Friday, December 21, 2012

The Birds of Christmas--Craven Christmas Bird Count

a male Evening Grosbeak--rarely seen this far out onto the prairie

This post celebrates the birds of a prairie winter in a series of photos taken last Saturday, December 15th, in and around the Qu'Appelle Valley from Lumsden to Craven and beyond. It was my 20th year running the Craven Christmas Bird Count. There were 28 of us counting the birds from 8:30 am to 5 p.m. walking and driving in sectors of a fifteen mile diameter circle centred on Craven. The weather was perfect, calm, sunny and just a few degrees below zero. By the time noon rolled around and we took our customary lunch break gathering at the gracious Lumsden home of Phil and Louise Holloway, we knew we were headed toward a record number of species. Checking everyone's lists from their sectors, we already had at least 29 species and there was still the afternoon to count and a lot of roads to drive. In an average year we get between 23 and 28 species for the entire day, and the record, set in 2001, was 31.

Some birds that come south to winter on the plains only appear in numbers every few years in what naturalists refer to as an "irruption." The "winter finches"--both redpolls, both crossbills, pine siskins and pine and evening grosbeaks--are particularly irruptive and it can be hard to know ahead of time which year they will come. Bohemian waxwings also fluctuate a great deal from one year to the next. This seems to be a winter when all of these species decided to come to this part of the Great Plains for a spell. Just before noon, many of us gathered at the feeder of Curtis Pollock in Lumsden to watch several of these elegant winter birds in his yard. Curtis was off counting in his sector of the circle, but we were able to stand a few feet from his feeding station and snap photos of many of the irruptive species all in one place. Here is a series of images taken there:

took this shot of a bohemian waxwing at Barry Mitchke's acreage, but Curtis had many in his yard too.

this shot shows a male house finch in the middle, a female pine grosbeak in the background and an out of focus common redpoll in the foreground

A male red crossbill

caught this crossbill a moment after it let itself fall from a branch, and just before opening its wings

this male Pine Grosbeak was one of 41 of the species we recorded

though less colourful, female Pine Grosbeaks are every bit as graceful

this female Varied Thrush coming to a feeder in the valley near Craven was one of the rarest birds of the day, along with the single Evening Grosbeak (shown at top) and a Lapland Longspur
This fellow, a Great Horned Owl, was sunning himself later in the day

this was the last species my sector added to our list for the day--a group of five Ring-necked Pheasants crossing the snow to a favourite feeding area

and here they are feeding perhaps in a spot cleared by deer

When the day was done we had recorded 37 species, shooting past the old record by six! All those irruptive finches and waxwings choosing the same year to come this far south may have been the main reason for the high tally, but the number of skilled birders helping on the count is also making a difference.

A good friend now living in Weyburn, Carol Bjorklund, started the Craven count in 1991.That year there were eight people covering the fifteen mile wide circle. Five of those original counters have died in the last few years, including a tall, gentle birdwatcher named Milow Worel. He was always pleasant and enthusiastic, a sharp-eyed and welcome volunteer as he was at the Last Mountain Bird Observatory in spring and fall.

Every year there are new counters to replace the ones who get too old to be tromping around after birds in the snow. This year a woman named Fran Kerbs came in my vehicle. Tall and pleasant, sharp-eyed, and keen to take photos of the birds we were seeing. I asked Fran how she got started birdwatching. "I guess I was doing it all my life without knowing it. My dad was a bird watcher. Funny, I didn't really get serious about it until he died last year."

What was your dad's name, I asked, maybe I knew him. "Milow Worel," she replied.
Of course, I thought, I should have guessed that.

One of the many great blessings of this count was remembering Milow and seeing his enthusiasm so clearly living on in Fran.

A final Christmas gift from the prairie---this little guy was found by one of the other groups on our count (we also record mammal species--16 species this year). He was there scurrying over the snow back and forth at the edge of a field of stubble. Ray Poulin at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum identified it as a Prairie Shrew- Sorex haydeni.

