfort whenever it is offered: “You mean I can farm 34 quarter sections, spray it with approved chemicals and fertilizers, get enough yield to take a vacation in the Dominican Republic, and call myself sustainable? Wow, sign me up!”

But life offers the odd piece of truth and wisdom too. My good friend Joe Milligan sent me this short and powerful treatise on education by David Orr this morning and, though it is hard and uncompromising, as truth usually is, reading it felt like an act of absolution for my own participation in a world that is so very fond of its myths. Take a minute and read this, What is Education For, by the great and wise David Orr.

lichens on rock

Friday, October 30, 2009

Our History is our History. . . but it is never too late to set things right

North Saskatchewan River valley, near Ruddell, Saskatchewan

I received a letter the day before yesterday from a friend. He enclosed an article he wrote a couple of years ago for a Saskatchewan magazine in which he does a fine job of outlining the environmental catastrophe we have wrought upon our grasslands. A lawyer and a clear thinker, he suggests that the die was cast by the early 1900s. The Dominion Lands Acts and federal policy at the time handed over virtually the entire ecoregion to private interests, principally farmers. Why did we not hold a small percentage back, even a few hundred square miles, to be protected as natural landscape or wildlife habitat?

Things would be much better if we had, he says, and of course he is right. He recognizes that ranching has allowed some of the land to be kept under native cover, but that acreage is declining in quality where the land is managed poorly and over the long run some of it is vulnerable to cultivation, depending on the inverse pricing between grain and cattle markets. As much as 2 million acres of native prairie in Saskatchewan that no one thought would ever be ploughed was destroyed and turned into cropland between 1976 and 1981.

As I read the letter I thought about some things I had seen and heard both in Edmonton and in North Battleford in the past week. In Edmonton, where I was participating in a literary festival (the only all non-fiction festival in Canada), I got to attend the launch of a new book by my friend and mentor, Myrna Kostash. In The Frog Lake Reader, Myrna gathers together historic documents, fragments of private journals, excerpts of fiction, and first hand reports of the events around the only mass hanging on Canadian soil. In 1885, a band of young Cree warriors went to demand food from an obstinate Indian agent at Frog Lake settlement and ended up killing nine settlers. Later that year, Wandering Spirit, Big Bear’s son, Imasees, and six others were tried and hung for what has come to be known as the “Frog Lake Massacre.”

At the reading, Myrna gave a vivid account of what it was like to come upon the monument and mass grave of the hung men tucked behind some bushes on the shores of the North Saskatchewan River, near Battleford. I was heading to Battlefords myself in the next few days to participate in “Inspired by the Land,” a multi-disciplinary show being launched at the Chapel Gallery. Along with other writers, artists, and First Nations elders, I was interviewed for its centrepiece, a video production (a sample here) with a prairie soundscape created by Charlie Fox. I performed a brief reading at the reception along with Sharon Butala. We all visited and delighted in the images, voices, and sounds that curator Dean Bauche and his staff had brilliantly assembled for the show, which is going to travel to other galleries after its run at home in North Battleford. At the end of the evening, I asked Dean if he could direct me to the grave site Myrna had described.

The next morning, I got up in the dark and with Dean’s map in hand, managed to find the grave just before sunrise. Both Myrna and Dean had said to scan around for the tipi that rests over the site. In the barest glimmer of pre-dawn, I swept my binoculars over the valley and there it was, 100 yards downhill from where I stood, just downstream from historic Fort Battleford, the silhouette of the naked tipi poles poking up from the willows and poplars on a broad shelf above the river.

Walking through the bush and standing before the granite monument, I thought of that moment in our history: the bison gone for a decade, Big Bear refusing to sign Treaty 6, his people hungry and desperate, the Indian Agent refusing to give them any food, and then Wandering Spirit and the others killing the agent and settlers when showing their guns was not enough to get him to change his mind.

Food. It was about food. Next year it will be the 125th anniversary of the events at Batoche and Frog Lake, and food is still an important way for the land to speak to us, ask us questions of what we will allow, and how we will live here. Still the great teacher and mediator in our engagement with the prairie.

The show at the gallery was sponsored by the Office of the Treaty Commissioner, and they paid for the chicken wings, vegetables and dip, sausage and other appetizers that we ate at the reception. We sat at round tables, indigenous and settler people together, some distance from those days when treaties were signed as a way of “extinguishing Indian title.” Today there is a growing awareness that, like it or not, we are all treaty people (see Roger Epp's new book of essays) and our treaties are about sharing title not transferring it from the first peoples to colonizers.

