Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Prairie Restoration--catching what we can

plains rough fescue at Cherry Lake, T. Herriot

I get envious when I hear of grassland restoration efforts in other states and provinces, because here in Saskatchewan there seems to be very little restoration happening. I'd be happy to be convinced otherwise, but I think it is fair to say that the work of restoring grassland in this province is down to a couple of plots at the University of Regina, some work DU and NCC have done, and the re-seeding efforts that Nature Saskatchewan has overseen in small plots next to burrowing owl nest sites (using cultivars that are not true natives to the area, however).

I recently asked Chet Neufeld, director of the Native Plant Society of Saskatchewan, if he knew of other restoration activity in the province and that brought a couple more to attention. Chet said that they had worked with the Saskatchewan Department of Highways on two or three projects, and he believes there are places here and there related to oil and gas activity, but other than that, not much.

So there is some restoration activity but apparently not enough to support a local native seed producer in the province. Most prairie states and provinces have a small industry producing local seed. For restoration the nearer the seed is grown to the restoration site the better. Recently, I received an email from Carl Kurtz, a native seed grower in Iowa who sometimes reads this blog. In Iowa, he said, there has been "increased funding for conservation programs such as buffer strips and wetland restorations" and these programs have helped his seed-growing business, which he says is small, currently producing between three and five thousand pounds of seed per year. He said that they raise seed in a polyculture, rather than in monoculture rows. This approach cuts the cost of seeding down to 250 to 300 dollars per acre and suits his market well.

(Carl's book, A Practical Guide to Prairie Reconstruction, is worth reading if anyone out there wants to look into the subject. Here it is on Amazon.)

Until we get some legislation making highways and the oil and gas industry use true native seed (and not the weird cultivars often used in its place), or perhaps some incentives and conservation programs that make it affordable to use true native seed in wildlife buffers and other restoration projects, it is going to be difficult to convince anyone to risk making the investment to become a native seed grower in this province.

prairie crocus (anenome) at Cherry Lake, T. Herriot

If anyone doubts the value of grassland restoration, take a look at this blog posting from The Prairie Ecologist, where ecologist Chris Helzer, who works for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska, explains how restoration, done right, can improve a prairie conservation initiative.

Chris writes well and comes up with some effective images to make his points. In this post on restoration as a landscape-scale conservation tool, he says that trying to conserve prairie ecology with small remnants is like catching popping popcorn in a coffee cup.

Even in places like Saskatchewan where we have a lot more acres of native grass in larger remnants, Chris's message about restoration is worth considering. Instead of hoping our fragmented grasslands will do the job--and clearly they are not--we need to establish larger pieces of contiguous prairie and that means restoration, but not just any restoration. We are going to need high-quality (i.e. local seed), high-diversity restoration, designed and placed strategically to buffer and connect the most important fragments in ways that will build resilience into the ecosystems thereby conserving maximum biodiversity and species at risk.

But the first step is to get Environment Canada and Saskatchewan Environment to recognize the validity of grassland restoration as a vital element of prairie conservation.


  1. Hi Trevor,
    An encouraging surprise in this area: a workshop in Regina on native prairie restoration organized by PCAP has seen much larger registration than expected - it was moved to a larger venue and may yet sell out (Feb. 16-17, details at their upcoming events page.) On the other hand, there is the troubling news that Alberta is moving to create a single department for approvals of oil and gas projects instead of having separate reviews by energy and environmental departments. If Saskatchewan follows this lead, I would expect a setback to efforts to achieve true restoration (if such is possible) where oil and gas projects affect native prairie.
    Laura Stewart

  2. Laura:

    Thanks so much for pointing that out. Skimming the itinerary for that program was an eye-opener. Made me realize that there are some other restoration projects going on in the province after all (and I forgot about Last Mountain Lake). Glad to see that so many people are signing up for the conference. I should try to get there myself.


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