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?
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
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.
This chapter of Grass, Sky, Song is about pesticides. The loggerhead shrike is an endangered species in Canada for a variety of reasons but pesticides have likely played a role. Farmers and naturalists first noticed their numbers thinning in the early 1960s after the new organochlorine pesticides (including DDT) came to the prairie. In the 1970s we banned DDT, but then started using Carbofuran for the next twenty years. It too has finally been banned, but the damage has been done. The prairie population of loggerhead shrikes has dropped by 80% in the last 35 years.
Doing the research for this chapter I went to the University of Lethbridge to meet Dan Johnson, Canada Research Chair in Sustainable Grassland Ecosystems, and one of the continent's foremost grasshopper researchers. Take a look at this web page where Dan shows some of his work on grasshoppers and grassland species at risk.
This lovely photo of burrowing owl eating a grasshopper was taken by Dan. Click here for a look at an great series of shots of this owl eating 'hoppers.
Dan sits on the recovery team for burrowing owls, in part because the owls eat a lot of grasshoppers and feed their nestlings on them. Dan does a lot of good by speaking to people in the world of agriculture who have trouble seeing grasshoppers and other insects as anything but pests. Here is a link to a lecture he gave on the subject at Simon Fraser university.
Great Bustard image courtesy of www.greatbustard.com
There is a lot we can learn about our future by watching what is happening in European conservation circles. One of the world's largest and most endangered grassland birds is the Great Bustard (Otis tarda)of Europe (estimated global population is 35,000). It has declined and vanished from much of its range. While it survives in small populations in several European countries, this fifty pound bird--the heaviest flying bird on the planet--disappeared from the grassy plains of the British Isles in the mid-nineteenth century. The last wild Great Bustard chick to hatch in the UK was in 1832, when a female Great Bustard was seen with a single chick in Suffolk.
This week, however, a re-introduction project in England is reporting the first wild hatching of Great Bustards in England in 177 years. A female Great Bustard with two chicks was photographed and video-taped in an undisclosed location on the Salisbury Plain somewhere near Wiltshire. Here is the Great Bustard Group news release on the story. For more images and video, click here.
The bustards were released in a wildlife sanctuary that is part of a weapons resting ground for the British military (sound familiar? the last remnants of grassland get their best "protection" by being dangerous places for humans. Suffield in Alberta, for example.)
Like our Greater Sage-grouse, the bustard is a lekking species with an elaborate and beautiful courtship display. Here are two images provided by the Great Bustard Group website showing that display. If we do not take action soon to protect Canada's remaining Greater Sage-grouse (somewhere under 200 birds remain), we will be following the more expensive and difficult path taken by the Great Bustard Group of slowly re-introducing a species to the wild. The most important step for now is to get the Federal government to follow its own species at risk legislation and put a total moratorium on any industrial (gas and oil exploration) disturbance in sage-grouse habitat.
Here is a Globe & Mail article on the first evidence produced in the suit brought by Nature Saskatchewan and a consortium of five other conservation groups, attempting to get the Federal government to finally apply its legislation and declare critical wildlife habitat for the Greater Sage-grouse.
Greater Sage-grouse image courtesy of John Carlson
Counts on Greater Sage-grouse leks are now in for both Saskatchewan and Alberta. The numbers have dropped significantly from last year (a total of fewer than 200 birds were counted) and the species seems to be rapidly headed toward extirpation in Canada. The Canadian government has done very little to protect the bird's habitat from oil and gas exploration and so environmental organizations have decided to take the Harper government to court. Here is an article from yesterday's Calgary Herald:
"Today, a lawsuit launched by a coalition of six environmental groups will be heard in a Vancouver courtroom. The suit alleges Ottawa has failed to protect sage grouse habitat in the bird's Canadian range of southeastern Alberta and southwestern Saskatchewan.
"We urgently need something to protect the last remaining little bits of habitat," said Mark Boyce, a biological sciences professor at the University of Alberta who has studied sage grouse in Canada and states such as Wyoming for 30 years.
There are fewer than 200
sage grouse left in Alberta --many feeding on the silver sagebrush around the hamlet of Manyberries--and perhaps a few more in Saskatchewan."