Saturday, June 29, 2013

A week of listening to birds and cattlemen

pasture patron Brent Cammer showing a map of the Swift Current-Webb PFRA pasture to Margaret Atwood on Thursday (image from Craig Baird of the Gull Lake Advance)
I am still processing the time we spent this week touring PFRA pastures and other publicly owned grasslands with Margaret Atwood, author and naturalist Graeme Gibson, Ian Davidson (Nature Canada's Executive Director) and Alberto Yanosky (Executive Director of Paraguay's BirdLife affiliate, Guyra Paraguay).

So what was this tour about? It was a week of listening to birds and cattlemen, of travelling through stunning prairie landscapes, and learning about how cattle are part of the ecological wellbeing of our publicly owned grasslands, including Grasslands National Park and the federal PFRA pasture system that I write about here so often in this space.

But it was also a week of stories. We had some great story tellers and story listeners on the tour with us. I caught myself more than once looking over at Margaret and Graeme to see how they were responding to the things we heard from pasture patrons and pasture managers.

Whether it was Wes Olson talking about bison in the National Park, or a rancher talking about driving cattle to the PFRA pasture with his father when he was a boy, our four guests listened intently. I could see they were taking it all in with great empathy and awareness, incorporating it into their understanding of how habitat protection and bird conservation happens from the ground up, with local people who live on the landscape leading the way. One of the reasons Margaret and Graeme like BirdLife International is that its programs for protecting birds and their wild places start with at the grassroots, where people live and work with nature in their communities.

All week we heard stories about birds, cattle, ranchers, buffalo, about the struggle to hold onto community and to make a living in grassland grazing cattle. From Don Gillespie, one of the West Block’s living legends, we heard stories about how ranch families still get together in the local community to brand their cattle,moving from ranch to ranch through the spring and early summer.

listening to Don Gillespie as we view some of the new pastures recently added to Grasslands National Park (Don is in the middle in all denim. To the right of Don is GNP Superintendent, Katherine Patterson, wearing scarf.)

We watched burrowing owls perch on signs and rocks inside and outside the boundaries of the national park--at least three pairs.

We found out that Long-billed Curlews love to forage on prairie dog towns.

We learned that while Val Marie has no gas station any more, it does have some great spots for people to rest up and refuel—places like the Crossing, The Convent, and The Harvest Moon restaurant.
Pasture patron Clint Chritianson speaking to us on the Val Marie PFRA pastures (image courtesy of Branimir Gjetvaj)

We learned that big men in cowboy hats have soft hearts and a lot of love for the pastures they graze.One of my favourite moments was when Clint Christianson, a patron of Lone Tree and Val Marie PFRA pastures, leaned out of his truck and said with obvious pride, “it's native grass all the way from here to Val Marie!” We were about 50 kilometres from town at the time and we drove through the lush and bird-filled Val Marie pasture all the way.

And Don Gillespie, with the same look in his eye, pointing to the north and boasting that from the divide just beyond the horizon all the way south to Montana and east to Poverty Ridge, it’s native grass. These ranchers know that the grass in these big pastures is unique in Canada and worth every effort to keep it intact.

We learned too that while GNP has 10,000 tipi rings, it has fewer than 7500 visitors a year. Those who come though, almost always come back—for the silence, the darkness, the birds and flowers, and for the stories. 

We heard stories abt how cattle as well as bison are grazing in different parts of the Park—thanks to the hard work of the Park Superintendant, Katherine Patterson, who has expanded on the work of her predecessors and is creating a new era of good relations between the park and the surrounding ranch families.

Many of the most compelling stories came from Wes Olson, retired bison steward for Parks Canada who still lives in Val Marie. Wes is a living library of knowledge abt the bison and their role in prairie ecosystems—the niches they create, setting the table for so many other creatures, by making wallows, by grazing, shedding their fur, trampling the soil, leaving their patties, and then dying on the land.

But we also heard that because of budget cuts, Parks Canada no longer has anyone in the area to look after the bison and no way to retain and carry forward Wes’s wisdom and skill.

From several pasture patrons who keep animals on the PFRA pastures, we learned that most of them feel like the government of Saskatchewan is not really listening to them; that the terms they are being offered are not reasonable, that it will not leave enough money on the table to let them afford proper grazing management and the kind of lower stocking rates that would sustain the native grasslands properly.

Again and again we heard this story; again and again we heard that they feel rushed and need more time.

And that is why at the news conference yesterday Public Pastures-Public Interest called for a one year delay on the transfer of the first ten pastures.

"The government is not listening. . . ." Margaret in a media scrum at our news conference on Friday (image courtesy of Metro News)

Above all, Margaret Atwood, Graeme Gibson and the other guests showed us that listening to one another is important, and we still have a lot more listening to do before we get this right.

I could say more about what we learned on the tour, but no matter what happens from here on, I know that having Margaret, Graeme, Ian and Alberto on the tour and meeting the people we met, hearing their stories, will in the long run help us make those connections between ranchers and conservationists that are so critical as we look for ways to continue managing these last great grassland ecosystems for the good of our small to mid-sized cattle producers, for the good of our rural communities, and for all of the wider public goods they provide to the rest of us.

Margaret and Graeme sharing a moment at Swift Current-Webb pasture (image courtesy of Craig Baird of the Gull Lake Advance)


  1. Trevor,
    As you know those grasslands don't end at the MT border when you look south from where you were (at least in a lot of places). We are working hard on this end to keep our side of the border in grass as well.

  2. Hi John--is there something happening down there I don't know about? I hope no one is trying to sell off the BLM lands. It would be interesting to compare the way you manage and stock the lands and the rates that cattlemen pay in Montana versus what we have here. Our provincial Ag dept is understaffed and has trouble monitoring the public lands that it leases out to private cattlemen. And I am told that in general their stocking rates are too high and they are charging the ranchers too much to graze the land--compared to what is happening in Alberta and Montana.

  3. No Trevor - no selling off BLM lands, but just trying to maintain the condition of the BLM lands and working with private landowners to help them keep their pastures as grass so that the grass on BLM lands isn't reduced to patches in a sea of tilled land. I will see what I can dig up on stocking and rates for you.

  4. Great--we really should be working on these things across the border more. . . .At least we have the south of the divide going but we need more to happen at the grass roots level between cattlemen and conservationists.


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