Sunday, March 31, 2013

Six principles to guide the transition of the PFRA pastures

Chestnut-collared longspur, one of 31 species at risk whose habitat needs are considered in the management plans of the PFRA pastures (image courtesy of Allan McKeigan)
This week there was a fair bit of media on the PFRA pastures (including this one in the Leader-Post covering our Public Pastures-Public Interest media conference), but here is the one I liked best--an article by Candace Savage in Canadian Geographic.

At our media conference we announced the list of organizations that have endorsed PPPI's set of principles.

Here are the principles, followed by the provincial, national, and international organizations who have endorsed them:

A Vision for the Future of Saskatchewan Heritage Rangelands

In the spring of 2012, the federal government announced it was transferring control of the PFRA pastures back to the provinces. In Saskatchewan the PFRA lands comprise 62 pastures totaling 1.8 million acres. The land for the pastures is almost all provincially owned.  While the Manitoba government intends to keep the land under public ownership, the Saskatchewan government has announced it plans to sell or lease the land to farmers and ranchers who have been grazing livestock on the pastures. The Province has also said that it does not want to manage the pastures.

A forum on the pastures was held on November 23, 2012 in Regina. A second event, the “Forum on the Future of the PFRA Pastures,” was held on March 1, 2013, at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon.  The Saskatoon forum was attended by over 100 rural and urban residents including, farmers, ranchers, conservationists, First Nations, scientists, and academics. 

The following principles were developed by Public Pastures – Public Interest based on input from the forums, further discussions and research evidence.

The Principles

1.     Keep ownership of the PFRA pastures in the public domain.

This is the best way to balance diverse interests, to preserve the integrity of the pastures, and to ensure that the legacy of the pastures is secured for future generations.

2.     Maintain livestock grazing as a priority.

Livestock grazing is essential to the management of healthy prairie grasslands and to maintaining cattle and other livestock cattle production now and in the future. This is a win-win arrangement that benefits producers and preserves the natural ecosystems in the pastures.

3.     Utilize professional pasture managers.

It has taken decades to build up the expertise needed to manage the livestock and grazing, the ecosystems, and the habitats for indigenous species and species at risk. Pasture managers are part of a system-wide team that helps them to improve their individual practices and provides coordinated support. Pasture patrons have dubbed their PFRA pasture manager as ‘their best asset.’

4.     Preserve the natural landscapes and ecological integrity of the pastures.

Preservation of the natural landscapes and ecology of the pastures is important at a World level. They contain the largest contiguous block original prairie grasslands in the Northern Great Plains. They are home to many indigenous species, including 32 species at risk found in 55 of the pastures.

5.     Protect the cultural and historic significance of these heritage rangelands.

The pastures contain significant heritage and archaeological sites, and sacred and ceremonial sites that are still significant in contemporary First Nation and Métis cultures. They have played a key role in Canada’s agricultural development and preserve the tradition of working cowboys. The pastures are part of the history, culture, and vitality of rural Saskatchewan.

6.     Recognize and sustain the investment in the public benefits provided by publicly-owned community pastures.

Through the visionary action taken by key agricultural leaders more than 75 years ago, public resources were applied to restore degraded land to a state that yielded economic production and environmental benefits year after year. The PFRA community pastures provide one of the best examples of a “‘triple-bottom-line” enterprise in Canada. This investment needs to be continued now and in the future.

A Strategy Forward

A.    Work with stakeholders to establish an inclusive Transition Plan.

We need a clear and transparent transition plan to manage the changes to the PFRA community pastures. Participants in the planning should include: governments, pasture patrons, municipalities, First Nations, industries, conservation organizations, range managers and others. The goal should be to ensure that the best-management practices developed through the PFRA continue to serve pasture patrons, protect our natural and cultural heritage, and  provide benefits for the people of Saskatchewan.

B.    Take the time to get it right.

The decisions from the federal government were made without consultation. The Saskatchewan government has bought a little time from the federal government to do some review of the situation, but forcing a decision to dispose of the first ten pastures by the Fall of 2013, as currently planned, is too rushed. Time is needed for the general public, who are the owners of the land, and the various stakeholders, to determine what the future of the community pastures will be and how they can be preserved for future generations.

And the growing list of endorsing organizations:

  1. Alberta Wilderness Association
  2. Audubon Rockies, USA
  3. BC Nature
  4. Bird Studies Canada
  5. Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society – Saskatchewan Office
  6. Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society – National Office
  7. Fundación Biósfera del Anáhuac, Anáhuac Biosphere Foundation, Mexico
  8. Iniciativa Bosque de Agua, Rain Forest Initiative, Mexico
  9. International Union for the Conservation of Nature
  10. National Farmers Union
  11. Nature Alberta
  12. Nature Canada
  13. Nature Manitoba
  14. Nature Saskatchewan
  15. National Audubon Society, USA
  16. Nature New Brunswick
  17. Nature Nova Scotia
  18. Ontario Nature
  20. Public Pastures – Public Interest
  21. Regional Centre of Expertise on Education for Sustainable Development in Saskatchewan
  22. Regina Public Interest Research Group
  23. Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory
  24. Saskatchewan Archaeological Society
  25. Saskatchewan Environmental Society
  26. Saskatchewan Outdoor and Environmental Education Association
  27. Saskatchewan Wildlife Federation
  28. Society of Grassland Naturalists (Medicine Hat)
  29. Temperate Grasslands Conservation Initiative
  30. University of Regina Pasture Profs