Prairie Shrew, image courtesy of Kim Mann, another sharp-eyed volunteer on the 21st annual Craven Christmas Bird Count
The birds are lovely, but for sheer, bright intensity of life and audacious survival in the face of all the abuse we heap upon these plains, it is hard to beat a shrew foraging over snow in the dead of winter.

Christmas Blessings to one and all.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Community pastures--why proper management matters for livestock and conservation

is this well-managed grassland? It can be hard to tell at a glance

In some kinds of natural landscape, the effects of mis-management are easy for even a layperson to see right away. You look at a large fifteen year old clear-cut of coastal rainforest on a mountain slope and you can see that there is poor regeneration, and mostly weeds, perhaps gullies from erosion. At the very least, you see the massive stumps and the slash left from cutting the trees down. It's immediately obvious that the habitat has changed significantly for the creatures that depended on the forest, and you know that prospects for recovery are minimal.

Grassland, on the other hand, is a landscape that does not readily show the results of poor management, at least not to the untrained eye. To most people, grass is grass. A pasture full of introduced grasses, brushy growth and invasive weeds like sweet clover and leafy spurge looks superficially not that much different than a pasture that has a healthy mix of native grasses and forbs and enough "carryover," or above ground biomass remaining after grazing. If the land is grazed hard and the cattle have exposed bare patches of soil here and there, a layperson may see the difference, but even then guesses about the quality of management can be wrong. Some legitimate grazing systems require the land to be grazed intensely for short periods, and then left to recover.

yes, it looks like a hammered down piece of grass, but it is supposed to be that way--it's one of the last Greater Sage-Grouse leks in Canada

The point is, managing grazing and native grassland is tricky at the best of times, but most sensible cattlemen have traditionally had no trouble handling it on their private, relatively small patches of rangeland. Their own long-term self-interest is often enough to guide them to make good decisions that end up also serving the land fairly well. But when the land in question is fifteen or twenty thousand acres and it is to be shared among a group of grazers who are together making their own management decisions about how many animals are left in which pasture for how long, that very self-interest is suddenly placed up against the self-interest of others and that can often lead to trouble for the wellbeing of the land. That trouble, of course, is the example used by Garret Hardin in his famous and sometimes misapplied theory, "The Tragedy of the Commons."

Hardin refers to a nineteenth century Oxford political economist, William Forster Lloyd, who observed that British grazing commons were often grazed much harder than adjacent lands owned by individuals.  

"At the point when the carrying capacity of the commons was fully reached, a herdsman might ask himself, “Should I add another animal to my herd?” Because the herdsman owned his animals, the gain of so doing would come solely to him. But the loss incurred by overloading the pasture would be “commonized” among all the herdsmen. Because the privatized gain would exceed his share of the commonized loss, a self-seeking herdsman would add another animal to his herd. And another. And reasoning in the same way, so would all the other herdsmen. Ultimately, the common property would be ruined."

This tragedy  of ruined common property, however, never occurred on the Federal PFRA grasslands. As we know, the PFRA system resulted in the opposite--ecologically rich and productive grasslands that proved to be a "triumph of the commons." Why? Because management decisions were always made by professional managers supported by ecologists and range management experts in a publicly accountable administration that had a mandate to care for the land and nothing to gain from overstocking. Management decisions were entirely disengaged from the personal gain of the patrons who had livestock on the pastures.

As any rancher can tell you, management matters a lot in grassland. Stocking rates, timing of grazing, handling invasive species, reducing brushy growth, fostering habitat for endangered species--these decisions are becoming more difficult than ever to make in a cattle industry where foreign-owned multi-nationals call most of the shots. If the PFRA pastures, Canada's best managed grasslands--so important in supporting local livestock production and in providing habitat to species at risk, and other ecological goods and services--are left to be managed by collections of "owner-operators" or lease-holder operators we will see triumph turn to tragedy in a matter of years. A drought, another scare with a disease like Bovine Spongiform Encephalitis,  predatory actions by the big meat processing companies and feedlots, or perhaps a dispute among the lessees--there are many possible pressures that could lead to ill-advised management decisions and overstocking. But, just as important, where will a committee of leasing-operators find the time, knowledge, or resources to properly manage for leafy spurge and other invasives, to protect vulnerable riparian zones, to monitor and minimize the ecological impacts of the oil and gas industry, or to ensure proper diversity of habitat to support a complex of eight or ten native plants and animals on their pasture that have often conflicting and specific requirements?