Unlike the legislation that gave the prairie over to my ancestors and thousands of other farmers, however, the full promise of the treaties has not yet been fulfilled. Can we go forward and feed ourselves from the bounty of this land without destroying the birds and other creatures who had co-existed with the bison hunters for millennia , and who have been suffering ever since we took title in abrogation of the spirit of those treaties? What would it take for us to begin to live in the spirit of the treaties, with reverence and respect guiding our every relationship, nation to nation, and people to land.

Miracles? Perhaps, but nature specializes in miracles when we let it lead the way. In this part of the world, that means taking our lead from the grass that has always known how to feed the prairie and its dwellers.

From a grave site overlooking the northern plains’ greatest river, with the bones of hungry warriors at my feet, I could not help thinking, “too late, 125 years too late”. Then came the words of an epitaph on another gravestone, resting above the remains of one of the prairie’s great souls: “Courage my friends. It is never too late to make a better world.”

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Grass,Sky, Song nominated for GG and Sask. Book Awards

Right about now I'm feeling very grateful and more than a little abashed at the nominations this book is getting. A couple weeks ago it was the Writers' Trust Non-fiction Prize shortlist and just yesterday the phone rang and it was Phyllis, my editor (who is terrfic and who I am still having a hard time believing I can call "my" editor).

"Congratulations again!" she said. (I knew it was the morning of the Governor General's Award shortlisting but was trying hard to not think about it.)

"No," I said.

"Yep, we just got back from the press conference."

I had to check the Canada Council website press release for sure just to be certain there wasn't some mistake.

After lunch, here in Regina, the Saskatchewan Book Awards announced their nominations placing Grass, Sky, Song onto three shortlists: Non-fiction, Regina, and Book of the Year.

Here is an article that appeared on the front page of the Regina Leader-Post today.

I'm going to celebrate now, before the awards are actually handed out, and while I am still able to convince myself it doesn't matter to me whether my book wins or not.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Ted Perrin, native-grass-fed beef in Saskatchewan

the Missouri Coteau, south of Moose Jaw

From time to time I run into someone who is raising and finishing cattle entirely on grass. Often they are using non-native grass, which is still far better than finishing them on grain in a feedlot--better for birds and other wildlife and better for whoever ends up eating the beef. Last week, though, I met a Saskatchewan rancher whose cattle are raised and finished entirely on native grass.

I was at a Food Secure Saskatchewan conference in Moose Jaw where I had been invited to talk about the importance of grass in transforming prairie agriculture toward a healthier engagement with the land. After one of the afternoon workshops I wandered out to look at the book table and started talking to a man who had every sign of being a cowman. (Most of the other attendees were women, and many of them worked for NGOs and government.) He said his name was Ted Perrin. His land is on the north side of the South Saskatchewan River near Beechy. I must've said something about liking the prairie in that area, because the next thing Ted said was, "We can thank the Texans for it". He smiled, wondering if I knew what he was getting at. "You mean the Matador?" I asked. The Matador Ranch, once a vast holding in that area, was owned by Texans as part of their ranching operations all over the Americas, the Matador Land and Cattle Company. The pieces of it remaining in Saskatchewan include some of the northern Great Plains best examples of well-managed rangeland.

Ted said his ranch is called Castleland, named for the locally famous Sandcastle formation.

the Sandcastle near Beechy, Saskatchewan

From the Cypress Hills to the Frenchman River and Wood Mountain to the South Saskatchewan, you will meet people like Ted Perrin who not only graze their livestock on native grass but know and care about the grass and the other creatures who depend upon it. They know the cattle will come and go, but the grass abides. And they know that if they don't have enough grass for the wildlife on their land they probably won't have enough for their cattle. For the Perrins, though, there is an additional reason to conserve the grass. They finish their cattle on native grass, which means that there has to be enough grass left when the animals are in their last few weeks and getting near to slaughter. Others might be able to graze their pastures hard all summer and count on the feedlot to do the fattening, but when you are finishing them on grass, you have to leave enough in reserve to get them to condition for slaughter.

Recently, the Perrins hooked up with a new processing facility in Tugaske, West Bridgeford Meats, which offers customers an array of meat products and the capacity to trace every product to the producer and animal of origin. West Bridgeford has several grass-finished meat producers it works with and so you can request grass-finished or beef from a specific ranch such as the Perrins.

One of the identifying characteristics of men and women who have learned how to take care of native grass is a natural humility. Ted was open and affable but almost blushed when he admitted that a couple of years ago the Society for Range Management recognized him and his wife Olive for their example and long-term committment to the ideals of good range management.

This is a big deal in the world of grassland conservation so back at home I looked it up and found this story on Jean-Claud Harel's excellent blog about Saskatchewan people, landscapes, and culture. Here is a quote from Ted shortly after receiving the citation:

“I guess the award must have come for our rotational grazing on the summer range. We make six pastures instead of two, and we rotate the cattle around the six pastures all summer long. We try to graze each of them only once. That area is allowed to grow until June. It is all native pasture, mostly cool season grasses, but with a bit of warm season grass in there as well."

