Sunday, July 28, 2013

Some miscellaneous thoughts and bits of news on grassland, PFRA pastures, etc

this Hereford calf was grazing in non-native grass just east of Regina
"Thank you for your comments on the proposed updates to The Provincial Lands Act.  Your comments have been received and will be reviewed in the coming weeks and considered as the new legislation is drafted. 

Your input and advice are most appreciated.

Wally Hoehn
Provincial Lands Act Review"
1. A couple of days ago the deadline passed for getting in public responses to ideas about changing Saskatchewan’s Lands Act. Why does it need changing? Maybe to do a better job of protecting our shared investment and common interest in healthy ecosystems on the millions of acres of land that we own together? Nope. The Saskatchewan Agriculture web page inviting comments on the discussion paper they have put out says "The Provincial Lands Act is outdated, making it more challenging for Government to meet clients' needs." Yep. We have to change the way we manage land to "meet clients' needs." For "clients" read the resource industry and others who want to make an income using the land. Of course there is nothing wrong with private income made on public lands, but it has to be on terms that protect the wider long term public interest in the health of those lands.

So there were meetings in Prince Albert, Saskatoon and Regina to introduce the discussion paper and get public input, but by choosing mid-summer to discuss these matters, the Province is clearly hoping to avoid any real public participation or scrutiny. Not to be deterred, Public Pastures—Public Interest, the Saskatchewan Cattlemen’s Association and other important stakeholder groups attended the meetings and sent in written responses before the deadline. Impossible to say exactly where this is headed, but I am mighty suspicious that the direction has very little to do with protecting the public good and a lot to do with liberating private interest. And, by the way, why is it that Sask Agriculture is always the department driving this kind of thing? Don't we have an Environment Ministry?

2.       2. When you get a moment, take a look at Richard Manning’s essay on the virtues of grass farming. Published by OnEarth magazine a couple of years ago, the essay, entitled “Graze Anatomy,”  gives a convincing account of how grass-farming can make a huge contribution to reducing our carbon footprint in North America while providing healthier meat (better balance of fats) for consumers and bringing greater ecological wellbeing to the Great Plains. I got to meet Manning a few years ago when he came to speak at the University of Regina. He is one of America’s best environmental writers and he understands what has happened in this part of the continent, the prairie, which he calls “an ecological sacrifice zone.”
Loggerhead Shrike on the Davin Moraine native grassland east of Regina

in a tame pasture east of Regina

 3. Here is a bit of a scoop—if you are a reader of Western Horseman, keep an eye out for an issue this fall or winter about the PFRA cowboys. WH is one of the world's biggest horse and cowboy culture magazines and boasts 200,000 subscribers. Last week, one of their writers came to Saskatchewan to ride along with a PFRA cowboy, touring his pasture and talking about the tradition of the PFRA, and its horseback managers and riders. Should be good.

4. Finally, some photos from bird trips this summer. First, a shot of a Marbled Godwit I saw on my Tyvan Breeding Bird Survey route. Good mix of birds this year, including two Sprague’s Pipits, a Grasshopper Sparrow, and 18 Upland Sandpipers!!

Marbled Godwit
I never did find out what this bird was nesting in the side of an old granary. Zooming the photo in did not help. I thought it was a house wren until I got home and looked again. Brewer's Blackbird maybe? Anyone know?


The next two shots show dozing Common Nighthawks in the picnic area of Two Trees Trail in the West Block of Grasslands National Park. A threatened species, the nighthawk has something of a stronghold in Saskatchewan’s Frenchman River Valley. They love to snooze on horizontal branches and fences when they get a chance. At the Val Marie PFRA pasture manager’s yard, we recorded 22 of them flying back and forth over a patch of trees.

Also managed to get a shot of a Ferruginous Hawk just south of the West Block. . . .

And in the same area, these two longspurs. First images shows a Chestnut-collared on the left and McCowns on the right, both males. The final photo shows the McCowns by itself. Both are on Canada’s Species at Risk list and are declining. McCown’s is endemic to the northern Great Plains and Saskatchewan has most of its breeding range, so we are especially responsible for maintaining its habitat. 

