Photo courtesy of Saskatchewan Watershed Authority
In this chapter of Grass, Sky, Song, I talk about the piping plovers that once nested on a sand spit in a lake just north of our land. Most people would think of the piping plover as more of a wetland bird than a grassland bird, but with prairie shorebirds the line gets blurry. No matter which group we place the piping plover in, the prairie population breeds typically along bodies of water that are in the grassland zone. I think of it as one of the characteristic birds of the rolling knob and kettle lands of the Missouri Coteau, where some of our largest expanses of native grassland survive.
This chapter, "Lifting the Veil," introduce two of the prairie's most fervent and steadfast naturalists, Mary and Stuart Houston of Saskatoon. The Houstons have fostered a love for prairie birds in dozens of young people over the last sixty years, inspiring generations of naturalists, bird banders and biologists now living and working across Canada.
Reading Stuart's articles and books was part of what first led me to consider the intersection of human history and ecology here on the northern Great Plains. He became a friend and mentor to me in the 1990s, and in 2005 he sent me a letter suggesting I consider writing something about John Macoun on the 125th anniversary of his trek onto the southern plains of Canada--the expedition that many historians say sealed the fate of our grasslands.
image courtesy of Library and Archives Canada
I suggested that he and Mary join me in a retracing of Macoun's 1880 journey as we looked for grassland birds 125 years after the decision to settle the open prairie. Along the way, I recorded our conversations to turn it into a radio documentary for CBC Ideas. A two-hour show, entitled Pastures Unsung, aired in 2006 and the documentary is available as a CD set on the CBC Ideas website. Here is the web page for Pastures Unsung.
In this part of the book, I also mention Macoun's bird collector, William Spreadborough, who spent some time here in the Indian Head area studying and collecting birds in the 1890s. I could not find a photo of him, but thanks to Bill Waiser, one of our greatest historians, there is a fine tribute to William Spreadbourough in The Beaver.
Fences have become a dominant feature of the landscape wherever native grass remains on the Great Plains. I may dream of a day when the prairie will be unfettered from the agricultural realities that have placed tame grazers and grains where once there were wild grazers and grasses, but for now the best way to hold onto the remaining native grassland is to support good grazing practices and provide an economic basis for increasing the acreage of land covered by perennial grasses.
That means more consumers choosing to buy meat and dairy products from local producers who raise their animals on native grass in ways that sustain the health of the prairie and its watersheds. And it means encouraging all producers, whether they graze on native or tame grass, to finish their animals on grass and not on feedlot grain (see posting for March 15). The ecological rationale for grass-fed meat and dairy products is unassailable, not only because of what a grass-fed regime can do for grassland ecology, but because buying local grass-fed meat and dairy will reduce your contribution to greenhouse gas emmissions.
Grass-fed meat and dairy is substantially better on the greenhouse emissions side of things, even though a steer eating grain releases no more methane than a steer eating grass in a pasture. Under a grass-fed model, however, there would have to be much more grassland to raise animals, which would provide the permanent green cover and leaf surface required to absorb CO2 thereby compensating for a larger portion of the greenhouse gas effect caused by methane from the grazing animal's manure, ultimately building more of the biomass necessary to help fix carbon in the soil in the decomposition cycle, which in turn maintains the fertility of the prairie. In feedlots, the majority of the carbon in the methane produced by decomposing manure simply escapes into the atmosphere. A single cow pat dropped on grassland and decomposing on the soil surface releases less methane than it does in the piles found at feedlots where the manure decomposes anaerobically. Finally, because of the machinery, fossil fuel, fertilizers, and pesticides used to grow and transport the grain used in a feedlot, a pound of grain-fed beef has a much greater overall carbon contribution than a pound of grass-fed beef. (Reference: Union of Concerned Scientists, “Greener Pastures: How Grass-fed Beef and Milk Contribute to Healthy Eating”, http://www.ucsusa.org/food_and_environment/sustainable_food/greener-pastures.html.
In the next To Make a Prairie posting I will cover human health benefits from eating grass-fed meat and dairy products. It's all in the Omega-3s.