A year before that, the Perrins won The Duke of Edinburgh Habitat Conservation Award

The grassland needs more people like Ted and Olive Perrin. It is hard to be grateful enough for the kind of leadership and example they offer, but one way to do it is to contact them directly or West Bridgeford Meats and order some Castleland steaks, roasts, and hamburger. For availability and pricing, call Olive Perrin at 306-859-4925.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Using native prairie plants for biofuels--a better deal for birds

Two articles about using native grasses for biofuels came my way recently. Both are worth reading. Here is one from an online journal, "Environmental Protection," where they refer to a new study documented in BioScience. The Nature Conservancy was involved with the study, which looked at the prevailing use of corn to make biofuels and its impact on grasslands and birds. The paper mentions the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) lands that are being lost now as producers are urged by corn and biofuel subsidies to grow corn on land that had recently been turned back into grass. Here is a quote from David Flaspohler, a researcher at the Michigan Technological University: "We are looking at trade-offs between producing a commodity for use as bioenergy and maintaining important ecosystem services such as soil fertility, water quality, and wildlife habitat. It was by ignoring unintended consequences that we've now found ourselves highly dependent on a non-renewable fuel source (fossil fuels) that is contributing to climate change. With some foresight and with information on key trade-offs, I think we can make wiser decisions in the future."

The second article is from Scientific American's website and it looks specifically at the potential for switchgrass to be used in biofuel production. As they point out, if the grass is mowed in fall, the breeding birds (switchgrass supports 19 species of native grassland birds)will have raised their young and left.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Grass, Sky, Song shortlisted for Writers' Trust Non-Fiction prize

Swainson's hawk image generously provided by Jared Clarke

Just found out this morning that Grass, Sky, Song has been listed, along with four very fine books by other Canadian writers, for the 2009 Writers' Trust Non-fiction Prize. Here is a news story about the shortlisting announcement in today's Canadian Press. (Scroll down past the fiction story to get the list of non-fiction nominees.)

And here is the official announcement from Writers Trust:

Friday, September 25, 2009

Proposal: A Grassland Stewardship Council

Not too long ago, I sat down for a visit with a friend who has been working in prairie conservation for most of his career. We talked about the need to help beef producers make decisions that are good both for the health of grassland and for their balance sheets. “It’s not easy,” he said, “people have been discussing these ideas for a long time, getting together with stakeholders and trying to find a way to make it work.”

He used a phrase that is well known in the grassland conservation world, “ecological goods and services.” A rancher who is looking after native grassland and its riparian areas in ways that conserve ecological values and provide habitat for species at risk is said to be providing “ecological goods and services” that we all benefit from as members of the wider community. Some have argued that such producers should be given annual or one-time payments to reward and encourage their sound management choices.

Finding a way to fund such payments is but one of many obstacles that have made ecological goods and services an idea that has never really gotten off the ground. Even if government money could be found, there are other forces that have stalled the process, including the conflicting agendas of stakeholders who are reluctant to budge from their entrenched positions to get a program started. As well, ranchers are notoriously suspicious of anything that may in any way restrict their liberty to do whatever they like with the land they lease or own. Their legendary independence and reluctance to change makes it difficult to get enough producers to commit to a new way of doing things—especially one introduced by a bunch of government biologists and policy-makers.

I wonder if we’ve been focusing too much on the producer: ‘how can we get producers to do this or do that?’ Cattlemen and women are slow to change and for good reason sometimes. They see someone try a new idea or invest in some alternative approach and then it fails and the other guys all watching it fail can feel justified in sticking with the old ways.

Maybe it’s time to switch attention to consumers. Once there are enough consumers demanding products that are healthier for themselves and the prairie, then the producers will be willing to move.

Some of the things I talk about in Grass Notes are almost entirely unknown to consumers--whether it is Omega threes in pasture-fed animals or the role wheat and the feedlot industry (or in the United States, corn and the feedlot industry) play in carbon production and the decline of grassland ecosystems. Given the right information and labelling, many consumers would like to choose food that is healthier for themselves and the environment--witness what is happening with organics and local food.

What I am getting at is, while we wait for policy makers to discover that grass is good for the Great Plains, we should also be working on another parallel path--which would be about setting standards of sustainable meat production and then labelling products accordingly. This could be done with a non-governmental organization and one good example is the Forestry Stewardship Council, which operates around the world now but started in Canada. The FSC certifies everything from huge pulp and paper companies to small woodlot owners, examining their practices from the forest to the retail store. When you see an FSC logo on printer paper or hardwood flooring or lumber or toilet paper you can determine exactly which sustainable forestry practices were used in its production.

