Friday, September 27, 2013

"F" for Failure to Protect: Saskatchewan is leaving its species at risk unprotected

image from the cover of the Ecojustice report on Canada's species at risk laws

Last week's Emergency Order from Environment Canada was a clear signal that more needs to be done in this province to protect its endangered species. It is no coincidence that the first Emergency Order ever issued under Canada's Federal Species at Risk Act was for a species that Saskatchewan has allowed slip away.

Saskatchewan is one of four provinces and territories that have yet to pass their own species at risk legislation. Ecojustice, an NGO that uses the law to defend Canadians' right to a healthy environment, published a report exactly one year ago that grades the provinces on their record of protecting endangered species. The report, titled Failure to Protect: Grading Canada's Species at Risk Laws, gives Saskatchewan an "F".

Why did we get the lowest possible grade? Simple. We don't have any specific standalone legislation that protects species at risk properly. We have a Wildlife Act, which is really about managing game species for hunters, but, it was later amended to to establish a process for evaluating the status of species at risk (it should be noted that this hard-won amendment was fought for by the indefatigable Lorne Scott, the best Environment minister this province has seen. Lorne did his best at the time, but would be first to admit that more is needed today). Ecojustice, in its report, states strongly that this is not enough. It calls the listing process in our Wildlife Act "vague [and] discretion-laden" and says it "allows, but does not require, the Minister of Environment to consider the recommendations of a committee created under the Act to identify species at risk."

The problem with that kind of discretion is that ministers of Environment in this Province, no matter what the political stripe, are always trumped by ministers of economic development, resource development, and agriculture. The Environment Ministry is often told to shut up and toe the line when there are policy conflicts between resource development or farming on the one hand and the environment on the other.

The Act does say you can't kill a species at risk, and prohibits the disturbance of den and nest sites. That is a minimum, but not near enough to help creatures in steep decline from development pressure destroying their habitat. Real Species at Risk legislation always sets out a clear schedule compelling the government to identify and protect the habitat the  species need to survive and recover. Saskatchewan's Wildlife Act does neither. As well, Species at Risk legislation must establish meaningful mechanisms to activate a recovery plan for the species at risk. As the Ecojustice report points out, our Wildlife Act "describes a process for preparing recovery strategies but has no mandatory provisions requiring them to be science-based. The Act also doesn’t establish a timeline for when recovery strategies should be produced, what they should contain, what course of action they can prescribe, what must be considered during their preparation, or what the Minister must do with them."

But here is the bottom line. If the existing laws are effective in protecting Saskatchewan's species at risk, then why are there only recovery plans for two species at risk, when the Wildlife Act itself identifies 15 species at risk? This is a ridiculously low number, considering that five of them are already extirpated, and the Federal list of Species at Risk shows 64 species at risk in Saskatchewan. For the two species that have had a recovery plan written (Greater Sage-Grouse and Woodland Caribou), it has been far too little far too late.

To hear more on this topic and why Saskatchewan needs species at risk legislation with some meaningful language, tune into CBC Radio's Blue Sky on Monday, when Professor Andrea Olive, a recognized authority on Canadian species at risk legislation from the University of Toronto (but born and raised in Saskatchewan), speaks during the phone-in show. If you have a chance, call in to voice your concerns. If you miss the show you should be able to catch it later with a link on their web page.

Professor Andrea Olive, image from U of T web page

Friday, September 20, 2013

A victory for grassland conservation: the Greater Sage-Grouse receives Canada's first emergency order issued under the Species at Risk Act

poster used by Alberta Wilderness Association, see
Did Environment Canada just issue an emergency order to try to protect Greater Sage-Grouse habitat or did I just imagine it? Hard to believe, but a couple days ago, the new Federal Minister of the Environment, Leona Aglukkaq, did just that, setting a historic precedent. Never before has an Environment minister used the emergency order mechanism in the Species at Risk Act. 

Once I realized it was for real, my next thoughts were: 1., the feds and the Sask. and Alta. environment ministries must have figured out how bad they are looking, 2., they must be doing this to head off more embarrassment in the courts, and 3. Will this help the Sage Grouse or is it too little too late?

When we take the last scraps of a species’ habitat and hand it over to oil and gas companies so they can convert it into an industrial landscape of well sites, roads, dugouts, and power lines, should we be surprised that its population declines by 98%?

In 2011, Ecojustice, an environmental law defense fund (donate here) that we should all support, petitioned the Harper Government to follow the Species at Risk Act and issue an emergency order to protect the grouse and its habitat. They were representing several environmental NGOs, including Nature Saskatchewan. The petition fell on deaf ears. Peter Kent, then Minister of the Environment, continued to play dumb, and nothing was done.

figure from the original Ecojustice petition for an emergency order
Then this Tuesday, out of the blue, comes this announcement that an emergency order is being issued.

That night I spoke on the phone with Susan Pinkus, the Senior Scientist at Ecojustice who worked on the file. She found out about the emergency order on Sage Grouse that morning when CBC phoned her for a comment.