We all know they will not find those resources; nor should they have to. The ecological benefits coming from the 1.6 million acres in Saskatchewan's 62 PFRA pastures are part of Canada's public trust and it should be the responsibility of all Canadians, and not merely a handful of livestock producers, to see that those benefits are nurtured into the future.

courtesy of Hamilton Greenwood

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Ottawa cutting SARA off at the knees; Scientists speak out

Long-billed Curlews, one of Canada's Species at Risk may lose what little protection they have (image by Hamilton Greenwood)

One of the most worrisome parts of the 62 PFRA pastures being divested from Federal control and handed over to the province of Saskatchewan is the question of what will happen to the endangered species that have come to depend on these large tracts of well-managed grassland. At least 31 plants and animals listed under the Federal Species at Risk Act as endangered, threatened, or "special concern" need the habitat on the community pastures to be managed as it has been.

As a friend who knows intimately this relationship between the PFRA pastures and its rare prairie creatures said to me once, Species at Risk are on the pastures BECAUSE of what has been done in the last 70 years NOT IN SPITE OF IT. Management of this kind of land requires a lot of expertise if sustaining biodiversity and Species at Risk are part of the overall goals. We hear that farmers and ranchers are the best stewards of our grassland. They sometimes are. We all know of ranchers who keep an eye out for a burrowing owl on their pasture. Another one who protects Ferruginous Hawks and knows enough to leave the old homestead where the shrikes nest. That is all good. Keeping an eye out for one or two species is one thing, but some of these large PFRA pastures will have significant numbers of nest sites and locations for six or seven species at risk. Some of them are hard to see much less identify and their habitat requirements are still not fully understood by the biologists who study them for years. Managing grazing in ways that meet most of their needs--some need short grass and others need tall, others still need moist areas or shrubby habitat--takes us to a level of complexity that is almost impossible for a private landowner to manage.  

Burrowing Owl--one of 31 species at risk on our community pastures (image by Hamilton Greenwood)
This balanced system of caring for biodiversity while serving the local community and providing an economic opportunity for livestock producers took almost 80 yrs of trial and error, research, planning and investment to figure out. To say that this model of conservation and protection of Species at Risk can be matched by local committees of grazing patrons on 62 pastures, each with their own business plans and self-managing the land, is disingenuous at best.

Hundreds of people are signing petitions and sending letters to the Provincial Minister of Agriculture expressing their concerns on this topic. Recent responses from the Ministry are reassuring us once again that farmers and ranchers are the best stewards so there is nothing to worry about and Species at Risk will somehow be protected by the Federal Species at Risk Act, even though the land is no longer under Federal control. (See this post for a Species at Risk expert's response to that.)

Tonight I had an interesting phone call from a patron of the Wolverine Community Pasture near Lanigan. Wolverine is one of the first ten to be sold or leased. This patron told me that he heard that the local patron group is very concerned about the environment in their pasture if it is not managed properly. Yes, our livestock producers care. But they aren't stupid. They see the value of the PFRA system and they recognize, if they are honest, that without the kind of management oversight the PFRA always provided, the long term environmental health of the grass, the wildlife and the waterways on these pastures will be degraded.

Meanwhile, that very Species at Risk Act, in which we are to place our confidence, is being the Stephen Harper government. This article makes it clear that the the Act, which many say has been a failure because politicians have interfered with it and not implementing its provisions, is about to become even less effective.

And here is a news story  that says the province's will not be able to fill in to protect endangered species if the Federal Act is weakened.

Meanwhile, Canadian scientists are expressing their dismay at the Federal government's retrograde actions. Here is a letter  from Canada's scientists, which they are still gathering signatures for.

