Friday, June 29, 2012

The State of Canada's Birds: a Report

Greater Sage-Grouse--one of several grassland birds in steep decline

Canadian NGOs and the Canadian Wildlife Service (yes, it still exists) have jointly produced the first State of Canada's Birds Report. Here is the pdf of the actual report.

Based on a review of 40 years of data, the report provides the first-ever comprehensive picture of the current health of Canada's birds. Released by the North American Bird Conservation Initiative (NABCI-Canada), under the leadership of Environment Canada (CWS), Bird Studies Canada, Ducks Unlimited Canada, Nature Canada, the Nature Conservancy of Canada and Wildlife Habitat Canada, the report was released on Wednesday receiving coverage on CBC and elsewhere.

The story is not good, of course, in general and even worse for grassland birds in particular, which on average have declined in Canada by 40% during that period. Along with aerial insectivores (swallows, nighthawks, and flycatchers), and shorebirds, grassland species are the worst off.

The report, some 36 pages, is well done, but I wish these kind of documents could be more direct and forthright instead of taking the mincing, bureaucratic tone of every report edited by committee. When are we going to admit, for example, that our focus on individual species in the Species at Risk, endangered species approach is an abject failure; that we are not making any progress securing important bird habitats and preventing industry from destroying them?

Sure, we can point at the successes of the American White Pelican and Peregrine Falcon, but stopping DDT was most of the work there. "Species at risk" may get results when there is a smoking gun but it does little to get at the more nuanced and political questions of how we secure the right kind of habitat for birds. The focus on individual species has outlived its use as a strategy for protecting biodiversity. We have a lot of habitats at risk and no one is even naming them much less protecting them.

Here is one example of what I am talking about. The report's section on the prairies understates the plight of the Greater Sage-Grouse, saying "the endangered Greater Sage-Grouse, highly susceptible to disturbance, occurs in habitats increasingly subject to oil and gas development. Preservation and restoration of its prairie and sagebrush habitat will benefit many other grassland species."

"Increasingly subject to oil and gas development"?? Why mince words? The Greater-Sage-Grouse, down to fewer than fifty birds now, is tottering on the edge of extirpation in Canada in part because of that development. We have known it was declining for thirty years now; known the habitat they need, known the kinds of things threatening it. All of our status designations, recovery strategy meetings, dithering over critical wildlife habitat, and talk of partnering with industry have been a waste of time.

Silver Sage habitat

In the end, our regulations and endangered species legislation could not protect the places where the Sage-Grouse breed and live, could not keep oil and gas development out of Canada's Silver Sage habitat. Our federal biologists and others who monitored the situation had to stand by as the oil and gas industry drove this magnificent bird from the land by creating ponds that produce West Nile mosquitoes, installing vertical structures that advantage predators, cutting up the sage flats with hundreds of roads and drill sites, and in countless ways destroying the silence the grouse need to find one another and breed successfully.

As well, in the prairie section, the report's well-meaning authors have mouthed the accepted dogma about no-till agriculture being "bird-friendly." It may be friendly to a few duck species (however, even that needs to be revisited in long term studies), but in general it has brought on a new generation of farm machinery and high-cost inputs that make it very expensive for farmers to leave the kind of grassy margins around sloughs, brush, field edges and roadways where a certain guild of farm-land birds (meadowlarks and several species of grassland sparrows) have traditionally been able to survive.

When this is the size of no-till rigs, how can a farmer leave any habitat?

Someone from Bird Studies Canada needs to do a study of the total bird biodiversity shift that has occurred in the move to no-till ag over large landscapes. Leaving standing stubble in a field is an ecologically preferred practice, to be sure, for the soil conservation and water quality side of things, and it does allow some birds a breeding habitat of sorts, but are these stubble fields ecological sinks, and what is the overall productivity and survival of those birds that breed there? Many must be killed during the seeding and spraying periods. More importantly, what about the loss of all the in-field and edge of field bird habitat that no-till has brought on by introducing larger machinery and higher input costs? Never mind what is happening to the soil health from the constant use of Glyphosate and other herbicides.

