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.
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?
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?
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.
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."
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.”
At year end, Amazon.ca, 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."