If you are a scientist or have a science degree and would like to join the campaign and sign the letter, please go to this site and fill in the necessary fields. Post or email this to your contacts if you want to help. 

Canada's endangered creatures, from the Polar Bear to the Orca to the Sprague's Pipits on our community pastures are worth standing up for.

freshly banded Sprague's Pipit, image courtesy of Stephen Davis

Saturday, December 1, 2012

A story from the origins of the PFRA

the legacy of misguided agricultural policy is all over Palliser's Triangle
I've been writing and talking to people for months now about protecting our community pastures and their legacy of balancing the needs of local livestock producers with ecological values. That fine balance is particularly at risk if any of the 62 federal pastures are sold to private interests, but even if they are leased it could well be upset. Without specific programming to reduce invasive species like leafy spurge and many others, and without a long term vision that uses cattle as a management tool to ensure ecological health, the land will degrade and species at risk will suffer.

But there is another story that I have not taken the time to tell. The community pastures were created in response to a public policy disaster that led to an ecological crisis: the dust bowl of the 1930s. By then, the Canadian and American governments had for fifty years been encouraging immigrants and easterners to move West to begin cultivating their piece of the plains, even in its driest regions with the poorest soils.  A lot of lying went on in the race to fill up the lands that Captain John Palliser in the 1850s had declared unsuitable for agriculture of any kind. Palliser's Triangle we call it still, but when the big dry hit in 1931 and the winds started to blow, thousands of settlers found that they had been duped into farming land in the Triangle that should never have been broken. Native grassland has a built in resiliency to help it withstand drought. The old-growth grasses hold onto the light soils no matter how dry it gets, no matter how the wind blows, as long as they are not grazed too hard.

When the Saskatchewan and Federal governments witnessed these new settlers suffering on land that they had been misled would be good for growing grain, saw them struggling for enough food to support their children never mind getting any to market, they came face to face with the consequences of their own ill-advised public policy. Like many Saskatchewan people, my family has its story from the Dirty Thirties. My father, now 81, remembers his father declaring that their farm on the edge of the Great Sand Hills, near Hazlett, was producing fewer potatoes than he had planted in the spring. Before the decade was out, they had packed up and moved north to take up subsistence living in the bush near Emma Lake.

The PFRA, or Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration, was founded in the teeth of this crisis. The Federal Government decided that it could help conserve some of the blowing soil and provide well managed grazing lands for local cattlemen, as well as water management by forming large pastures out of some of the land with the lightest soils. Many families had to be re-located to create the pastures. The government declared their lands unfit for farming and then moved them out. As necessary as that was, the resulting dislocation sometimes led to more suffering and disarray and the families were unfortunately not compensated adequately.

For good or ill, this is our history and we have a responsibility to honour the better parts of it by continuing to improve our public policy as it is applied to these fragile grasslands. The rich legacy of the PFRA is in its attempt to finally get it right, to try something else with the land, see what results and then adapt as necessary. Over 75 years that model has helped the pastures system evolve into this country's best example of ecologically sustainable agriculture. The very origins of that system should be a cautionary tale for us warning us to be careful what we do with the land that our forbears finally realized was best left to grow grass.

In times of climate change when our neighbours just south of us on the American plains have been suffering through drought, we should if anything be expanding the reach and vision of the public policy that has been guiding the PFRA from that crisis to today's superb management model. That alone should urge us to find a way to continue and improve on the PFRA tradition--whether it is a partnership of private and public with non-profits, or entirely under government control. And I have no doubt that a PFRA-like model could be made more efficient and run on a cost-recovery basis, and perhaps even turn a profit if revenue from carbon credits, grazing fees, and access for resource development were put into the equation. (We need an enlightened agricultural economics person to help make the case for such a model running the pastures as a group and with both grazing access and conservation in mind.)