To close on a more hopeful note, on my Breeding Bird Survey last Saturday my partner Ed Rodger and I found young loggerhead shrikes just emerging from their nest on the edge of the town of Francis. (See photo below.) One of Canada's most endangered grassland birds, the loggerhead could disappear too if we don't take the right steps to protect its habitat and healthy food sources.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Community pastures: "a vital support for rural communities"

Longhorns near Val Marie

With the Federal government breezily sloughing off responsibility for its community pastures--nearly one million hectares of endangered grassland habitat that Canada has been protecting for more than seventy years--it is easy for conservationists to forget that, if we let this piece of the commons go, a shared cultural, social and economic resource that has been serving rural communities for decades will be lost as well.

Part of what the old PFRA pastures provided was a form of consistent oversight and administration of vulnerable lands that are valuable not only to birdwatchers and naturalists, not only to cattlemen, but to all of us who want to have clean water, carbon sequestration, and wild beautiful landscapes as part of the prairie world of today and the legacy we share and pass forward. Included in that legacy is both the current benefit of affordable grazing for local cattle producers and the heritage of cowboys and ranchers who have for more than a century found what has been the single most sustainable form of agriculture on the northern Great Plains: properly managed grazing of cattle on native rangeland.

I recently received a letter from Barb Campbell, who lived for several years in cattle country near the Val Marie Community Pasture. Barb's letter reminded me of these other many values of the community pastures and how they touch all of us whether we live on a ranch or far away in the city. She tells me that she sent this same letter to MLAs and to the Premier.

One of the astute comments Barb makes early on in her letter is that the Federal government seems to not have a plan in place to ensure that the agricultural and ecological values represented in the 80 community pastures will be protected in perpetuity. A lot of us share that concern.

Here is Barb's letter, just as she forwarded it to me last week:

A City Dweller's Guide to the PFRA

Community pastures, currently run by the federal government, are the very foundation of Saskatchewan's dryland cattle industry, and they are also the perfect habitat for wild creatures. The pastures are currently being threatened by a change from federal government control to an as yet unknown method of administration, without any clear plan in place to protect their vital role. I support their continued existence and recognize their importance. I saw first hand how they help the ranchers and the natural environment when I lived in Val Marie for 7 years. I am writing to urge the provincial government of Saskatchewan to take over administration of the community pastures and to run them for the benefit of the rural communities.
Established by the federal government after the Great Depression and drought, the pastures provide grazing on native grasses for carefully controlled herds of cow-calf pairs. PFRA stands for Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration. The PFRA pastures I know most are around Val Marie , Cadillac and the Montana border region. The pastures cover the beautiful hilly uplands of the area, land that could never be cultivated, and provide a huge boost to the local cattle industry. And they are also some of the most glorious places I have ever seen in the province of Saskatchewan.
Ranchers are permitted so many animals per acre, and the cow/calf pairs are let into the pasture in June. Getting them from their home ranch, some miles away, to the pasture gates is a lot of fun. It is a cattle drive, in the old fashioned sense, and riders on horseback and on quads lead the herd. Others follow the herd, and some ride along side. If you are driving in the area in June, you may have to wait on the highway to let a herd cross. It is a thrill to see about 200 animals in motion, hopefully going forward, but sometimes ducking and darting off to the side to try to get away. It should be noted that all the animals going into the pasture are all females with young calves.
Inevitably cows that have been to the PF for many years just know the way and plod along with acceptance. Some of the young heifers (first time mothers) are more spooked, and have to be chased and blocked along the way. When they get to the PF gate, they are kept there outside the gate for a half day or so to let the pairs “mother up” . Usually some calves get separated from their mothers in all the confusion, and the time is needed for them to find each other again. The mothers moo and the calves baah, and by recognizing the right cry, the mothers claim their calves. I love the expression to “mother up”. And it is always so heartwarming to see a pair reunited.
In case you are wondering where the bulls are, they are kept elsewhere for the summer, having already performed their job . Yes, that's right. By the time the cows go to the PFRA, they are (hopefully) already pregnant with next spring's calf. So the nutritious grazing is pre-natal nutrition for the unborn calf, and nutrition for this year's 3 month old calf. As such, the grazing is very important to the health of the herd.
Once in the PFRA pasture, the herd is the responsibility of the pasture manager and the riders (employees on horseback aka. cowboys) and they are well supervised for the summer season. If you ever wondered why rodeos have competitions in roping and cutting out calves, it is because these skills are used everyday by the riders. Rodeos were a chance to see who could do the job the best. The riders know where the herd is, whether any calves or cows have died, how much weight they seem to be gaining. The pasture is up on the uplands; beautiful hills covered in native grass, with water provided by either springs or wells. In a wet year, the grass is lush. In a dry year, it is shorter and dry looking. But remarkably, it provides good nutrition just the same. This mat of prairie grass is called 'prairie wool', and it adapted to survive the extremes of temperature and the near desert conditions of the southwest.
In the fall, the process is reversed, with the riders bringing the herd to the gate, the rancher and helpers waiting on horseback or on quads to drive them home. By now the calves are quite grown up and less likely to get separated from their mother. The mothers are more nonchalant about the calves too. It is kind of like the difference between the first day of kindergarten and the last day of Grade 6. Three months on the community pasture is not free, and there is a per day charge to the rancher. But it is far cheaper than renting pasture land privately or buying the hay to feed the herd.
The jobs created are important to the local economy of the small towns in the area. There is the pasture manager and usually a group of 4-5 riders, all of whom are the government payroll. This injects much needed money into the local economy. I am unaware of any PFRA employees who are female, but many pasture managers and riders have wives and children, who bolster numbers in the local schools, and work for the local health centers, banks, restaurants and stores. In other words, the PFRA staff are a vital part of the community. There are also contract jobs fencing the pastures. This is well paid work that demands physical skill and the toughness to work outdoors doing heavy work under all weather conditions. The PFRA- built fences are the envy of the local ranchers, who can rarely afford the premium posts and extra strands of wire used by the government.
As far as the role of the pastures in protecting the environment, it also is essential. The national parks and provincial or regional parks can only cover so much territory. The pastures extend the area by many times over. The other living creatures that live in this protected pasture environment are the wild grasses, plants, creatures and birds. Native grasses. Crocuses and buffalo beans. Essential ground cover like ground moss. Whitetail deer, mule deer, burrowing owls, the Swift fox, rattlesnakes. Birds like Sprague's pipit, meadowlarks and night hawks. Grazing cattle do not seem to bother them at all, as the density of the cattle is so low. In fact the PFRA pastures are just as important as the national park in providing good habitat. The whole area looks like one big national park, and it almost is.
If the community pastures are to be transferred from federal control to provincial control, it must be done in a planned and orderly way, to allow ranchers enough time to adapt. There are a lot of questions? Will the current PFRA quotas be kept? Will the pasture managers and the riders still be on staff? Will their wages be the same? Will the animals/acre be the same? Will the cost per animal be the same? Will all the current land be kept in pasture? Will any of it be converted to farmland? Or sold? Which government department will be in charge? Will the provincial government recognize the important conservation role of the community pastures? Will the provincial government work well with the local communities?
It is all up in the air, and is causing a lot of anxiety and speculation. I call on the the provincial government to take over and preserve the community pastures as a vital support for the livestock industry and for the rural communities. And the provincial government must take the initiative in leading an orderly transition to their new administration. Rural jobs, a rural way of life, the livestock industry and the untouched prairie habitat are all at stake.

Barbara Campbell
retired small business owner

an image Barb sent along with her letter

Friday, June 15, 2012

The Failure of Environmental Regulation [part one]

Cedar Waxwing nest in lilac .

It is a Friday in June. All over this northern land, in its temperate, coastal, alpine, boreal, and arctic wilds, there are birds attempting to conjure life from eggs hidden in the spires of spruce, hummocks of cliff-face, hollows of tundra, snags of maple, tussocks of fescue, mats of tule, and a hundred other secret places. They know these places with a protective and fruitful intimacy, a bond that grants them a chance of rearing viable young before the snows come. Three days from now, on Monday, their capacity to manage that parental task in summers to come will be undermined, some say. This dark happening will occur in a place unfamiliar to the birds, likewise to the salmon, the polar bears, the caribou, and the orcas. None of them, strange to tell, even think to look for their life and health in a 425 page piece of legislation, or in the chambers of government in which it was devised. None of them know anything of older, nobler documents, laws securing a degree of human forbearance and protection for those most vulnerable of natal places, or that on Monday they are going to be changed.