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Global News this evening on the PFRA pastures

screen capture from Global web site
"Saskatchewan’ community pastures are public lands, which ranchers can pay a fee to access. For more than 70 years, community ranching pastures have brought communities together. When the federal government decided in the last budget to turn over those pastures to the province to be sold, those communities have come together again – so they won’t lose them.

For many producers, the community pastures mean one thing: community."

Those lines are from Global TV News web site this evening. Global reporter Raquel Fletcher does a good job with the story which you can view here.  Raquel came out to the media conference we held with Margaret Atwood and the others on the BirdLife International tour and seemed to be listening intently, picking up the issues at hand quickly.

It would be great to see her interview FSIN on the topic and see what they have to say.

image courtesy of Hamilton Greenwood

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Pasture Patrons and First Nations speak out this week

CPPAS chair Ian McCreary of Bladworth talking pastures issues with Graeme Gibson (image courtesy of Branimir Gjetvaj)
Yesterday, the Community Pastures Patrons Association of Saskatchewan called for a one year delay to give them and the two levels of government enough time to work out the details of any transition. (Here is an article based on their media release, published in today's Leader-Post.)

Rushing things appears to be a way to intimidate the patron groups into accepting terms in a "take it or leave it" proposition. Meanwhile, there are not so subtle messages coming from various quarters suggesting that if the patrons do not take what is offered now, there are third parties waiting in the wings for their chance to snap up the leases. Before that happens, though, there is another interested party with a very strong legal position. Today, they spoke up loud and clear.

FSIN Chief Perry Bellegarde

Federation of Saskatchewan First Nations head, Perry Bellegarde published an op-ed in the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix that everyone who is interested in what happens to the PFRA pastures needs to read.
“I cannot stress enough the importance of our groups working together and forming partnerships to ensure the conservation and protection of our ecological values and the diversity of Saskatchewan’s rich grasslands, as well as to ensure that the Crown meets its lawful obligation to satisfy outstanding Treaty Land Entitlements.” – Perry Bellegarde, FSIN chief
Too often forgotten in the discussion of what will happen to the pastures, the First Nations voice has the potential to resolve the issues that seem to be separating private and public interests in these critically important native grasslands.

The beautiful Auvergne Wise Creek PFRA Pasture--as of today, still under federal management

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

What do we mean by “professional managers”?

Clint Christianson showing us Val Marie PFRA pasture  (image courtesy of Colin Hubick, Red Hat Studios)

[First, look at this video based on footage Colin Hubick shot on the BirdLife tour. He is hoping to get some funding to make a full documentary on the PFRA story.]

One of PPPI’s six principles on how the PFRA pastures should be transitioned says that any new system should “utilize professional pasture managers”. When we drafted those principles way back in March, I remember agonizing over that word, “professional.”

I was worried that people might think we believe hired pasture managers always do a better job than the guys who manage their own native range that they lease or own privately. Or that there are no patrons who have the skills and capacity to manage native grass pastures themselves. Of course that is not true so we looked in vain for other ways of saying what we meant but it was hard to do it without a lot of explaining. Maybe now is a good time to try.

First, though, it is important to say that anyone who is making money managing their land is by definition a professional. And most of the cattle producers who graze Crown lease land are very skilled professionals. They learned from their forbears that overstocking will hurt them in the long run, and that it is not wise to use too much of the resource. Many of them take advantage of training and advice offered by government extension programs, but they start from a base of traditional knowledge that must be recognized and valued.

So, what’s the problem? What would happen to the PFRA pastures if each one was sold to a single rancher who comes from that tradition of stewardship? As long as the land was managed by that single rancher, I believe that the ecological condition and biodiversity of the pastures would become more or less be much like the rest of our Crown lease land—which means it would be pretty good on average—some terrific, others less so.
Ian McCreary, Chair of Community Pastures Patron Association of Saskatchewan (image courtesy of Colin Hubick, Red Hat Studios)

By and large the Crown lease land in Saskatchewan is well managed and still good habitat for birds and other native species that are in trouble. But, here’s the rub. If we sell these great pieces of grassland to private ranchers, not only do we put hundreds of small to mid-sized cattlemen out of business, there is nothing to guarantee that sound management over the long term. The first buyer’s good stewardship will only last as long as they own the land and keep it in one piece. Sooner or later they will sell or die and the second buyer may not be from the longstanding Saskatchewan tradition of good stewardship. They could claim undue hardship and get a court to remove the conservation easement that protects the land from cultivation. Or simply subdivide the land and sell it in parcels, or graze it much more heavily. Once it is no longer owned by the Crown, anything is possible.