What I am proposing then, is a Grassland Stewardship Council modeled after the FSC. Its mission would be to “promote environmentally appropriate, socially beneficial, and economically viable management of Canada’s grasslands.”

With a Grassland Stewardship Council, we could help consumers choose products that come from producers who apply sound grazing practices that sequester carbon and maintain habitat for birds and other grassland creatures. It would be especially important to provide consumers with the choice of grass-finished beef. Some products might be labeled to show that the animals were pastured on sustainably-grazed native grass, while others might indicate that the animals were pastured on non-native grass that is managed with ecological health and carbon sequestration as priorities.

Take a look what the building products giant, RONA Inc. did this year with committing to sell nothing but FSC-approved lumber. This took the FSC 15 years of hard work before getting to this achievement, but it has paid off.

Given a GSC and enough time, if consumers were choosing the right products, the shift away from corn and wheat production and toward more pastured beef and dairy would happen. And once the parade is underway, then it would be easier to get industry and governments interested in jumping in front of it with incentive programs and choices of their own.

In an ideal world, with a government that endorsed such a program, you could fund the whole thing with a tiny percentage added onto the supermarket price of all beef, regardless of how it is raised. The dollars gathered from this of course would cover the costs of the certification program and part of it would also go into the pockets of producers who were raising their livestock and grazing their land according to Grassland Stewardship Council standards. In effect it would be something like a carbon offsets program that would over time be an incentive for more producers to switch to the GSC standards. (And of course, part of the environmental benefit would be the carbon sequestration that is achieved in grass-finished beef and in converting cropland to permanent cover.)

Realistically, though, government and the cattle-slaughter and processing industry would not be willing to participate--at least not at first. Without such a way of funding the program and passing it onto certified producers, the initial approach might be much less ambitious. You could start with a certification process that you'd offer to those who are trying to present alternatives to every phase of the industry--from livestock producers to hay producers to small slaughterhouses and meat processors (if there are any left!). Work with organizations that might be interested to see what might work for producers and other elements of the industry to help get their product to consumers who support better stewardship of grassland. In this smaller-scale model, the certification program's costs would have to be passed onto the the consumer, ideally with a small premium that gets back to everyone in the chain that is certified by the GSC--cattlemen, hay producers, and probably other links I am not thinking of.

I am no economist and not much of a businessman either so I am out of my depth here. It would be good to have the assistance of someone who knows more about developing systems that bring the economy and ecology into a healthier interdependance.

You may be wondering why not simply go with the usual organic certification process. The truth is, a producer can be certified as organic and still plough up all of his native grassland, ruin a creekbed with his animals, destroy habitat for species at risk, and fatten his animals entirely on grain before slaughter--as long as no artificial fertilizers and pesticides are used. The point of a Grassland Stewardship Council would be to identify and certify producers who are the good stewards of native grassland and watersheds and give them a market advantage over the producers who are not.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Another voice in this discussion: Doug Booth

Anyone interested in this discussion of possible solutions should look at the work of Doug Booth, who is using his blog to develop ideas for a new book on what he is calling "The Coming Good Boom," as opposed to the usual booms we get, which are not really good in the long run. Doug has a refreshing and optimistic voice, and as a retired professor of economics he brings some much needed analytical skill to the discussion.

Here is a recent posting on how changing the corn belt to grass-based agriculture would help us address a whole suite of environmental and social problems we face in the middle of this continent.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Fostering Consumer Choice : More Searching for Solutions

Last week, I began to describe the industrial model that ultimately determines how grassland is used—controlling the prices and marketing that in turn limit the viable options for farmers and ranchers. (Anyone interested in a more detailed critique of this system would do well to read the National Farmer Union’s document entitled “The Farm Crisis and the Cattle Sector: Toward a New Analysis and New Solutions”) (Cathy Holtslander of Beyond Factory Farming put me onto this report.)

I believe we might be able to help producers choose practices that are good for the ecology of grassland and its native plants and animals by in turn giving consumers more choices. Easy to say; not so easy to do.

As things are, in most of Canada if you want to buy grass-finished beef or beef from cattle that graze on well-maintained native pasture or on tame grass managed with Holistic Management principles you pretty well have to buy it directly from the producer. There are good reasons to buy directly from the farm or ranch and I do it myself all the time, but if you talk to most of these men and women they will tell you that the majority of the animals they raise end up going into the system, which means they are sold to feedlots and corporate slaughter and processing facilities. All the good work they do in raising animals in an ecologically sound manner, in producing beef that is high in Omega-3 fatty acids, in sustaining grassland habitat, is in a sense lost within the system. The health benefits of a grass-fed animal are entirely lost after a few weeks in the feedlot eating grain, growth hormones and anti-biotics. And once the meat gets to the store as steak, roast, or hamburger, there is no way to distinguish it from beef raised by someone who has not made the effort to conserve habitat, and who in fact may be destroying riparian areas, following poor grazing practices, and ploughing native grass to seed it to crested wheatgrass.