I asked her what does the order mean? "We are still trying to figure that out," Susan said, "but Environment Canada has released a backgrounder that explains a bit." Later I looked it up and read the following:

"Some constraints would applied to land use on approximately 1200 km2 of crown land in Saskatchewan and Alberta. The intent is to address seasonal noise, destruction of habitat, disturbance of breeding sites, and the creation of new structures without imposing restrictions on activities on private land, nor on grazing on provincial or federal crown lands. Our goal is to achieve the best protection for the Sage-Grouse while minimizing impacts on agricultural producers."

This goes directly at the oil and gas industry that has been destroying Sage Grouse habitat for decades. They will have to decommission facilities that are within a certain setback distance. That sounds pretty good, and in general is what the petitioning organizations were calling for. But, Susan cautioned, there are two things that we must watch for:

1. the Federal government may well continue delaying and just sit on this. They may justify the delay by insisting on a "gradual implementation." The public--all of us who care about these birds--must demand immediate implementation. The Sage Grouse do not have any time to spare. "The time for gradual passed years ago," said Susan. There are only 30 or so birds known in Saskatchewan, and fewer in Alberta.

2. "The order will prohibit the doing of some things and require the doing of some other things," Susan said, to restore and protect the critical habitat. The key part of this is the distance from leks, wintering sites and nesting areas--the "setbacks." The setbacks and limits on well site densities in Saskatchewan have been all but useless--ridiculously lax. Research by biologists Mark Boyce and Cameron Aldridge has shown it must be a minimum setback of 6.4 km radius around  all lek sites and a minimum of 1.9 setback radius for all other types of habitat (wintering, nesting, brood rearing). 

This means that within those distances all of the oil and gas structures must be removed and the habitat restored. Industry and the govt will likely try to minimize these distances so it is important that we support the setback requirements that Aldridge and Boyce called for through Ecojustice's legal work (details on page on page 28 onward in their petition document), as well as their guidelines on well site densities.

typical resource disturbance in Greater Sage-Grouse habitat, image courtesy of C. Olson, on

This week, I also spoke to the Alberta Wilderness Association's Cliff Wallis, to get his thoughts on the emergency order. Cliff has been front and centre on the work with Ecojustice to get the Federal Government to act. Here is part of what he wrote to me in a couple of emails:

"Proof is in pudding. At least we are starting the turnaround. A few more protected areas and a lot of loving of the land and we can do this—long term prospect though. . . .There is hope-I and many other biologists and conservationists are not willing to throw in the towel—this effort will benefit many species at risk and many common species. Species are often more adaptable than we give credit for and will work out ways to live with us if we give them enough room. That’s still a work in progress for sage grouse and other grouse globally."

Finally, Dr. Andrea Olive, from Saskatchewan but now teaching Political Science and Geography at the University of Toronto, published an op-ed in the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix today, which makes some interesting points about the order. Andrea, an expert in Species at Risk legislation, refutes claims made by the Saskatchewan Minister of Agriculture that the Province has provisions that will protect species at risk on Provincial Crown land. But the thrust of the article is that the Federal Government would not have had to issue this emergency order and enforce it on Provincial Crown Land if Saskatchewan had its own stand-alone legislation protecting species like the Greater Sage-Grouse.

So, while it is very late for the Sage-Grouse (though I am, like Cliff, cautiously hopeful that with enough resources and love we can turn things around--look at the Whooping Crane), in general we have some work to do to get some Provincial legislation that will address such steep declines before they get out of hand.

Down the road, will a Federal emergency order be necessary to get us to act on behalf of the Woodland Caribou in the north and the 32 species of birds, mammals, insects, and plants listed as at risk on the PFRA community pastures now being transferred to the province? Is it realistic to expect our forestry companies to protect the Caribou or our pasture patron cattlemen to protect the Sprague's Pipit, the Ferruginous Hawk, and the Burrowing Owl? Or do we need some real stand alone legislation with provisions that commit the Province to ensuring these species will not be driven away by any industrial activity or mis-management of public lands?

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Hon. Lyle Stewart responds to concerns about native prairie being destroyed

Chestnut-collared longspur, a species that continues to decline, even faster than the rate of native grassland being converted to crops

Today on CBC Blue Sky, the Hon. Lyle Stewart, Saskatchewan's Agriculture Minister, responded to concerns about native grassland and aspen bush being destroyed in the province. You can hear his remarks here on the Blue Sky web page.

I believe that Mr. Stewart is an honest man who genuinely wants to do what is best, but I can't help thinking he is just not getting good counsel on the ecological value of our native prairie and the forces that can degrade it or destroy it despite our best intentions.

In the interview, Mr. Stewart unfortunately repeats two common myths about Saskatchewan's native prairie that are very easy to disprove:

1. that plowing native grass is something from our distant past and very little native grassland has been converted to cropland in recent years, and

2. that all the native grass that remains is simply not suitable for cropping so there is nothing to worry about. 

In the interview he says that all the breaking of native grass occurred before 1930, "with a few exceptions. . . guys trimming around edges and squaring off corners and so on. . . . It is not happening in any substantive quantity anymore."