Photo from Donald Metzer courtesy of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology
A recent article in Science News magazine highlights a report on the state of birds released March 19 by American Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar. The report says that "nearly a third of the United States’ 800 bird species are endangered, threatened or in significant decline". Here is the New York Times piece on the same "Stat of the Birds" report. And here is the Nature Conservancy's blog on the subject: "U.S. State of the Birds: A Report Whose Time Has Come."
Meanwhile, from Kansas's famous tallgrass region, the Flint Hills, there have been several articles recently about three grassland bird species disappering. Here is one.
One interesting approach to grassland conservation in the United States I have been hearing about lately is the possibility of a "sodsaver" provision being adopted by local state legislatures. It was put in a federal farm bill but made more less ineffective by allowing prairie Governors to opt out. Here is a link to a Ducks Unlimited page explaining the need for sodsaver provisions. And here is a blog posting from a blog called “Eat More Cookies” (I was eating two peanut butter cookies as I read it—I swear). Scroll down to find the post on sodsaver legislation.
In the last installment of this series of posts illustrating chapters of the book, I forgot to include a shot of the cabin and its porch so I here it is now, better late than never.
This chapter, "The Sparrow's Fall," starts with a misadventure by bicycle out onto the pastures south of our place in the upper Indian Head creek watershed. In the middle of the chapter I include a series of reports from CBC Birdline listeners and then toward the end we are back out on the pasture again. It is August and birdsong is all but gone for the summer.
A single Baird's sparrow sings once or twice into the silence. I love the song of this bird. Typically, it gives three short zips in the opening phrases and then ends with a musical trill that fades and drops in pitch toward the end, leaving the listener felling a bittersweet melancholy.
Image courtesy of Stephen Davis
Stephen Davis, a Canadian Wildlife Service biologist and grassland bird specialist who appears in the book (here is his website), once told me that researchers have identified thirteen different versions of the Baird's sparrow song. (Click here to go to WhatBird.com where you can hear a couple of examples and learn more about the Baird's sparrow.) Like most things in nature, it's a matter of paying close enough attention. Part of the appeal of grassland is its gentle way of calling us to that closer attention.
In the book I say a little about grass-fed beef and the role it can play in restoring grassland. A couple of years ago I asked Canadian Wildlife Service biologist Brenda Dale what consumers can do to help grassland birds and her answer was simple: buy grass-fed beef.
"If even 10% of people made the change to grass-fed beef it would make a big difference. There would have to become more grass out there in order to raise beef entirely on grass and that would be a change driven by consumers that could greatly benefit grassland birds."
Grass-fed beef, however, is not on the menu of most restaurants and you won’t find it at Safeway or Superstore. Virtually all of the meat and dairy products available at our supermarkets come from animals that have been fed a lot of grain. Even animals that graze in native grassland for their first year or two of life end up being "finished" with several months of intensive grain feeding at a large feedlot.
When it comes to ecological costs, of course nothing can pile it deeper and higher than a large industrial feedlot. With cattlemen now feeling the pinch of rising grain costs, though, conditions are ideal for them to see the virtues of finishing their animals on grass. But they will need some help. Policy-makers, political leaders and consumers have an opportunity to put grass-fed beef on the market and find new common ground between economics and ecology in grassland. One possibility would be a ten-cent per kilogram tax shelter for grass-fed beef from producers who have passed a certification process.
Creating an economic basis for habitat protection and restoration is only part of the value of grass-fed beef. In my next posting I will talk about the role grass-fed beef can play in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Meanwhile, here is a link to a web page that lists several Alberta and Saskatchewan grass-fed beef producers. I encourage people to try the grass-fed beef source nearest where they live. We have bought beef from Leonard and Janet Piggott of Triple-H Beef who are listed on this page too.
The lark bunting, shown here, sings on the wing, a habit known as "skylarking." Toward the end of Chapter 5, "Of the Air," I describe the experience of being in a pasture of skylarking grassland birds. Unlike forest songbirds, which typically choose a high perch on a tree when they sing, many of the larks, longspurs, pipits and buntings that live in open grassland sing on the wing. They climb upward and then glide back down to earth with their wings spread, releasing their songs from a height. Sometimes in a pasture with several birds of two or three species rising up from the grass and then fluttering back down again, it begins to look and sound like an orchestrated jubilation. A group of longspurs or lark buntings will sometimes move together, as if small kites were being sent aloft and then allowed to sail back into the grass. The prairie air redounds with their songs in a music that is as suited to the prairie as the scent of sage or the shamble of a badger.