Those who do know--environmentalists, eco-defence lawyers, biologists--are worried. More than one hundred pages of Bill C-38 address environmental regulations. These are the laws Canadian legislators have enacted in recent decades to shield us and our wilder coinhabitants from the depredations of agriculture, mining, resource extraction, fisheries, and urban development.

The bill our legally and democratically elected government will pass on Monday eviscerates the Fisheries Act so that it will only apply to major waterways and fisheries, leaving lesser bodies of water unregulated, presumably because fish are always born and reared in the very places we “harvest” them and not in smaller streams and lakes.

The Species At Risk Act meanwhile will be changed to give the Minister of Environment new powers to grant industry players exemptions and extensions of their permits whenever he sees fit. As well, any oil or gas projects being examined by the National Energy Board will be exempted from species at risk legislation.

As for the Environmental Assessment Act, considered by many to be the cornerstone of government regulation and oversight of industry, it will in effect be repealed and replaced by a “streamlined” process that places the wellbeing of our lands and waterways firmly in the hands of industry self-regulation and ministerial discretion. Trust us, the oil companies say, we have ten environmentalists on staff. Federal cabinet, with fewer environmentalists on staff, will now have final say over all oil and gas pipelines. Large development projects will only be reviewed at the discretion of the minister and his staff. Smaller development projects, from now on, will not be assessed at all. The public review process, allowing conservationists to voice concerns on a development, will be truncated and the list of who is allowed to participate will be limited.

The National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy, a body that was given the task of finding ways to bring ecological and economic concerns into greater harmony, will be discharged. Finally, to tidy up another loose end, the bill repeals the Kyoto Protocol Implementation Act doing away with any pretense of Canada ever implementing the promises it signed onto in a moment of weakness when less visionary men were running the government.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Nature Canada posts story on the community pastures

map showing Canada's federal Community Pastures soon to be turned over to the prairie provinces(Courtesy of Agriculture and Agri-food Canada)

Nature Canada invited me to write a guest post on the community pasture divestment process, the legislation for which is, if I am not mistaken, buried in the omnibus bill that Elizabeth May and others are attempting to disable with a flurry of amendments this week in parliament.

The piece I wrote was posted this morning on the Nature Canada Blog.

upland sandpiper, one of many species that rely on our community pastures

Monday, June 11, 2012

A walk in pasture

Last Friday afternoon I found myself driving through farmland south of Highway 39 near Lang, Saskatchewan. In the middle of miles of cropped land and tame hay I stumbled on a native prairie remnant perhaps 640 acres or so (a section).

There were no cattle in the pasture so I stepped over the fence and walked through the spear grass, sagebrush, and bluegrasses. The singing meadowlark at the head of this post was the first bird I saw.

Right away I began hearing the flight song of the Chestnut-collared longspur, a recent addition to the Threatened species list for the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). They have a pleasant song and a dry rattle that they give in flight. (This page from the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology includes a sample of their song.) I spent a half hour or so wandering through the pasture and stopping to watch the longspurs circle in their rollicking flight, pausing now and then to let out their song. I never did manage to get a decent shot of one in flight, but here is the best I could do.

Finally one settled onto a sagebrush and I got a couple of shots at it. Too far away and badly lit, but it gives a sense of what the longspurs look like in the binoculars.

This blurry shot does show the extensive white on the tail and some of the chestnut nape.

The pasture had a nice variety of birds, including Savannah sparrow and at least one Baird's sparrow, which was just uplisted by COSEWIC from Not at Risk to Special Concern owing to population declines and threats to grassland habitat.

At the edge of the native grass where some taller tame grasses were growing, there was a small colony of bobolink. Here is one in flight song--you can see its bill open (this page includes a sample of bobolink song.)

An upland sandpiper (it was singing too)landed on two different posts. First, far away and then closer.

Perhaps more numerous than any other species was the Eastern Kingbird. People don't generally think of it as a grassland bird, but I certainly find more of them along the fencelines on pasture land than I do elsewhere. I found several pairs on the periphery of this pasture.

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