pronghorn, by Hamilton Greenwood

I am going to leave this post with a moving testimony I received out of the blue one day in my email. It is from a woman named Georgiaday Hall. A member of the Native Plant Society of Saskatchewan, Georgiaday lives in Winnipeg but her family's history is under the soil of the Swift Current-Webb PFRA pasture, west of Swift Current. I will let her tell the story in her own voice, which vibrates with feeling for the land and the injustice of her ancestors being urged to homestead in a place unfit for cultivation:

My history goes back to a community pasture in Saskatchewan so I am attached to it.  I am an advocate of wild life- plants and animals. I am concerned over what happens to PFRA pastures.  I feel my story might be of benefit to those who love nature.
My grandfather, a widower, came to Canada in the early 1900s with hope for a better future.  He  had his four young children sent to him in 1913.  He bought a Homestead north of Beverly and Webb Saskatchewan and planted his first crop in 1915.  This Homestead should never have been assigned to him because the land was unfit for farming.  Years later his Homestead and those of the neighbors were deemed unfit for farming and made part of the present community pasture.

The family went broke.  The children were hungry, shoeless, shabbily dressed and often cold.  There wasn't any help for this family. The police came and took my father and his brother.  They were separated and my father at age eleven was placed in the Children's Shelter in Regina.  (Embury House)

When my father turned twelve he was placed on farms to work as a cheap laborer.  The farmers were to make sure he got to go to school but he was kept at the farms to work.  He was to receive a small wage and he did not.  He ran away from four farmers in all.  Sometimes the police caught him and returned him to the farmer and he was severly punished.  His life was forever changed by not being allowed to attend school.

Today there are oil wells on my Grandfather's Homestead.

My father and his siblings were never compensated for the hardships and loss of family they were forced to endure.  Now I believe my voice should be heard.  I represent my father.

My father loved nature.

I believe this community pasture should be left as it is with the care of the PFRA or assigned to groups who believe in the preservation of land for wild flowers and wild animals.  I also believe a cairn should be placed in the above community pasture to honor the Homesteaders who were unknowingly assigned land unsuitable for farming.

However, if  the present government wishes to change this then I believe I should be given the former Homestead of my grandfather in compensation for the hardship and neglect my father's family experienced in the early 1900s.  I wish to preserve it for native plants and animals as a legacy in honor of the Homesteaders mentioned.


I have documents to prove all that I have written.  I appreciate all of the people who are trying to preserve land for the plants and animals we share this earth with.

Georgiaday Hall

yellow coneflower

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Thoughts from the (first?) Community Pastures Forum

Well, we are all feeling exhausted and exhilarated from the experience of holding our first Community Pastures Forum. Of all the things we learned on Friday, perhaps the most important was that there are so many ways to value these 62 pieces of prairie that serve cattle producers and our threatened prairie ecosystems so effectively. The 75 people who attended on such a snowy day reflected a range of interests and backgrounds worthy of the prairie's own diversity. We had several pasture patrons, including two who sit on the patron committees for their local PFRA pasture. We had some anonymous government staff, federal and provincial. There were of course many people rural and urban--naturalists, hunters, photographers and others--who look to the pastures for the solace, adventure, and inspiration wilder lands can offer.

So much happened, so many encouraging ideas and messages from people with broad experience with the grazing and conservation side of things. We now have some specific tasks to undertake, which I will not detail in this space, but here are some of my favourite moments from the day, in no particular order:

  • Listening to Maureen Clay, recently retired supervisor of 13 PFRA pastures and their staff, explain the value of the pasture managers and their intimate knowledge of the land.
  • When I realized that, while current staff were forbidden from participating, there were at least five retired PFRA employees with us--some of them people who once held senior positions in management working for decades in Engineering or in the pastures side of things. They all stayed for the whole day, and when we discussed ideas and strategies at the end, a key bit of advice from their quarter made all the difference.
  • The noon hour panelists were all eloquent and passionate in their assessment of what must be done to protect the pastures in the interests of livestock producers, pasture employees, the local communities they live in, the public at large, and the biodiversity and ecological wellbeing of the prairie regions of the province.
  • It is always a treat to hear former Chief Roland Crowe speak and he was in good form but it was gratifying also to see him standing with the men in cowboy hats and talking to them about the issues.
  • The young people--there were a few people thirty and younger, including one young livestock producer who made a couple of cogent points on how the PFRA pastures system could be adapted to encourage or support cattlemen of his generation.
  • When at the beginning of the day Jack Boan, professor emiritus (econ.) of the University of Regina, walked in and sat down in the front row. Later Jack took the mic and told us that he worked for the PFRA as a young man, but then went on to say that his good friend, George Ledingham, former U of R Biology professor "would have been with us today, but he has gone on to his reward." George was the gentle but persistent force that over thirty years managed to talk the powers that be into finally recognizing the value of grasslands in a national park. Jack finished with his assessment of the "austerity disease" that has come across the border from the United States to infect Canadian governments.
  • The many new points and perspectives people brought to the event--for example, ideas on how to communicate to the wider public the story of why native grasslands matter.

And finally, here is a note I received from a person who like quite a few others who have spoken to me in recent weeks, wants to remain nameless for fear of repercussions from the provincial or federal government:
"Thanks for arranging the forum today; it was excellent.  My only wish was that there had been those elusive representatives from MOA and AESB (and not retirees either).  . . . .There was one point I'd like to contribute, is that there is a true disconnect from the pastures and the general public.  For those of us who make a living, or a concerted effort to access the "back forty", we have a deep connection to the land.  But for the general public who have no rural connection, rallying the public (especially those in other provinces) is a formidable task.  The message can't only tug at heartstrings, but has to have some real tangible implications to the public. That's my two cents worth anyway."

Yes, there is a lot of work ahead, but now there are many of us to do it and for that I am very grateful.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

An example of one community pasture up for sale

the hidden understorey of native grassland, with lichens and club mosses
A cattleman I know recently told me a story that made me realize that there could well be some powerful players in the beef industry who are hoping to get some of the PFRA pastures if they are put up for sale.

"We were at the Calgary Stampede and didn't have a seat, but I ran into a friend there who was a bit of a bigwig with the Stampede and he said, 'no problem, I can get you a spot.' So he sat us down in the VIP seating at right next to a couple of women who work for one of the major banks in the farm sector. Somehow we got talking about Saskatchewan pasture land and they told me the big operators in the Alberta cattle industry see Saskatchewan as a source of cheap land for building feedlots and large backgrounding operations."

What's backgrounding? That's what I wondered too so I looked it up. Here is an explanation of how backgrounding works, from a Stats Canada publication available online:

"Cow-calf operations sell calves to backgrounding or feeding operations. Backgrounding operations, which include feeder and stocker/finishing operations, usually keep cattle throughout the winter to be fed a low energy ration like forage. Backgrounding operations sell cattle the year after as yearlings, to be finished on feeding operations, or as fed cattle ready to be slaughtered. Usually more than half the heifers for slaughter and steers inventories in Canada, at January 1 or July 1, are reported to be on feeding operations. Feeder steers and heifers on feeding operations are fed a high energy ration like grains to be finished to slaughter weight. The Western provinces have 30.6% of the total feeding operations and account for 75.4% of the Canadian cattle inventory on feeding operations." 
From what I gather, these are the intermediary places in the beef industry that can be quite profitable businesses once the operation gets big enough.

These kinds of businesses are not the PFRA patrons but they may be the people backing those who are trying to buy a pasture. If that happens, what is lost?

Consider one of the pastures up for sale right now--Wolverine near Lanigan. A lovely piece of grassland in a place where there are almost no other native prairie remnants, Wolverine is one of the few Aspen Parkland pastures that still has some Sprague's Pipits in residence and other grassland birds--last time I checked anyway.

Right now around 45 producers have 1,300 cattle that graze the 17,000 acres at Wolverine every summer. If a feedlot or backgrounding operation gets hold of it, instead of 45 producers and their families benefiting from the grazing opportunity and bringing spinoff economic activity to the local community, there could be one or two owners of a large company that controls the access to all 17,000 acres and makes all of the management decisions without the kind of grass and ecosystem management the PFRA system always provided to look after the land.