Many beef producers are following excellent stewardship practices, but others are not. If there was a way for consumers to distinguish between the two, their choices at the supermarket would benefit those who are following best practices and provide others with an incentive to improve.

In my next posting, I will look at how the forestry industry in Canada has dealt with a similar situation.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

What to Keep and What to Change: More Searching for Solutions

a shot of the lake at dawn. There is often mist on August mornings

How do we begin to transform prairie agriculture to foster a healthy relationship between grassland ecosystems and the human economies that depend on them?

Deciding what to keep and what to change as you try to improve any human structure or system is never easy. On the old farm we share with two other families, the keep or change question comes up every time we try to fix something in the cookhouse, plant a tree, or salvage posts from a fence no longer useful.

Last weekend I was prying some weathered pine boards off the old corral to use them in a wood shed I am making to store firewood for our cabin. It was a good corral, probably held cattle for fifty winters or more, and I found myself wondering if it was a mistake to be taking it apart. We don’t keep cattle and work with a neighbour to graze our pasture, but, you never know, some day I might want to have a way to corral animals. Still, I wanted to finish my woodshed so I kept tearing the pine slabs off. Alternately swearing and marvelling at the small nails that seemed to grip the boards better than their larger counterparts, I started to think about the other man who nailed it together a long time ago to shelter his cattle, feeding them with hay from our east fields.

When he wanted to sell his cattle, did they go to a feedlot for several months of fattening before being slaughtered and processed at a meat packer? The facilities might have been smaller and nearer to home back then, and perhaps the cattle received no hormones and fewer antibiotics, but they were likely finished on a diet of grain the way most market cattle are today. Fifty years ago, this model was relatively new but today it is in full control of the grazing economy that to a great degree determines how we treat grassland ecosystems.

When you go to a supermarket for ground beef or buy a burger at a fast food joint, your purchasing power connects you to a massive processing and marketing system that is run by a handful of corporations for the benefit of shareholders. On the other side of that meat industry mountain there are the men and women trying to make a living raising cattle on the pastures that host the remaining populations of North America’s grassland birds. Most of these people are on the land because they love it; they do their best to make a decent income without compromising the natural ecosystems and species at risk on their holdings. But the multi-national corporations that ultimately bring products from their animals to market do not share those interests. They do all they can to make sure that they price they pay to cattlemen is as low as possible, without considering the consequences on farm families, farm communities, and the natural ecosystems they depend upon.

A year after we bought our farm we found out that the previous owners had been forced to sell because of debt that became unserviceable in the face of the BSE (Bovine Spongiform Encephalitis)crisis driving cattle prices even lower than usual. As sad and disconcerting as it was to learn that we had in a sense gained from their misfortune, I know too that in a larger sense the system that produced the BSE crisis and then used it as another way to keep beef prices low has had us all—producers and consumers alike—snared in its net for a long time.

a flight of cormorants heading to the lake

Monday, August 24, 2009

Groping for alternatives--more on the search for solutions

Selaginella densa (little club moss) growing on native mixed-grass prairie

Craig Larson, who lives (and writes a couple of fine blogs: Haskap Wine and Native Shores) on a farm in the Swan River Valley, Manitoba, and raises hay, lamas, and haskap berries, sent me an email about the three questions I left at the end of the last post.

He said “No one has so much as given me the time of day when it comes to thinking alternatively to my procedures here - I'm seen as an oddity just being organic. My local extension officer won't even talk to me when we meet.” Craig went on to describe the provincial government’s offers to help him market his haskap berries and said that they assume they have better ways “to access agri-industry so that I can become wealthy (the latest marketing seminary to be put on by Manitoba is entitled 'Show Me The Money' - gag). It's all marketing...smoke and mirrors.” He closed by saying, “Personally I think that an independant system needs to be started by people who will not compromise - but then you get ideological types in there as well and the next thing is that everyone is held hostage to principles again.”

There’s a lot to think about in the experience of any one person trying to grow food in ways that conserve some of the natural values of the farm. Often their troubles begin when they engage with the government and non-government agencies that either try to help farmers grow and sell their produce or minimize environmental degradation caused by intensive land use.

