Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Sage grouse fading away as Canada proves once again to be an environmental backwater

Billboard in Calgary sponsored by the Alberta Wilderness Association
The media is beginning to pick up on the story of the Greater Sage Grouse being driven from Canada's sagebrush habitats. Here is the lead fromrecent piece published in the Edmonton Journal.

A new billboard campaign in Edmonton and Calgary flags the disappearance of the province's greater sage grouse, a bird whose grasslands home is compromised by industrial development in southeastern Alberta.

A nation that dredges "ethical oil" from the boreal forest and thumbs its nose at a world concerned about climate change, and where all levels of government approve a pipeline to send tarsands oil to Texas, is not going to blink when its last breeding Sage Grouse disappear, driven out by the same lies of "sustainable resource development".

In this case it is sour gas and oil development, cutting up the remaining critical habitat for sage grouse into small chunks, introducing roads and vertical structures that give predators an advantage, ponds that breed West Nile virus-bearing mosquitoes, and in general making such an industrial clamour that the grouse are unable to communicate and breed in peace.

I could not find a good satellite or aerial image of what Southwestern Saskatchewan and Southeastern Alberta gas fields, but here a shot from Wyoming to give you an idea of what Sage Grouse habitat looks like once it has been given over to gas and oil development:

This kind of destruction of sagebrush habitat and native grassland has put the
American population of sage grouse in peril, but things are far more dire with the Canadian population, which now is down to fewer than 50 birds (all in Saskatchewan and Alberta).

And yet American conservation agencies appear to be doing a lot more than their counterparts in Canada. At least they have begun a program to protect the species' breeding grounds.

Here is a recent article from the New York Times, entitled "SAGE GROUSE: Wyo. 'core area' concept could provide blueprint for BLM conservation strategy."

Will no one in Canadian government face up to the gas industry and strongly advocate that we must protect our critical habitat for this iconic species of the wild prairie?

Biologists are predicting that in two or three years our last Sage Grouse will be gone. What does this say about Canada, about the provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta?

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Marketing grass-finished beef

[banner from the Bite Beef website]

It would be wonderful to live in a world where something as good for us and as good for the environment as grass-finished beef would just sell itself and catch on like, say iPhones. Truth is, grass-finished beef needs marketing. Unfortunately, people who raise cattle are not often good at marketing (and the inverse is true too). And while meat from animals that only eat grass can be as tender and tasty as the best grain-fed beef--some would say better than--sometimes it is tough and it almost always requires the cook to take a different approach.

American grass-fed beef producers are ahead of us in Canada in the marketing department--five years ago it made the cover of Time--but we are starting to see some interesting efforts here too. From Alberta recently I heard a story about a couple of young women who have launched something they are calling Bite Beef. They are promoting the health benefits of grass-finished beef and working with local producers to get something ready for market this fall. Their website is quite sophisticated and it looks like they are hoping to sell a high-end boutique beef product to the urban foodie and restaurant markets. Here is a video and article about the two women, Nicole Lamb and Carli Baum, in the Calgary Sun. Hard to tell if they have any native grass in their operations but they refer to alphalfa a lot in their material. Ultimately, we need processing and marketing systems that will bring grass-finished beef from pasture to the supermarket at prices people will pay for food that is healthier for themselves and for prairie ecosystems.

In the meantime, any cattle removed from the industrial feedlot system and finished on grass--whether it is native or otherwise--is at least an improvement over the grain-and-drugs system most cattle are pushed through to put meat on our plates. I hope the Bite Beef people can make a go of it and show Albertans that beef raised entirely on grass is tasty and healthy.

left to right, Bite Beef's Nicole Lamb and Carli Baum

An interview with Ian Tyson on CBC Radio One last year ended with him holding out hope for the prairie if people can make the switch to grass-finished beef. You can listen to the podcast here (scroll down to hour three on the Sunday Edition when it was replayed on Jul10 this year.)

from Ian Tyson's official website

"The cowboy life is fading, and there's only a few places left where it's the real deal," Tyson said. "But if grass-finished beef can make the cover of Time magazine, who the hell knows what's going to happen? They'll need cowboys if they're going to raise grass-finished beef. They're going to have to have guys to chase them on horses."

Cattle on native grass, cowboys on horses herding them--it's an old dream but a worthy one.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

French-frying the Ancient Prairie: Alta. Re-opens Potatogate

Will it be this . . .