In this chapter I introduce some of the ideas of American philosopher and cultural ecologist, David Abram (see photo below) to consider what "the birds of the air," have meant for human culture. Abram's book, The Spell of the Sensuous was a breakthrough in thinking about the role of language and human consciousness in what Abram calls "the more-than-human world." Here is an excerpt.
Part of the purpose of this blog is to supplement the new book by giving readers and other people ideas of what they can do to help conserve and restore grassland. At the book launch last Friday, we suggested that people consider writing a personal letter to Saskatchewan's premier, the Honorable Brad Wall, advocating measures to protect native grassland on all provincial Crown land. Thanks to the publicity the event received from the hard work of Margot Mack at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum Associates and Terri Trautman of the Nature Conservancy of Canada, we had a terrific crowd, nearly 300 people and hardly a seat left in the theatre.
Lorne Scott, the M.C. for the evening, and Saskatchewan's hardest-working conservationist, put together a handout with some background on the issue of protecting Saskatchewan's Crown-owned grasslands and suggestions for writing letters. I am posting that same information here below and strongly encourage anyone concerned about grassland and grassland birds to read it through and write at least one letter. Premier Wall's government is trying to sell one million acres of provincially-owned grazing land, much of it native grass. This land is important wildlife habitat, and if it is sold to private landowners, we could see a lot more native prairie ploughed in this province, given rising prices for grain and the depressed beef economy.
As well, there are rumours afoot that Wall's government may be giving in to pressure from the agricultural sector to sell at least a portion of an additional 3.4 million acres of provincially-owned native grassland that has for decades been protected under the Wildlife Habitat Protection Act. Apparently, the Department of Agriculture has instructed the Department of the Environment to review the status of 700,000 acres of these WHPA lands to determine if they still meet protection criteria. If Wall's government gives in to pressure to reclassify that land and remove it from the protection of the Act, hundreds of thousands of acres of native grassland in Saskatchewan would no longer be protected. There is no telling how much of it might end up being ploughed to take advantage of improving grain prices.
Here is the text of the document Lorne prepared asking people to consider writing a letter or email to the premier:
Last fall the Government of Saskatchewan announced a program to sell 1.6 million acres of Crown land (an area equal in size to PEI) to current leasees at a price of up to 10% below market value.
While lessees are not required to purchase their leases they have been told in writing from the Government that they should know that it is the government’s intention to see saleable land in the hands of private ownership.
Saskatchewan residents recognize and appreciate the important role many landowners play in maintaining habitat on their privately owned and leased lands. However, Crown land that currently has an ecological value on it should not be sold. These lands should remain protected and cherished as a “Crown Jewel” for the future benefit of all Saskatchewan residents.
A significant amount of Crown Ag land in Saskatchewan contains habitat that is critical in preserving our native flora and fauna.
The lack of concern being expressed by Saskatchewan residents to date regarding the sale of Crown owned land is being interpreted as support for the sales program.
There are over 7 million acres of Crown Agricultural leased land in Saskatchewan administered by the Ministry of Agriculture and almost all of these lands are in a native state.
About 3.4 million acres of these lands are protected from cultivation and sale through the Wildlife Habitat Protection Act (WHPA). Both the Ministers of Agriculture and Environment have publicly stated WHPA lands are not for sale.
However, it is my understanding that Agricultural officials have instructed the Environment Ministry to review the status of some 700,000 acres of WHPA lands to determine if they still meet WHPA criteria. Obviously, if political pressure is used to remove public lands from WHPA, they can then be sold. This is of grave concern.
Of the lands not protected by WHPA 3.5 million acres of Crown land is leased for grazing. The goal is to sell 1 million acres of these lands. An additional 600,000 acres of public land is referred to as cultivated leased land. These lands are all for sale and in many cases there is prime natural habitat found on these lands.