Grasshopper sparrow--one of many grassland species that flourish on the PFRA pastures

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Federal Govt washing its hands of the Greater Sage Grouse

One of the rarest birds in Canada fights to hold its ground in Saskatchewan and Alberta [image courtesy of John Carlson]

Peter Kent, our Federal minister of the Environment won't say one way or another if his ministry has any plan for helping the Greater Sage Grouse, one of the most endangered birds in Canada (there are nearly three times more Whooping Cranes breeding in Canada each year than there are Sage Grouse).

Here is a news clip from CTV on the topic.

And a Globe and Mail article. These two news stories give an update on court action taken by Ecojustice, a legal defense fund that has been trying to get Ottawa to actually follow the provisions of its Species at Risk Act (SARA) for as long as the act has been on the books. This latest gambit by Minister Kent is just another form of the dithering that allowed the Sage Grouse to decline over the last decade while the ministry let the oil and gas industry decimate its critical habitat in Alberta and Saskatchewan mile by mile.

Some of that habitat is in the PFRA pastures that Ottawa is handing over to the provinces to reduce the regulatory burden on industry. SARA does not really have any teeth on land that is not managed by the Federal government, so the process of getting rid of the PFRA system minimizes Federal responsibilities for thirty or so species at risk by 2.2 million acres. Other than Grasslands National Park, the Suffield Reserve in Alberta, and a couple of small National Wildlife Areas, they will have little to worry about regarding prairie species.

In the 1980s I used to watch Sage Grouse in the big Govenlock pasture. Once oil and gas moved in, the grouse rapidly disappeared. Sage Grouse need moderately to lightly grazed sagebrush habitat and do not like to be near vertical structures, roads or anything that drowns out their spring courtship vocalizations. Rates of reproduction and survival plummet after the land gets cut up by the roads, pumps and pipelines that come with resource extraction.

Sage Grouse droppings from one of the last active leks in Canada
We need a Sage Grouse reserve to be set aside as soon as possible in southwest Saskatchewan and one in southeast Alberta. There just so happen to be some community pastures in limbo right now. Why not make one or two of them into a big National Wildlife Area, working with the local grazing community to retain access for cattle while making the Greater Sage Grouse, Pronghorn and other grassland species a priority? We will undoubtedly be developing a re-introduction program for Sage Grouse soon in Canada. Let's make sure we have a place protected from oil and gas where it is worth the work of re-introducing them.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

A list of public benefits from the PFRA grasslands

the soil erosion, weedy growth, and overgrazing seen in this image comes from the kind of land use practices that do not serve the public interest of soil & water conservation, biodiversity, and carbon sequestration

Last week in this space I was talking in general terms about the public goods and services that the community pastures provide all of us—even those of us who do not go there to hunt antelope or look for Western Spiderwort.

I was making the point that if we want these public benefits (I will list them shortly), if we agree that they are important, it may not be smart to expect the grazing leaseholders to shoulder all of the burden of the cost of managing and protecting those benefits.

Let’s take a quick look at those goods and benefits that come to the public, to see if we really do value them—enough for us to look for ways to pay for the costs of protecting them:

1. Historical/cultural—these lands show us our history as prairie people. They are among the last places where we can go to see what the prairie was like, the prairie that supported our ancestors, indigenous and settler alike. The pastures also have archaeological sites—tipi rings, burials, med. Wheels. And cowboy culture—these are also the last places to see what horseback cowboy culture is like—all PF work is done on horse. Then there is settler history—the story of the families who were enticed into settling and cultivating land that should never have been broken. On certain pastures there are still the ruins of that sad chapter of our history—the leftover signs of the people who had to abandon or be relocated off the land in the ‘30s when the PF system was formed to conserve soil and the health of grazing lands.

2. Soil conservation—that has been part of the PF system from the beginning and the need to continue conserving soil has not gone away, despite what Gerry Ritz has said. If anything under climate change and the likelihood of more severe and frequent droughts, soil conservation is more important than ever.
Food security—by providing affordable grazing access to local producers the pastures maintain our livestock industry in the face of globalization and free trade—without them we would be that much more vulnerable to predatory tactics of multi-national beef interests—Cargill, JBS, etc.

3. Carbon sequestration—it is estimated that the dollar value of carbon storage in the PF grasslands is by itself worth double the overall costs of managing the entire system of pastures. But carbon sequestration disappears under poor management—the land must be grazed in a way that will keep the carbon in the soil.