That transfer of this piece of our commonwealth into the hands of the a couple of favoured operators will also lead to the local community and economy losing the pasture management staff and their families. And, as well, if the pasture is degraded from overstocking and no control of invasive species and shrubs, the biodiversity and species at risk will suffer, riparian areas could be damaged, and the land would lose much of its capacity to store carbon.

from Western Producer
Recently the pasture staff at Wolverine conducted a trial using goats to knock back shrubby growth on the pasture, which is a serious problem in certain parts of the prairie. Here is a story about it from the September issue of Western Producer, an example of the kind of enlightened work done under the PFRA system using new approaches to handle invasive species and brush, which not only reduce the amount of good grazing for cattle but also ruin habitat for endangered grassland birds and other species at risk. 

Friday, November 16, 2012

An anonymous tip--patrons are being tempted by offers from big investors

I received a disturbing message today from someone in the ag sector who wishes to remain anonymous.

Here it is, with identifying bits cropped out:

It has come to my attention that investment corporations outside of Saskatchewan have approached the patrons to purchase the land immediately after sale for approx. 2x the province's sale price, per quarter. So to summarize,, investment conglomerates have asked the patrons to make the purchase, even if they don't want to, as they will buy it directly after from the patrons at approx. 2x the purchase price, ~$80,000 per 160 acres. Real estate agents have been approaching the patrons as so the investment groups can keep some distance until after the sales.

In addition, I have also been advised that upon the sale the patrons make, they can request to have the conservation easements lifted if it is hindering a sale (to any investors as noted above). Which is totally legal, and the patrons are aware of this loophole as are the investment groups.

Lastly, patrons have indicated that some of the land will be tilled upon sale, as the cost of any law suit related to the no-till conservation easement will not compare to the potential profitability from breaking the land. In addition the SARA loses teeth on private land, and is rarely enforced in Saskatchewan in this regard.

It is also my opinion the province will not enforce the easements, as is evident throughout Saskatchewan now.

This information is from patrons, I would expect it to be accurate. You may have heard this already.

Please do not pass my name along.

If this is legit, and I think it is, our fears of outside interests buying up the pastures and ploughing them to grow crops are justified. If patron groups flip the pastures to make a quick buck and then the new owners one way or another blow off the no-plough conservation easement, the pastures will be destroyed. Who would these out of province investors be? Well, the Nillson Bros. in Alberta (of XL Foods' e.coli fame) are in the market for a lot of land. They might like having giant pastures in Saskatchewan they can use any way they want to strengthen their position in the beef industry. Even worse,  CNOOC of China, the same corporation that wants to control Canada's oil industry and buy Nexen, is said to be interested in the pastures now. Rumours? Who knows, but if these nightmares come to pass, every cattleman and anyone who cares about prairie landscapes and ecology will be sorry we did not speak out against it soon enough.

No matter who ends up owning the pastures, the conservation easements will do nothing to protect them. I talked last night with a retired pasture supervisor who managed 13 pastures under the PFRA system. This person told me that the conservation easements are worthless. "If the land is sold much of it will be ploughed. No one will monitor to see that it isn't. And once it is broken, there is nothing you can do to bring it back."

Thursday, November 15, 2012

An invitation to pasture patrons: come speak at a Public Forum on the Pastures

Tree Swallow perched on our Prairie Stewardship sign
In Regina on Friday, November 23rd, there will be a facilitated open forum on the disposal of the PFRA pasture lands in Saskatchewan. The night before, Nov. 22nd, author Candace Savage (freshly returned from her well-deserved award of the Hilary Weston Writers' Trust prize for non-fiction) will present her thoughts on the legacy of the PFRA pastures at a public slide-talk at the Education Auditorium, beginning at 7pm. The evening is free. Copies of Candace's brilliant and powerful new book, A Geography of Blood: Unearthing Memory from a Prairie Landscape will be on sale.