I wonder if the problem, though, is not the agencies and programs, which after all are trying to help reduce the chaos and mop up some of the mess, but something larger at work. Craig’s word “independent” may be important here. Cattle producers depend upon, are at the mercy of, an industrialized beef-fattening, slaughter and processing system that most of them would not choose if they had a choice. The two or three large corporations running that system are not evil; they are just doing what corporations do—maximizing revenue and minimizing costs. We can’t expect them to do otherwise, any more than we’d expect a wolf to give up killing for a living. It is a big system, though, and it holds all the cards—including government approval and support—so any independent alternative would have to grow slowly over a long time frame.

photo by Karen Herriot

Who has the incentive to undertake such a big task? I can think of at least three elements that would have to come together to transform or circumvent the existing system of growing food in grassland ecosystems: farmers and ranchers who to varying degrees would like to make a reasonable profit and produce healthy food without having to draw down the ecological resources of their land; consumers who to varying degrees would like to be able to buy healthy food grown in ways that conserve the ecological resources of the land; and naturalists, scientists, and nature advocates who want to conserve and restore grassland ecosystems.

Together, these three interests are going to have to grope for new and better ways of bringing food to our tables, with some help from more visionary NGOs, but not likely from any institution or agency that is caught up in the mainstream of agriculture and economic growth. Driven by honourable goals, we will likely get impatient and justify less than honourable means to get there and that will take us down some blind alleys. In the end, if any progress is made it will be through patience and ensuring that the means we use are congruent with and worthy of our vision of restoring and conserving the integrity of the prairie and its natural biodiversity.

The model on this journey is Wes Jackson and his Land Institute in Kansas. Wes is in it for the long haul as he searches for permaculture that will work in growing perennial and sustainable grassland crops. Anyone trying to use grazing in ways that will conserve and restore healthy grassland ecosystems has to adopt the same moral, patient, and uncompromising vision.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Ok, we know some of the problems—how about some solutions?

Large, complex environmental issues like the degradation of grassland ecosystems can’t be solved overnight or by tinkering with land use practices and government policy. The forces at play are powerful and entrenched favouring the status quo. Governments don’t seem very interested in passing legislation to stop landowners from ploughing native grass; no one has yet found a practical way to restore large pieces of native grassland; and most economic policy affecting grassland is still aimed at maximizing yields of agricultural produce, driving prices down, and exporting to foreign markets.

Meanwhile, any talk of sustainability or stewardship eventually runs up against two realities: one, grain farmers and cattle producers are already being squeezed between high input costs and low farmgate prices, and two, any stewardship practices adopted by farmers or ranchers, whether they increase costs or not, cannot be compensated for or even recognized within the marketing systems available.

To even begin the discussion of what might help our long-suffering grassland ecosystems, then, we have to look for ways to help producers with that cost-price squeeze and bring stewardship practices into the value of the food they produce and sell.

Over the next few posts, I hope to discuss ideas and possibilities, but I am making this up as I go along and would welcome any thoughts from others. Here are some questions to consider from the beginning (please email me your thoughts at

1. How do we provide farmers and ranchers with alternatives that compensate them for stewardship practices (fostering habitat, protecting watersheds and species at risk, etc.)

2. Selling direct to consumers at farmers markets or at the farm gate is already being done, but this is a miniscule portion of the agriculture being conducted in grassland regions and many producers who do sell their own produce are still dependant on the dysfunctional “agri-food” industry that gets their products to more consumers. For example, people who sell their own grass-finished beef to a few enlightened city people, still end up selling most of their livestock into the big system that drives prices downwards and depends on unsustainable and unhealthy practices, including intensive grain feeding, hormones and antibiotics. How do we offer an alternative so that they can concentrate on looking after the land and growing healthy animals instead of having to do the marketing themselves?

3. What happens when producers try to develop their own alternatives to the big system and fail? For example Natural Valley Farms at Wolesley and Neudorf? What can be learned from them?

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Re-introducing the black-footed ferret to Grasslands National Park

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

On October 2nd, Parks Canada will release around 40 black-footed ferrets into the prairie dog colonies in Grasslands National Park, implementing the recovery strategy for the black-footed ferret devised by the national recovery team and published earlier this year. The last wild ferret seen in Canada was in 1937 near Climax, Saskatchewan, and the species has been listed as extirpated by the federal government.

Everyone seems very excited to hear about the re-introduction of the ferret. Its always good news to hear that an extirpated animal is being given a second chance. And it is especially important in any ecosystem to have healthy populations of predators. I know some of the biologists on the recovery team and trust their judgement, yet can't help wondering if this is not the best way to proceed.

One of my concerns is that the area of appropriate habitat for the ferret is too small and limited for this to be characterized as a re-introduction that restores proper functioning to an ecosystem. Part of the quality of healthy grassland is an expansiveness that allows any species to shift and move as the habitat changes over time in any one place. But grassland today doesn’t always function that way—particularly when you look at something like the ferret. It has to have black-tailed prairie dogs but the area of prairie dogs in Canada is restricted to a very small zone in and around the national park. It’s one thing to re-introduce swift foxes all across Canada’s southern plains or to re-introduce wolves to Yellowstone. In those cases there is ample habitat outside the parks, supporting the prey for those predators. Introducing the predator then can genuinely be said to help make it a fully functioning ecosystem.

