In yesterday's Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, Candace Savage (author of many impressive books of natural history, including the unequalled Prairie: a Natural History) published a stirring and passionate appeal for readers to let the provincial government know that we want to continue protecting these few remaining large remnants of mixed-grass prairie.
Candace sent me a copy and is graciously allowing me to reproduce her words here unexpurgated. Her plea, titled "This Land is Your Land," follows:
If you care about the special beauty of the prairie—if you want know that there will
be wild, wide open spaces of natural grassland for your children’s children to
enjoy—there is something you can do. It will only take a few minutes, but it could
affect the health of the prairie ecosystem for generations.
What’s at stake are some of the largest unfragmented expanses of grasslands
anywhere in the world. For the last seventy years, these lands, which comprise an
astonishing 929,000 ha, or 2.3 million acres, across the Canadian prairies, have been
managed by the federal government as PFRA (now AESB) Community Pastures. Of
the eighty‐five pastures in the system, sixty are located in Saskatchewan, with a total
expanse of 729,000 ha, or 1.8 million acres. Together, they constitute almost 16% of
the natural prairie that survives in this province.
Initially instituted to protect fragile, erosion‐prone soils during the Thirties’
drought, the federal Community Pasture program has ending up delivering a
bonanza of economic and environmental benefits. Thanks to decades of
conscientious management, the pastures currently provide both quality grazing to
livestock producers (on a fee‐for‐service basis) and quality habitat for the prairie’s
unique‐‐and uniquely imperilled—plants and animals.
Did you know that, in recent decades, prairie birds have suffered the most
severe and widespread declines of any habitat group on the continent? In the face of
these kinds of losses, the Community Pastures have become a landscape of hope for
many of the grassland’s beleaguered species.
The buffalo ecosystem was shaped by grazing, and on the Community
Pastures, grazing by cattle is managed to meet the needs of a diverse array of living
things, from burrowing owls to yellow‐bellied racers and from swift foxes to
ferruginous hawks. In Saskatchewan alone, thirty‐one endangered and threatened
species are known to occur on the grasslands of the federal Community Pastures. In
addition, several pastures are included in the Important Bird Areas network, a
status that highlights their importance as critical habitat for the conservation of
Ferruginous Hawk, photo courtesy of Allan MacKeigan
But the Government of Canada giveth and the Government taketh away, and
these days, the Community Pastures are themselves in serious jeopardy. According
to a press release issued last month by Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz, the entire
Community Pasture program is on a fast track to extinction. Apparently oblivious to
the wisdom of a previous generation, who saw with their own eyes the toll a severe
drought could take on these sensitive lands, Mr. Ritz has decided that the pastures
no longer require coordinated oversight or long‐term protection. Instead, the land
is to be off‐loaded piecemeal onto the provinces (since it is mostly provincial Crown
Land), with the first ten properties to be transferred by the 2013‐14 grazing season.
Five of the first orphaned pastures will be in Saskatchewan.
The Community Pastures are public land, and their resources of life and
beauty are part of our heritage. The hard‐won knowledge gained over decades by
Community Pasture staff, as they have grappled with the successive challenges of
grazing management, endangered‐species conservation, and oil‐and‐gas
development, is a collective accomplishment. Yet to Mr. Ritz, poof, it is just so much
dust in the wind. Assets that took decades to acquire could be gone in an instant.
And this is where you and I come into the picture. The land and its creatures
can’t speak for themselves, so we have to speak for them. Sadly, I don’t have much
faith in our ability to communicate with Mr. Ritz or his colleagues in the House of
Commons. (If the courts couldn’t stop them from dismantling the Wheat Board,
what chance do mere citizens have?) But I am guardedly hopeful that our provincial
representatives will listen to our concerns about how these important lands should
be managed in the future.
The big, bold prairie landscapes of the Community Pastures are perfectly
adapted for use as grazing lands. Whatever else happens, they must be protected
from cultivation and carefully managed for livestock production.
So please take a
few minutes to write to your MLA (you’ll find contact information at
http://www.legassembly.sk.ca/mlas/)and tell him or her that you care about the
livestock producers and Community Pasture staff who rely on these lands for their
livelihood. More than that, tell him or her that you care about the prairie’s wild
inhabitants, which rely on the wide open spaces of cattle country for their very
A prudent rancher always reserves grass as “carryover” for the following
year. The Community Pastures are our carryover for the future.
Candace Savage is the author of Prairie: a Natural History. She lives in Saskatoon and
without the hundreds of thousands of acres protected in Community Pastures, the Chestnut-collared Longspur, already on the threatened list, will slide further toward oblivion (image courtesy of Allan MacKeigan)