Friday, August 6, 2010

If grasslands are "like the freezer" no wonder we have so little left

gauchos on the Argentine Pampas

Out at the cabin for the last couple of weeks, I haven’t been able to post to Grass Notes, but when I get some time I will post some photos from the summer. Meanwhile, here are a couple of thoughts on grassland conservation that have been on my mind:

My ecologist friend, Rob Wright, told me recently that out of the 1.2 million acres of land in the Regina Plain Landscape Area (or ecodistrict K17 - on the Ecoregions of Saskatchewan map), a mere 450 acres still have their native grass cover. That means 99.07% of the native grass on the Regina Plains is gone. What can one say about that kind of annihilation?

Carla Sbert of Nature Canada sent me an article from the June 2007 issue of WorldBirdwatch, entitled “The Tyrant and the Gaucho.” It is about grassland conservationists in South America facing the same issues we grapple with in this hemisphere. Asked why grassland seems to be so undervalued compared to other kinds of natural cover, Anibal Parera, BirdLife International’s Coordinator of the Alliance for the Conservation of South America’s Southern Cone Grasslands, says “For most people, grasslands are like the freezer—a place where their food comes from. When they think of grasslands, they think of cows, crops, and horses. When people think of forest, they think of jaguars, owls, toucans. . . .” Anibal’s colleague Rob Clay added, “the changes resulting from grassland conversion are less dramatic than those caused by rainforest deforestation, so to the untrained eye there is little difference between a grazed pasture, cereal crops, and pristine grasslands.”


  1. So true. I commented to a friend that the landscape of southern Saskatchewan is one of the most altered landscapes in the world, and he thought that was utter nonsense. He was thinking of Europe, China... But another time, he was complaining about grass left unmowed in the ditches, and I pointed out that the ditch might be the most natural part of the scene - the place where a native plant population might most readily persist and migrate. ("Migrate?" he said - "Plants? Migrate?")

    A few years back, I took this same friend out in some native pasture and showed him different plants. He said it was a real surprise to him, how many there were, when he had thought it was just waste land...

  2. Here is a comment from Don Ruzicka of Killam, Alberta. I mentioned Don and his good work at Sunrise Farm in a post on March 24 of this year.

    Trevor H

    Hi Trevor,

    Your latest blog is very timely for our farm. We had Cows & Fish (Alberta Riparian Habitat Management Society) come and do a “Native Grassland Health Assessment” on Friday.

    When we moved to the farm in 1983, I would put the cows out on pasture in May and move them onto the first field that was combined in early September. My “test” for pasture health in those days was if it was green, it was probably ready and ok to graze.

    The pasture was in pristine health with an abundance of rough fescue. It took me six years to compromise its ability to be sustainable. For some reason, the sharp tail grouse, western meadow larks, Spragues Pippits and others disappeared from the landscape. At that time, I had no idea that this was a symptom of overgrazing.

    After taking a course in Holistic Management in 1996, I realized all the damage I had done and proceeded to work towards bringing it back to good health. The “cause” was overgrazing and I proceeded to rest most of the native pastures for a year or more. In 2000, the western meadow larks returned, and a few years later, the Spragues Pippits. A positive change in management has resulted in more grass for the cattle and great habitat for the birds that call the native prairie “home.”

    Applying holistic management has led to a steady progression of new species to the farm and a huge increase to our “quality of life.” It has made me realise that we are only passing through here once and perhaps we should take the opportunity to leave the land in better condition than we found it.

    What went wrong in the first place? I have to admit that it was ignorance on my part and a false allusion that the technology of industrialised agriculture can fix anything and all things. I found that it just “ain’t so.”

    The awareness that Cows & Fish have brought to our farm regarding riparian and pasture management, have helped us to make our way back toward a path to sustainability. The assessment scored “healthy with problems,” which we will work at with the goal of achieving a “healthy” status.

    Also, your latest book, “Grass, Sky, Song,” has brought this awareness message and we continue to view the native prairie with increasing reverence. Thank you for keeping the message coming as it continues to foster hope and we all know that we need more “hope!”

    Kind regards,

    Don Ruzicka
    Killam, Alberta.

  3. Thanks for your comment, Arcolaura--those experiences with your friend illustrate the challenge we have in opening others' eyes to the loss of grassland.

    much appreciated,


  4. Hi Trevor,

    I just came across this great picture of the Argentine pampas in your blog. Can you say more exactly where the shot was taken?



  5. Sorry Jim--I can't remember where I found that photo or any details on it. that was posted a while back.


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