That is simply not true. I suppose the good folks who work at the Department of Agriculture might actually believe that there are just a few corners being squared off. Minister Stewart, however, inadvertently puts his finger on the problem when the interviewer, Garth Materie, asks him about a recent incident where someone who owns a piece of former Crown land has started plowing some of its native grass. "Before this story came along," Minister Stewart admits, "we just didn't hear about it at all." That might be the problem--they are not hearing about it so as far as they are concerned it isn't happening.

Well, I'd suggest the folks in his department need to get out of the office a little more and out into the real world.  Or if they can't do that, all they need to do is ask our government biologists and ecologists who study native grassland. Even better, ask people who live in the grassland regions of the province. They will tell you. There are new and old landowners deciding to plow up their native pastures and it is a lot more than "trimming around edges". In addition to last week's story of the small piece of native prairie being destroyed near Govenlock, I have had people contact me to say that they know of many other recent examples. One concerned landowner near Leader said "it is happening all around us. Lots of acres sprayed, plowed and planted. Some just sprayed dead, and in various stages de-construction. Some are large corporate farms, a few smaller farmers." This is not necessarily former Crown land but it is native grassland being destroyed to plant annual cash crops and it is happening today. That is why all Crown grassland needs a conservation easement if it is to be sold.

As for the notion that our remaining native grass is simply not suitable for cropping and therefore in little danger of being plowed, a report by the Native Plant Society of Saskatchewan, based on Provincial Government research, says the following:

"Over 24% of native grassland is still at medium or high risk of being broken (Soil classes I to 3). With advances in crop development, crop varieties that can grow under drier conditions and on infertile soil may soon become available. While these advancements may be very beneficial to producers, it may also increase the threat of further cultivation of native prairie on poor agricultural land."
[Also, please see the very informative comment below by Branimir, where he says that "40.42% of remaining grasslands in Cypress Upland & Mixed Grassland zones are susceptible to land-cover conversion given suitable market and subsidy conditions."]

Later in the interview, Garth Materie asks the Minister about aspen bush being destroyed to make room for crops. Here is the reply:

"In the driving and traveling I have done around the province, I haven't seen very many instances of bush being pushed in east-central Saskatchewan. I'm sure it happens in little corners that are being squared up and tidied up, as far as it being a major issue it's just not." 

Really? Not a major issue? There are people out there who make a living by bulldozing bush. It is rampant in some parts of the Aspen Parkland ecoregion, where the native grassland remnants are already down to a mere 13%, and the poplar bush remnants and sloughs will soon be just as rare. "Pushing bush" would not be a common phrase every rural person knows if it were not a common practice. Anyone who lives in the Aspen Parkland can tell you that people are pushing bush and filling sloughs every year more and more. Can anyone provide figures to prove it? No, because the Province is not monitoring this activity and has cut back staff and travel allowances necessary for such environmental monitoring.

aspen bush bulldozed in east-central Sask.

At one point, Minister Stewart defends the property owner's right to destroy native grassland:

"The right to make business decisions is part of the deal of owning property in our society and I don't think we should be prescribing exactly how a farmer or a rancher should operate on his grassland any more than we should be telling you what colour you should paint your house, which is built on former grassland. We have certain rights as individuals as a society, and unless or until individuals are abusing the environment, I think that we should let them exercise the rights." 

That pretty well gets to the core of the issue here. Minister Stewart, who apparently does not recognize plowing native prairie as "abuse," knows exactly how the world works: private property rights trump the public trust. Someone who owns a piece of ancient rainforest or ancient prairie is fully entitled to destroy it. And that is exactly why it is vital that we keep our biggest pieces of native grass entirely under public ownership as Crown land. If any is sold it is incumbent upon our public representatives to ensure that there is a conservation easement on the land to protect it in perpetuity--and to provide sufficient monitoring and enforcement staffing to ensure that the easements are respected to the letter of the law.

Toward the end, Mr. Stewart says something that has to make you wonder if his advisors even know the facts: "We have 6 million acres in grassland roughly in Agriculture and Environment has many times more than that." I don't have the exact figures but there is only about 12.7 million acres of native grass left in Saskatchewan in total, including private land, and regardless I doubt Environment has responsibility for more than Agriculture.

As for the incident near Govenlock being overblown, yes the landowner only destroyed 40 acres of native grass, so far—but he may plow more under and as the minister points out, it is his right to do so. Worse than that, there are many perverse incentives in the market and agricultural policy that urge him to destroy the ancient grassland and seed it to crops. We need not only regulations and easements to prevent the plowing of native prairie, but agricultural policy that in a time of rising land prices make it possible for our ranchers to continue making a living by grazing native grass, without having to overstock OR convert it to cropland. The rates our cattlemen pay for leasing crown grassland are higher than those across the border in Alberta and Montana and that puts our cattlemen in a position that over the long run is going to lead to degradation and loss of native grass. We need to give them lower rates both on the new PFRA lands that will be up for lease soon and for the rest of our Crown grasslands, but that break in their land costs should be tied to some minimal best management practices and stocking rates that will ensure the long term ecological integrity of the grassland while allowing our cattlemen to make a living and pass on the tradition to the next generation.

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