However, the Province is telling us that, instead of selling the land, they plan to lease out most of the PFRA pastures to groups of the existing pasture patrons—some of which are ten, twenty, or thirty strong. Now, instead of a single cattle producer/steward making the management decisions in his own long term best interest, which often coincides with conservation interests, you have ten or twenty cattlemen with varying ideas of how the land should be stocked and managed.

Without an independent “professional” (for lack of a better term) management system that is the final word on how many cattle go where and when and how much grass to keep back, there is bound to be at best a few disagreements and a low common denominator of management that over time will push the land harder than it has been under the PFRA system. At worst, you may well end up with the scenario described in Garret Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons argument: i.e. “the depletion of a shared resource by individuals, acting independently and rationally according to each one's self-interest, despite their understanding that depleting the common resource is contrary to the group's long-term best interests.” (Wikipedia)

How would that tragedy look on a former PFRA pasture? Well, it would look like many (some would say most but not all) of the “co-op” pastures in the province, where the land is divided up into smaller fields and each member gets his own piece to graze more or less as he sees fit. No unitary management system, no co-mingled herds managed in a system that is based on a coherent plan. Short term interests win out and over time you get degraded pastures and reduced biodiversity and habitat for endangered species.

PFRA patrons that I speak to are concerned that, if the lease rates, taxes and other costs set by the Province are as high as they are being asked for, there will not be enough money left on the table for them to afford hiring an independent manager who sticks to a plan in good times and in bad. Rest-rotation systems would be replaced by season-long grazing in fields that are too small. And if market or weather conditions go the wrong way, there will be pressure to use the grass more heavily than they would like to.
Clint Christianson, Val Marie rancher and long time patron of Val Marie and Lone Tree PFRA pastures (image courtesy of Colin Hubick, Red Hat Studios)

The overall productivity of the land will drop over time, hurting the cattle producers. That in turn hurts the local community, and degrades the public asset we invested in for more than 75 years restoring the ecology and biodiversity of these conservation lands.

Finally, there is another side to what we mean by “professional” management. And that is a management system that is accountable to the public and its interest in the ecological wellbeing of the land. Such a system would have to balance conservation values with economic/grazing values and settles on a lower stocking rate to strike that balance—just as the PFRA always did. Range managers will tell you that Crown lease land is generally stocked at a higher rate than the PFRA pastures have been. That is part of the reason why, on average, the PFRA pastures have for example been superior bird habitat, especially for species that like longer grass and a lot of carry over in their habitat.

No matter how good a private steward might be with his land, if he is paying for a higher stocking rate set by the Province he will be inclined to stock at that rate. And the Province, under the NDP and the Sask Party, has been all too willing to push the land to pull in maximum revenue for the treasury. In a better world, all of our publicly owned native grasslands—Crown lease and community pastures—would give the cattlemen a lower lease rate and keep the stocking rates low enough to ensure that our pastures are good for both cattle producers and a wide range of species at risk.

That dual management for both cattle and biodiversity and ecological health is what we need to find a way to retain from the PFRA model—both by recognizing, and fostering the knowledge of our cattlemen, and by connecting it with a management system that will ensure that they are not left holding the bag for species at risk and all the other public benefits that you and I receive from them.

So many of our ranchers are terrific stewards—anyone who travels in the southwest of the province can see that--but we have an opportunity here with the transition of the PFRA lands to do something that will ensure that that ethic will be a part of the way our publicly owned grasslands are managed and protected for everyone’s benefit. We need to find ways to protect that ethic, to recognize it, foster it and divide the costs of being a good manager among all Canadians. How we work that out would require a discussion that brings together agriculture and conservation, economy and ecology—but the discussion will have to begin with the people who live and work on the land.

Photographer Branimir Gjetvaj at work on Val Marie Pasture (image courtesy of Colin Hubick, Red Hat Studios)

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