I don’t think we can say the same about ferrets introduced into a geographically isolated prairie dog community that is 1000 hectares and not expanding appreciably.
Of course, if it works and the ferrets somehow make the prairie dog colonies more vigorous and their range expands too and the ferrets are able to survive on Richardson’s ground squirrels, and other species at risk are not being harmed by the re-introduction, then it might all be worth the effort. But it is an expensive gamble. What if the ferrets become inbred or die from plague or are eaten by great horned owls and other predators? Are they going to start dusting prairie dog burrows with deltamethrin and culling Great horned owls? And what will deltamethrin do to the burrowing owls who nest in the prairie dog towns? If the numbers of ferrets get too low will they keep supplementing with more captive bred animals? How far do we go with this? And why spend so much effort on something that doesn’t really have a chance to expand beyond this one small area?

There are many other larger and more immediate problems in our grassland ecology that are not getting enough attention. It is a matter of triage: instead of trying to manage critical habitat for an animal that no longer exists in the wild in Canada, why don’t we focus on securing and protecting critical habitat for the animals that are still breeding in the wild but struggling to maintain their populations? No one can tell me how many black-footed ferrets we once had in Canada—but we know that only 20 years ago we had thousands of Greater Sage Grouse and today we have a couple hundred. No, it doesn’t have to be either/or but let’s face it—resources are shrinking, from both government and private agencies, so we have to make wise choices.

I guess I am wondering too if this kind of high profile re-introduction is going to take the place of real grassland restoration and conservation. Is this is the right way to bring our grassland back to health?

Are we turning Grasslands National Park into a kind of living museum of what the grassland used to be, instead of using funds and resources to help the grassland in and around the park attract and support the best possible biodiversity on its own? Wouldn’t it be better to be working on the landscape community and ecosystem level rather than on one species that perhaps was never that common in Canada? We could use that Federal money to secure and protect the last Sage Grouse habitat in Alberta and Saskatchewan, or to keep oil and gas development out of the Sage grouse habitat, or to expand the park boundaries or work with neighbouring landowners to restore land to native grasses.

What it comes down to is this—does re-introducing a single species into a small patch of very limited habitat advance the overall effort to conserve and restore the mixed-grass prairie? Is it a wise use of limited resources?

Or is it about showcasing conservation to say, “here, look, we are making progress, doing good things with endangered species, bringing them back to their native habitat.” While all around the park, we are losing the quality and quantity of grassland habitat in general and many species at risk appear to be on their way out the door. Twenty years from now when those species are gone, will the solution be to do the same thing and bring them back with management-intensive re-introductions in small pieces of protected habitat? In place of wild, self-sustaining populations breeding and migrating as free species will we be happy with captive-bred ferrets, grouse and owls that we show to the tourists as examples of what native grassland creatures once looked like?

Are we managing for healthy and diverse grassland ecosystems or presiding over the degradation of grassland from wild, functioning ecosystem to human-managed living museum?

Advocates of this kind of species-introduction might defend the expense and effort by saying that it will bring a lot of attention to the park, which in turn will help people to see the need for grassland conservation.

This kind of thinking always sounds reasonable, partly because it is the familiar form of rationalization we use everyday to justify the moral compromises we make in our own lives. But whenever we justify less than worthy means by pointing to honourable ends we are participating in the ultimate erosion of the very good we want to uphold. If we care about our native grasslands and the species that depend upon it, we must ensure that the way we act and the choices we make today are in every way worthy of our long-term goals of conservation and restoration.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Taking a three-week break from posting

This shot of Cherry Lake was taken by a friend, Peta White

It's time to head out to Cherry Lake for an extended stay so I won't be able to post anything to the blog for a couple of weeks. So far this summer, my excursions out to the Strawberry Lake Community Pasture have been disappointing. On three trips I have yet to find a single Sprague's pipit. Upland sandpipers seem to be scarce too, but I have found good numbers of Baird's and grasshopper sparrows. They nest in the same fields and pastures in loose colonies. The sharp-tailed grouse lek had about 12 males dancing this spring. Farther south at the Kendal Wildlife Preserve I found at least one chestnut-collared longspur, and an orchard oriole singing nearby. This week I will make some last surveys of the area and see what I can find, though it is getting late in the summer to be listening for breeding birds.