Status of Natural Habitat in Southern Saskatchewan:
• Overall we have lost 80% of our natural landscape south of the forest fringe. We have one of the most modified landscapes in North America. • 85% of the land is privately owned. 15% is public land and includes, Provincial Parks, Community Pastures, Fish and Wildlife Development Fund lands and Agriculture leased lands. • Our public lands (15% of the land base) contains half of the critical wildlife habitat remaining in southern Saskatchewan
Loss of Habitat - Impact on Biodiversity:
• 40% of our original wetlands are gone • 20% of our native plants are rare and disappearing at an alarming rate. • Two out of three bird species are declining in numbers including burrowing owls, Sprague’s pipits and familiar well known species like meadowlarks and killdeers. • Once common mammals such as, long-tailed weasels and Franklin’s ground squirrels have declined and have disappeared from areas of their former range.
• To retain and protect all public land that contains natural habitat. • To make government aware that the people of Saskatchewan treasure the value of Crown owned land and under no conditions should any Crown owned land that has an ecological value be considered for sale; present or in the future.
• Do not sell public land that contains native habitat. • Retain and preserve public land containing natural habitat for Ecological Goods and Services benefits for society as a whole.
Your Letters to Premier Brad Wall:
• Should be polite and constructive. • State why maintaining wildlife and public lands are important to you personally i.e.: bird watching, hunting, conservation, enjoyment and inspiration, etc. • Provide reasons why the sale of public lands is an issue. Refer to examples and some of the facts and statistics above. • What do you want the Premier to do? • Do not sell public lands that contain natural habitat • Do not remove lands designated under WHPA. • Ask questions such as; • How will the province meet its goals set out in the Biodiversity Action Plan, if it sells off over a million acres of public land with no guarantee that the natural lands will be preserved? o How does the province plan to halt and reverse the decline of our native flora and fauna without protecting remaining natural habitat on public land? • Has the province considered the value of Ecological Goods and Services that native Crown lands provides for public benefits such as controlling soil and water erosion, carbon sequestration and preserving biodiversity? • Use your own words, experiences, concerns and questions. • Be sure to ask questions in your letter and say that you look forward to his response and a response from the Minister of Agriculture.
• Your letter need not be long. Short and to the point is fine. • Hand written letters are excellent. • If you communicate by email, be sure to include your complete name and mailing address. An email with just a name may go unanswered.
If you have any questions, concerns, ideas or want more information contact: Lorne Scott at 695-2047 or at firstname.lastname@example.org
Mailing and email address for the Premier:
Honourable Brad Wall Premier of Saskatchewan Legislative Building Regina, SK S4S 0B3
Email Premier Brad Wall at: email@example.com
It would be worthwhile to send a copy of your letter to the Honourable Bob Bjornerud, Minister of Agriculture and your MLA. All MLAs can be reached at the Legislative Building or their constituency office.
Thank you for your help on this very important issue. Your letter will make a difference.
Lorne Scott Conservation Director Nature Saskatchewan
February 28, 2009
And here are a couple of sample letters:
Dear Premier Wall,
I have been supporting wildlife conservation efforts in Saskatchewan for many years. Despite our best collective efforts to conserve our natural heritage, the decline of our native habitat and flora and fauna is alarming.
I was shocked and disappointed to learn that your government is planning to sell off over one million acres of native grasslands, aspen parkland and wetlands. These public lands that you are selling are critical in maintaining our biodiversity which is already in serious trouble.
Why are you disposing of this huge public asset with no opportunity for public input? How do you propose to meet the goals and objectives of the provinces Biodiversity Action Plan? Have the Ecological Goods and Services benefits offered by the natural attributes on these public lands been considered?
Mr. Premier, I urge you to halt the sale of all Crown land containing natural habitat values, until the public has a chance to provide input into this very important issue.
I look forward to hearing from you and the Minister of Agriculture.
Dear Premier Wall,
I am writing to express my strong opposition to the Crown land sales program announced by your government last fall. These public lands are critical for maintaining our native flora and fauna.
Southern Saskatchewan is already one of the most modified landscapes in North America with 80% of our natural landscape gone. Our public lands contain some of the only natural habitat in some areas of the province. It is imperative that all Crown land containing natural habitat be retained by the Crown for the benefit of all citizens in Saskatchewan.