We are holding the public forum on the 23rd at the Orr Centre which is a short drive north of the Exhibition Grounds in Regina (see map here). We especially would like to hear from PFRA pasture patrons and other livestock people who will voice their opinions on the pastures issue, as well as people from the conservation community, rural municipalities and farm organizations. Any interested government staff from the Provincial and Federal levels are also very welcome to join us for the day if they can come. Our hope is that by bringing together the various interest groups and stakeholders--especially pasture patrons--we will find some common ground on the matter of how these critically important landscapes should be managed in the years to come.

For now, the Province of Saskatchewan says that they plan to sell or lease all 61 of the pastures in stages, and they have announced the first ten to be disposed of. Yesterday, with the Federal Government they released some information on how they will give money to any pasture patron groups who want to buy a pasture. There was an article in the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix covering the story and they interviewed the Provincial Minister of Agriculture, Mr. Lyle Stewart, as well as a cattleman from Dundurn area who has used the local community pasture. The cattleman, Verner Falk, says in the article that ranchers will not be able to afford to buy the pastures and that the new funding promises won't make a difference.
Verner Falk, who is part of a group of ranchers whose cattle graze on a community pasture near Dundurn.
Falk said the estimated value of the pasture land — which is likely in the millions of dollars — is more than most ranchers can afford. Falk said there are fewer than half as many ranchers using the land than a decade ago. He believes the money Stewart is offering won’t come close to making it an attractive deal for ranchers.

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Verner Falk, who is part of a group of ranchers whose cattle graze on a community pasture near Dundurn.
Falk said the estimated value of the pasture land — which is likely in the millions of dollars — is more than most ranchers can afford. Falk said there are fewer than half as many ranchers using the land than a decade ago. He believes the money Stewart is offering won’t come close to making it an attractive deal for ranchers.

Read more:
Verner Falk, who is part of a group of ranchers whose cattle graze on a community pasture near Dundurn.
Falk said the estimated value of the pasture land — which is likely in the millions of dollars — is more than most ranchers can afford. Falk said there are fewer than half as many ranchers using the land than a decade ago. He believes the money Stewart is offering won’t come close to making it an attractive deal for ranchers.

Read more:
Verner Falk, who is part of a group of ranchers whose cattle graze on a community pasture near Dundurn.
Falk said the estimated value of the pasture land — which is likely in the millions of dollars — is more than most ranchers can afford. Falk said there are fewer than half as many ranchers using the land than a decade ago. He believes the money Stewart is offering won’t come close to making it an attractive deal for ranchers.

Read more:

That is what it is; however, at the same time this was happening, the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities--which was officially on record as supporting the Province's plan--entertained a resolution that insisted that the Province "retain ownership of the federally transitioned pastures and assist with the development of a pasture lands management structure to ensure the pastures continue to serve local producers and communities."

I came home to find a voice-mail from a friend who was on the floor at the convention, telling me that the resolution, sponsored by a group of four rural municipalities, was passed by more than two-thirds majority! An email from Joanne Brochu (who drafted the resolution and who I wrote about in this space a couple weeks ago) confirmed it. That was such exciting news. SARM is a key stakeholder in this matter and the voice of its membership from rural areas around this province simply cannot be ignored.

Again, pasture patrons--if you are out there, please please come to Regina and take part in the forum next Friday. If you want to talk about it or are nervous and need to be convinced please email me at or phone me at 306-585-1674. I would love to talk to you.

Meanwhile, here are some more details on the forum:

a Peregrine Falcon I found this spring migrating through pasture land
The morning information session topics include the history and context of the pastures, ecological values and species at risk in the pastures, and First Nations interests in the land. There will be two open mic sessions, time to say your peace or ask questions.

The noon panel discussion features key stakeholders - pasture employees and patrons, First Nations, and conservation and recreational interests.

The afternoon session will be a facilitated discussion on the role of the pastures within public policy, working towards resolutions.

The day's proceedings are open to all! And free of charge. A catered lunch will be available for $10.

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