Already the arctic shorebirds are heading south in small groups. Saskatoons are almost ready for picking and the warm season grasses are in flower.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Landmark court ruling on Canada's endangered species

Recently, I agreed to take a volunteer position with Nature Saskatchewan, an environmental organization that defends Saskatchewan's wild places and creatures. As the new conservation director, I help the organization on issues where we have to speak out against habitat loss or activities that threaten important ecosystems or species at risk. One of the more intreseting issues Nature Sask has been working on over the last year or more involves a cooperative effort with other environmental groups to get the Federal Government to follow their own legislation and take action to protect endangered species. Ever since the Species at Risk Act was passed in 2003, the Federal Government has been neglecting its legislated responsibility for endangered species, using the limitations of science as an excuse for their inaction as more and more critical habitat becomes degraded or destroyed.

Last year, Nature Sask joined an environmental umbrella group, along with the Alberta Wilderness Association, the Federation of Alberta Naturalists, the Grasslands Naturalists, and the Alberta Wilderness Committee to work with Ecojustice, Canada’s leading non-profit organization of lawyers and scientists devoted to protecting the environment. On behalf of Nature Sask. and the other environmental groups, Ecojustice took the Federal government to court for not protecting the Greater Sage-Grouse from habitat loss.

On July 9th, the court made its decision. A federal court judge in Vancouver ruled that the federal Minister of the Environment, Jim Prentice, broke the law by refusing to identify critical habitat in a recovery plan for the endangered greater sage-grouse.

Here is a recent article on the decision, posted on the CBC news website.

And here is the full news release from Ecojustice.

This is a clear and decisive victory for the protection of species at risk in Canada, forcing the government to take steps to stop the destruction of critical habitat for the Sage-grouse. By implication, the decision will also help groups argue for the protection of habitat for many other species in Canada. Good things like this happen when environmentalists work together. We should all be grateful for the work Ecojustice is doing and consider making a donation.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

"Round-up" discovered to be deadly to human cells

It appears that we are getting closer to a smoking gun with glyphosate--a herbicide that is commonly used in Great Plains agriculture to kill weeds. Scientific American has published an article that shows that an ingredient of glyphosate (Monsanto's "Round-up")kills human cells, particularly embryonic, placental and umbilical cord cells.

For decades we have had to listen to the experts claiming that glyphosate is harmless, but a couple of years ago it was shown that amphibians are vulnerable to the surfactant used in the formulation. No matter, what's a few frogs and amphibians? Let's just carry on business as usual. Well now that there is evidence that it contains something that kills human cells--and likely therefore is affecting the reproductivity of other organisms in ecosystems where it is applied--are we going to re-visit its registration as an acceptable herbicide in Canada and the United States? What does it take to get a chemical like glyphosate banned or at least severely restricted?

Monday, June 29, 2009

Grass, Sky, Song Illustrated:
"Pathways of Complicity"

this McCown's Longspur image courtesy of Alan MacKeigan

The McCown's is a bird of the open plains where grass is sparse at best. It flutters and teeters on the air like a small kite as it lets out it's jumble of tinkling notes. In the 1990s we still had a few of them near Regina on summerfallow but now their range has retracted severely to the south. This chapter of Grass, Sky, Song brings the narrative around to the question of who we can blame for what is happening to the birds of the this continent's grasslands. When I started writing the book, I was more certain of who to hold responsible, but that changed as I spoke to ranchers and biologists.

Part way into this chapter, I talk about our property and looking down on it from a hilltop view. Here is one view from a slightly different hilltop, looking down on the land in late fall. Click on it to get a larger view of the panorama.

This land, like other remnants of native grass throughout this region, is in better shape than the ploughed fields beyond, but it is still suffering, awaiting the day when the right mix of grass, grazers, and fire will restore it to health. If we want to participate in this restoration and stop the birds from dwindling away, we will have to set aside the question of who to blame and begin the honourable work of connecting our economies and agriculture to this ancient dance between soil, climate, grazers, and fire.

shot of plains bison in Grassland national Park, by James Paige, Parks Canada

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Grass, Sky, Song Illustrated:

Greater Sage-grouse image courtesy of John Carlson

The "vigil" of this chapter of Grass, Sky, Song refers to the annual effort in Canada to count the steadilty declining number of greater sage-grouse at known "leks" or dancing grounds each spring. In April, 2006 I took part in the count by joining with volunteer Chris Reed to count the grouse attending leks in the East Block of Grasslands National Park.

Here are some photos I took during that visit to the park.

This is a shot of the Kildeer Badlands on the Eastern edge of the park.

This is Chris walking over the centre of the lek, an hour after the grouse had left in late morning.

Here is what sage-grouse scat looks like--the same grey/green as the sage brush they eat. Note the black, tarry goo in the middle--another kind of excretion that you find on leks.

Here is our campsite a kilometre away from the lek on open grassland.

We had to radio in each night to let park staff know we were ok, so this is Chris trying, and failing, to make contact with the nearest warden station.

And this last image shows Chris and I just before packing up to leave. The vigil over for that year.

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