With two out of three bird species declining in numbers and 20% of our native plants rare and disappearing at an alarming rate how will your government reverse these serious losses in biodiversity, if you sell over a million acres of public land containing diverse and productive natural habitat?
Please put a stop to the sale of all Crown land containing natural habitat. I look forward to your reply and hearing directly from the Minister of Agriculture.
Brett Quiring, a young prairie birder, sent me some thoughts upon finishing Grass, Sky, Song. He brings up some important questions in his response and I thought other readers might benefit from considering them. I don't pretend to have all the answers to the big questions of whether we can and how me might transform our relationship to nature, but I believe that we still have a chance to find the answers if we listen to one another and join in this important conversation. Have a look and send your thoughts either as a comment or in an email (firstname.lastname@example.org). Brett's submission follows:
"I saw your new book on the weekend. I picked it up and had a chance to read it. I enjoyed it quite a lot. Reading the book drove home to me the rarity of some these grasslands birds. I have only been birding seriously for about two years and in that time my Saskatchewan List numbers almost 200 species. Seeing that I have seen a good number of Saskatchewan birds I was surprised by the number of birds that you wrote about that were not on that list. I have never seen either Longspur, Lark Bunting, Burrowing Owl, Loggerhead Shrike, Upland Sandpiper or a Baird's Sparrow. These are all birds that someone in my position would have encountered easily only several decades ago. I guess I should probably make a point of going out a trying to find some of these birds this year.
I confess that most of the time, protection of the environment always seems like such a futile action, no matter how important it is. I find it so hard to even contemplate how to begin to help. The problem seems so large and the opponents so entrenched. As a historian, I guess I find it difficult to believe that people will fundamentally change their lifestyle unless they have no other choice. So often in the past, societies have driven themselves right into the wall rather than change course (Jared Diamond's book Collapse has many good examples). I am afraid we will do the same. However, no matter how pessimistic I get about the issue, I do believe nothing is set in stone. Maybe after all best way to cure death by a 1000 cuts is with a 1000 small bandaids.
Like yourself, I cannot help but truly admire those that seem to effortlessly work away. Their collective work has accomplished tangible results, the Whopping Crane has survived, many raptors are more numerous these days. I can't help but feel pleased each winter when I see Ravens soaring along side the road, and thinking that maybe things are getting better. In many ways I feel it is important to keep on the fight solely for these people that have given so much time and effort to protecting the world around us.
Finally, reading your book I am once again amazed that birds or any other animal has been able to survive us at all. It is staggering to think of all the raptors that DDT other pesticides, not to mention human hunting, have killed, yet they still grace our sky in surprising numbers. Although it really makes you think just how many birds were around before we got here. It must have been amazing.
Thanks for taking the time to write this book, and new blog."
Dickcissel image with the kind permission of Pete Grube
The fourth chapter of GSS is in part about a radio show I do once a month for CBC Saskatchewan. We call it "Birdline" and to many CBC listeners I am "that bird guy." Once I was out for a walk with my youngest daughter in our neighbourhood and found an elderly couple on a walking bridge over the creek talking about a pigeon that was resting on the railing. It seemed to be in distress so they were concerned. I stopped to talk to them and the man said maybe someone should call that bird guy on the radio. "No need," I said, "I am he!" or something like that. The story ended with me catching the pigeon, taking a number from its band and using the web to track down the owner who told me it would be fine because it was just resting and on its way home from a race that began in Brandon, Manitoba!
Birdline is one of the great pleasures in my life (here is link to the photo page CBC Blue Sky keeps for Birdline listeners)and as I say in this chapter it is a privilege to be the one who receives these dispatches from the field, where it always seems to me that birds are doing their best to bring us to our senses.
The chapter ends with a story about the dickcissel invasion that happened in Saskatchewan a couple of summers ago, giving us a sense of the motion and dynamism in grassland bird distribution. I never got to see one, but kept my ears and eyes out for them all that summer.
On another topic, Cheryl Pearce sent me a link to a good article on the effects of fire and grazing regimes in the Kansas Flint Hills. The article focusses on species that like taller grass--eastern meadowlark, grasshopper sparrow, and dickcissel, and it shows that it is never enough to think we can manage for grassland biodiversity with a single approach. We need economically viable ways for cattle producers to raise their animals on native grass while maintaining a patchy diversity of habitat: some areas burned or grazed while others are left ungrazed and unburned, and still others grazed lightly or recovering from a fire the previous year.
