Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Who Will Manage for Species at Risk on the First Ten Pastures to be Transferred?

Sprague's Pipit, one of 32 Species at Risk that use the PFRA community pastures (image courtesy of Alan McKeigan)

Among all of the public goods that the PFRA community pasture system has delivered to Canadians for nearly 80 years--the soil and water conservation, the support for small to medium sized cattle producers, the biodiversity, carbon sequestration, the economic and social spinoffs for rural municipalities and small communities--the one good that may be most vulnerable to the changes in management and tenure underway is the fate of the grassland species at risk (SAR) that have benefited from management programs and planning that balances their habitat needs with grazing requirements.

The private cattle producers who end up buying or leasing the community pastures, no matter how well intentioned, will not have the means to continue the SAR programming that made the PFRA system a model in ecologically sustainable grassland management.

Buried in Agriculture Canada's science publications web pages is a news item on "Agricultural Biodiversity" that praises the Community Pastures Program (CPP), its Biodiversity Extension Specialists, and its protection of species at risk. Not sure why it is still online but this is part of what it says:
"CPP encompasses - and here's where the harmonious co-existence part comes in - the grazing of 210,000 cows, calves, bulls and horses on lands containing fragile grassland ecosystems and many SAR. The grazing of cattle is symbiotically tied to the survival of many SAR. For example, the Burrowing Owl chooses habitat that is grazed low enough to spot predators and depends on the dung of large herbivores such as cattle to line its nest. Tools developed for the CPP include a calendar that lists the periods of the year when SAR are most sensitive to disturbance, factsheets on various species, interactive maps, and recommendations for setbacks for infrastructure. The unit (part of the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada Agri-Environment Services Branch) also works with provincial conservation data centres and other specialists to ensure they are using the best information available."
So, what about the first ten community pastures scheduled to be transferred to Saskatchewan this fall and placed in the hands of cattle producers? Do any of them have species at risk? Yes, they do. In fact, nine of the first ten have recorded SAR as the following table shows:

Species at Risk
North Battleford
None found
Burrowing Owl, Ferruginous Hawk, Sprague’s Pipit
Burrowing Owl, Ferruginous Hawk, Sprague’s Pipit
Lone Tree
Swift Current
Burrowing Owl, Ferruginous Hawk, Sprague’s Pipit, Swift Fox
Short-eared Owl, Sprague’s Pipit
Common Nighthawk, Whip-poor-will
Ituna Bon Accord
Foam Lake
Monarch, Peregrine Falcon
Burrowing Owl, Ferruginous Hawk, Piping Plover, Sprague’s Pipit
Burrowing Owl, Piping Plover, Sprague’s Pipit
Burrowing Owl, Ferruginous Hawk, Sprague’s Pipit (F.Hawk successful nest in 2012)

Burrowing Owl, also by Alan McKeigan

How will the grazing patrons who take over responsibility for these pastures maintain the SAR protection and planning done by the PFRA? Is it fair to expect them to look after endangered species on these pastures without giving them the wherewithal to do it? If a species at risk on their pastures begins to decline rapidly or disappears, will the Species at Risk Act apply, will conservation organizations begin to pressure them to adjust stocking rates or protect den or nest sites? Will the Province take responsibility even though there is no provincial legislation protecting SAR on provincial lands?

Lyle Stewart, Saskatchewan's Minister of Agriculture, has said repeatedly that the SAR will continue to be protected, but he has not said how that will happen. Stewart's own web site shows the Hansard pages where he makes this astounding claim, saying "Species at risk will continue to be protected on these lands as it is on all privately or publicly owned land in Saskatchewan". Here is SAR expert Andrea Olive responding in the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix to Stewart's repeated assurances that SAR will be protected.

I know the pasture patrons are asking how that will happen, and folks in Nature Saskatchewan, Nature Canada, and other conservation NGOs are asking the same thing.

If you care about the Burrowing Owl, Swift Fox, Loggerhead Shrike, Ferruginous Hawk and the many other rare and endangered animals and plants on these lands, you should be asking too.

Long-billed Curlew in stipa grass (image courtesy of Hamilton Greenwood)

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