4. Economic and rural sustainability—by employing staff and serving local livestock producers, the PF system has always helped support local communities in some of the areas of the province that have been rapidly depopulating in recent years. If those pastures fall under the control of out of province interests, and access for local producers is reduced, and there are no salaries for pasture managers and riders, the schools and stores and rinks in those communities will empty out.

5. Water quality—native grass cover provides the prairie’s best surface for recharging ground water resources. As well, if the managers take measures to protect creeks and waterways from cattle damage, the pastures will provide vital source water protection with very little contamination from agricultural chemicals, and cleaner water in general.

6. Hunting and other forms of recreation—while the PF has always controlled access to protect livestock and the grass from fire, people can get permits to go on the land, and hunters in particular, as well as naturalists and photographers, have been able to enjoy the use of the pastures.

7. Research—biologists, geographers, sociologists, range scientists, and other researchers benefit from the outdoor laboratory that the PF system provided—well managed grassland with rich communities of grassland animals and plants in healthy ecosystems.

Ok, so those are merely a few of the benefits that accrue to the wider public interest—to you and me, even if we do not have cattle grazing on the land, even if we are not hunters and birders.

A chart on costs and benefits from the PFRA's 2006-2011 business plan

But what are the forces that threaten these values that serve our interests? The things that these goods have to be protected from?

Well, that is an important question, but it will have to wait for next time.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Paying for professional management of the PFRA pastures

watching out for . . .

Today I will say a few things about a subject that has had little attention in the public discussion of the PFRA pastures—professional management, its cost and why it is worth paying for. [Many of the good ideas and some of the phrasing in this post come from fellow PPPI member, Laura Stewart.]

We know that our cow-calf ranchers are good stewards of their own individual holdings. For them, the long term matters and they are careful because good management serves their own interests as well as the general interests of wildlife conservation. Which begs the question, why not simply sell or lease the PFRA pastures directly to cattlemen and let them manage it themselves as leaseholder-operators?

I want to answer that important question by looking at two kinds of messages we are hearing from Saskatchewan Agriculture on this question.

We hear them say that the Province cannot run the pasture system—it is too much work and too costly and that would not be responsible to taxpayers.

But in the next breath we hear that stewardship of the pastures is easy and affordable for the patrons to manage—no problem. They should be able to do it and easily make a dollar as cattlemen.

Well, you can’t have it both ways. If this work is not difficult or costly, why won’t the province run the pastures? if it is difficult and costly, why should the patrons have to do it?

The truth is, of course, there are important programs and management systems that do cost something, because they are worth something—they are serving the wider public interest and the long term interests of grazing at the same time—but these programs and systems will fall through the cracks in the sale and leasing of the PFRA lands, unless we take measures to ensure that they continue.

The PFRA pasture managers look after large mixed herds of cattle grazing pastures of 20,000 or 30,000 acres of endangered ecosystems that are home to sometimes ten or more species at risk, some of which have conflicting habitat requirements. That expertise and the programs that support the managers must be retained, but patrons should not be expected to pay for them all alone. The good management of these endangered ecosystems provides soil conservation, water conservation, carbon sequestration, biodiversity, economic and recreational goods to all Canadians. All Canadians should help bear or account for the costs of protecting those goods.

For our forest ecosystems in the north, we keep the land under the Crown and we have government agencies, forestry branches, that protect the wider public interest in having healthy forests while managing the pulp, paper, and lumber industries that take an economic interest in the trees. It would take a tiny fraction of the budget of our forestry branch to provide some support to the proper ecological management of these grasslands, which, compared with our northern forests, are much more significant nationally and globally in terms of protecting rare and representative landscapes. But if even that small expenditure is unacceptable for our Province to take on, why not get the oil and gas industry to pay for it? They make hundreds of millions from the PFRA pastures every year. 

Meanwhile, here is a simple way for the public to take some responsibility for these benefits without incurring direct costs.  All our Provincial government has to do is to negotiate a fair deal with the new Community Pasture Patrons Association of Saskatchewan. By "fair deal", I mean one that would keep the base land lease costs low enough so every pasture can make a commitment to employing a professional manager.

If we can find a way for our pasture patrons to do that and they are able to run the pastures more or less as the PFRA always did--with professional managers who manage for biodiversity and protect the land from overstocking--we will have the foundation for a way forward that may well satisfy the needs of cattlemen, hunters, conservationists, and all of us who receive the $34 million in public benefits that these grasslands return to Canadians every year. And there may be a way to make the whole agreement agnostic to the nature of the government ownership--so that while most pastures remain under the Crown, a few pastures with willing patrons could agree to their pasture being sold to a First Nation or group of First Nations.

There would be many details to hammer out, but I think we could right now sit down as stakeholders and work out a basic agreement along those lines. Everyone could come out a winner--the cattlemen, conservationists, the general public, the pasture employees, First Nations, and the Provincial Government.

Anyone know Premier Wall's cell number?

good things on the horizon

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