I took this photo in early April, 2006 in the East Block of Grasslands National Park, where I was camping with Chris Reed to see what I could learn about Greater Sage-grouse on their spring dancing grounds.
It has been four years since I started the research for Grass, Sky, Song, but it hit the shelves last Friday and over the weekend I was hearing of people seeing it in stores. This morning I received a kind note from Cheryl Pearce of London, Ontario, who was one of the first to go out and get a copy (upon reading the Globe & Mail review). She finished it yesterday and fired off an email, which follows:
"Trevor: I just wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed Grass, Sky, Song. As soon as I saw the review in yesterday's Globe and Mail I rushed out to buy it, sat down, and didn't move until I had finished it. It was a delight (albeit a downer at times for those of us who love grasslands). I've worked in grasslands for as long as I can remember, mostly in southern Alberta (for example, Canada Agriculture's research station at OneFour - a must save, wondrous, almost-pristine huge grassland full of the birds you talk about in your book). Although I am here in Ontario now until I retire, I spend my summers out west enjoying what's left of our native grasslands (I am an avid birdlearner) and on Manitoulin Island, ON which is partly "western" (i.e. has sharp-tail grouse, western meadowlarks, etc). I try to turn my students on to Canada's grasslands, but until you experience them in person, it is difficult. Robert Macfarlane states in his recent book The Wild Places that "open spaces bring to the mind something which is difficult to express but unmistakable to experience...". Let's hope we will have our grasslands and the enchantments they bring, forever. Anyways, thank you so much for a wonderfully-written, enchanting book. I think I'll start from page 1 and read it again! Cheryl M. Pearce, London, Ontario"
Thank you Cheryl--OneFour is a special place and deserves all the protection and care we can give it. And thanks for mentioning MacFarlane's book. A quick look on Amazon let me know that it is a book I will have to read.
Jake MacDonald, award-winning Manitoba author, reviewed the book and said some very nice things. (Jake's new book, Grizzlyville; Adventures in Bear Country, will be published in April.) Unfortunately, the review says that "less than 1 per cent of North America's native prairie still exists". True, if by "prairie" we mean the rarest type, tallgrass, which once flourished in Manitoba, south-eastern Saskatchewan, parts of Ontario, and the American Midwest. But tallgrass is only one kind of prairie. As a whole, the North American prairie is in trouble, but the amount remaining is, according to Ducks Unlimited, somewhere nearer 25%. In some places, Alberta, for example, as much as 30% remains.
I am still in Toronto. Karen and I came for the weekend for The Freedom to Read week event Pen Canada and HarperCollins put on at the Toronto Public Library on Friday night. The forum was packed and CBC's Matt Galloway guided the four of us (Sarah Harmer, Taras Grescoe, Ken McGooghan, and me)through a lively discussion on freedom of expression and how it relates to writing about the environment.
Such a fine group to share a stage with. Sarah, gracious and open-hearted, impressed me with all she has learned about the Niagara escarpment, where her family has owned land for a long time. Taras, who looks to be 26 or so, but claims he is 42, told me he is working on a new book. (An exciting and important topic, but I am sworn to secrecy.)And Ken, who I have been hearing about for years from Stuart Houston, was lots of fun. The book he is working on is taking him away from the Arctic seas to the deep waters of our Scottish ancestry in Canada. Can't wait to read it.
It is Sunday morning now and we are staying with Mike Wild, a Saskatchewan friend temporarily exiled here in the Big Smoke. Among other things (ice climbing, mountaineering, engineering, and learning primitive skills), Mike grows grass-fed beef on land north of the Qu'Appelle valley. He and his wife Lorran work with Lorran's father and his wife to find ways of restoring health to their land while raising grass-fed chickens and cattle. When it comes time to sell a steer, they head out to the pasture and slaughter it right there. Better for the animal, better for the land (no grain was used in the killing of this animal), and better for us to eat (more Omega 3 fatty acids). One last picture. Here is a shot of the kind of Gypsy caravan Mike has promised me he is going to build and bring out to our land at Cherry Lake.