. . .or this?

When the Alberta government tried to sell 16,000 acres of native grassland in the Bow Island area to a large potato farming corporation last September (see original posting on this story here), a public outcry put an end to the deal by Christmas (link to posting here).

As the story unfolded in the media, it became known as “Potatogate,” because it seemed to many observers that, for reasons one can only guess, the Ed Stelmach government really wanted this particular potato corporation (SLM Spud Farms) to get the land in question.

As every defender of wildness knows too well, however, any victory is merely a victory for today. The forces of darkness do not go away; they just regroup and come back in disguise. By February this year, the Stelmach Government had a new scheme to sell off provincially-owned grassland. They would unload 84,000 acres of tax recovery land, much of it unbroken native prairie, to counties and municipal districts for a dollar a quarter section. That way, the local authorities would be free to turn around and sell the land off to the highest bidders, without having to worry about annoying little obstacles like provincial regulation and public input.

Again, the Alberta Wilderness Association (the AWA, who should win some kind of award for perseverance) swung into action and got the word out. Letters and emails started to arrive at the Alberta Legislature from people concerned about public land being sold off without any public accountability.

Now, however, the exact same 16,000 Bow Island acres are being put up for sale again--this time in a bid process (here is the official “opportunity notice from the Alberta Government) and after doing a “wildlife survey,” but once again without due public process. Hard to believe but in another way not hard to believe. When you can get away with re-branding tar sands oil as “ethical oil,” why would you not try to sell some endangered species habitat to an industrial potato farming operation?

Here is a Canadian Press article on the story, “Grassland selloff: Alberta seeks to convert native prairie to irrigation land.” And here is an article in the Medicine Hat News showing that after failing in its first attempt to buy the land last year, SLM Spud Farms hired a lobbyist to massage Alberta MLAs and get them to see the light (this is a big potatoe operation but hiring a lobbyist? Makes you wonder if a french fry or potato chip manufacturer is really footing the bill.)

Meanwhile, Alberta is in the midst of a leadership race for the Tory party, in effect determining who will be the next premier. In recent days, one by one the leader candidates are distancing themselves from the boondoggle and questioning what appears to be a rush to sell the land before a new premier gets into power. Here is a Calgary Herald article ("Tough to Find a Tory who likes sale of grassland") on the topic.

According to Cliff Wallis, VP of the AWA and one of the greatest advocates of prairie wildness in this country, the wildlife survey is suspect. It was not done by a professional biologist, but by a practitioner with limited skills in species at risk. Perhaps most damning, no plant work was done during the survey. Apparently, but again not surprisingly, the species at risk survey and report were not prepared for the government but for SLM Spud Farms, who also had the irrigation study done that is included in the bid package materials. Gee, isn’t that handy? The corporation that really wants the 16,000 acres helps the government get all the stuff it needs to initiate the RFP. Well, I guess it’s all one big family in Alberta, so ordinary rules of propriety and governance don’t really apply.

What does it take to convince people that these 100 quarter sections of native grass matter? According to a release on the AWA website , two active burrowing owl nests were found on the lands posted for sale. There is also a breeding pair of the endangered ferruginous hawk, and several pairs of North America’s largest shorebird, the long-billed curlew, a species of special concern. This region is particularly important to female pronghorn antelope, who use it as a fawning ground where they can hide their fawns safely in the native vegetation.

The people who want to convert this ancient and venerable piece of native grassland into irrigated cropland have most of the economic and political force on their side. On the other hand, those of us who would defend such places have most of the science, media opinion, and moral high ground on our side. We need to find more ways to use them--get scientists to make strong public statements, engage more people in the media, and always, always speak from a position of defending those who cannot defend and speak for themselves, i.e. the wild species who depend on these last large remnants of native grass.

And, of course, take a minute to write a letter or email to your Premier and to his Minister of Sustainable Resource Development. Here are the addresses:

The Hon. Ed Stelmach
Premier of Alberta
Room 307, Legislature Building
10800 – 97th Avenue
Edmonton, AB T5K 2B6

Honourable Mel Knight
Minister of Sustainable Resource Development
Alberta Legislature Building
10800 – 97 Avenue
Edmonton, AB
T5K 2B6
Phone: 780 415-4815

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