Sunday, October 27, 2013

Red Williams calls for our remaining grasslands to be protected

image courtesy of Hamilton Greenwood
I have written before in this space about how people of all political stripes are concerned about the disposal of the former PFRA pastures. (Here is a post based on a conversation I had with Rick Swenson, former Agriculture Minister under Grant Devine's Progressive Conservative government.)

Well, this week a friend forwarded to me a newsletter written by Charles Melville Williams, who most of us know as "Red" Williams, Professor Emeritus of Animal Science at the University of Saskatchewan. Widely respected in Agricultural research circles, Red is a Member of the Order of Canada (1989), and a Fellow of the Agricultural Institute of Canada. Red ran for the Liberal Party of Canada in 1988 and continues to be involved. (Here is a link to a page in the Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan about Mr. Williams.)

At 87 years of age, Red is still very interested in public life and agricultural policy, writing and distributing a brief newsletter which he calls "The Monday Morning Memo". In his September 30th dispatch, he wrote some strong statements on the PFRA grasslands that bear repeating.

I contacted Red this week to get his permission to publish his comments in Grass Notes. Here they are (boldface added for emphasis):

Now or Never

When it comes to protection of the native prairie grasslands it is” now or never”. You get “one kick at the can” and then it is wishful thinking of those that regret not having made the right decisions. It is necessary to put the remaining native grasslands into protection in perpetuity now because it is the last chance.

We have statements from Saskatchewan Agriculture that ranchers are good stewards and on average that is true, but there will be some who will not always voluntarily meet that high standard and the chain is broken forever.

It is important that the provincial government puts a protection codicil on all the lands it releases to individuals, but more important the PFRA pastures must be put into permanent preserve. The failure of the federal government is no excuse for the provincial government to not pick up the responsibility.

It is not often that I find myself on side with those that “ are against everything”, but the simple fact that there is no second chance to get it right makes protection of the remaining natural grasslands and the associated wild life an easy issue to support.

Of course there are established ranchers that want to get their hands on some of these parcels, although there are others that need access to managed pastures. The pasture management committees are not always perfect in their practices so some overview is desirable. It all proves that ranchers, large or small are not always perfect stewards of the public’s land. It is hoped that this small missive and any responses that readers may provide will stiffen the back of Saskatchewan Agriculture in order to act for all citizens.

image courtesy of University of Saskatchewan "On Campus News"


Wednesday, October 23, 2013

I say prairies, you say pastizales

Today I am posting an announcement from a friend at the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC), which since 1994 has brought Canada, Mexico and the United States together to collaborate in protecting North America's environment through the North American Agreement on Environmental Cooperation (NAAEC)--an adjunct to the North American Free Trade Agreement.

The announcement, regarding a new focus on grasslands for the Commission, is good news for those of us who want to see our native prairie landscapes and ecologies receive more attention and protection. The following text was written by staff at CEC:

North America’s Central Grasslands stretch from Southern Saskatchewan all the way to Northern Mexico, supporting many rural communities and their economies. Today, the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC) released North American Grasslands Alliance: A Framework for Change, the joint vision of over 70 grasslands experts from across the continent that provides strategies for all actors on the landscape, be it ranchers, conservationists or public agencies, to come together to preserve the continent’s only shared terrestrial ecoregion.  

Over a year and a half, these experts zeroed in on what’s needed to conserve grassland biodiversity while also supporting vibrant rural communities across North America. At the heart of the framework is the understanding that to do so, innovative solutions are needed to meet a broad range of challenges such as conversion to cropland, food security, climate volatility, rapidly declining grassland-dependent species, and uncertain economic returns. These challenges are complex and their solutions often require cooperation from diverse actors at multiple geographic and time scales. 

Thankfully, the integrated planning and management approach of the North American Grasslands Alliance framework is illustrated in a simplified graph featured in the report. This makes it easy for any individual or organization to see how their actions can help sustain North America’s grasslands as environmentally healthy and productive ecosystems, engage the public and institutional support needed to build momentum for grasslands conservation, or increase the awareness of the ecological and economic values of sustainable grasslands. Indeed, the goal of the report is to spur greater stewardship of the North American grasslands, “as part of a collective voice and strong alliance”.

Using this framework to guide its work, the CEC is pursuing its grasslands focus through their 2013-2014 Catalyzing North American Grasslands Conservation and Sustainable Use through Partnerships project. 

The full CEC report can found here.

More information on the Commission for Environmental Cooperation can be found here.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Fall Morning at Cherry Lake: and an invitation to participate in a citizen's discussion of wetland drainage

Wetlands like the one in these images are being affected by agricultural drainage in Saskatchewan. The Province's new "Water Security Agency" is inviting us to all participate in a citizens panel that will help determine how agriculture affects our remaining natural wetlands.

The website (link here to participate) asks, 

"Are you interested in providing input on a drainage policy for Saskatchewan? Do you want to know what other residents’ thoughts are on drainage in Saskatchewan?
The Water Security Agency is developing a new agricultural drainage policy and beginning the process of updating its regulatory approach to drainage."
Farmers are draining and ditching in Saskatchewan without proper licensing or permission and conflicts over illegal drainage will only increase as we continue to experience wet springs and summers.

We have to ensure that the wider public interests in the health of our wetlands are properly represented in this discussion. The forum was launched September 1 but continues all winter. I encourage anyone concerned about our wetlands in this province to join the forum and let your voice be heard.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The bees and the birds--former CWS scientists speak out on Neonicotinoids

our honeybees at Cherry Lake
The following came to my email in-box via a friend. It is a call to action on the issue of Neonicotinoid insecticides, the toxin that has been associated with the decline of honeybees and native pollinators. 

The original notice was written by Glen Fox, a retired biologist raised in Saskatchewan who worked for the Canadian Wildlife Service in its toxicology division. Here is what Glen had to say [comments in square brackets added by me]:

Dear Friends:
As most of you know, I spent my entire career in CWS's Wildlife Toxicology Division. I am very grateful for that opportunity and proud of what we achieved. However, as a grandfather and lover of justice and this planet, I am very disturbed about the shift to prophylactic use of systemic insecticides that has occurred during our "watch". It's totally unacceptable and is a global ecological disaster in the making. The honey bees are serving as the canary in the coal mine. Friends, this is the Silent Spring that Rachael Carson foresaw! Although death of pollinators, and honey bees in particular, have received most of the attention, there is strong evidence that the Neonicotinoid insecticides are also very toxic to birds, and that they reach toxic concentrations in surface waters. Our own Pierre Mineau [recently retired and now free to speak his mind] has done a terrific job of reviewing the hazards of these insecticides [here is the publication he did for the American Bird Conservatory on Neonicotinoids]!
The good news is the US EPA is currently conducting a regulatory review of this class of insecticides, and Canada's Pest Management Regulatory Agency has just acknowledged that the majority of examined pollinator mortalities were the result of exposure to neonicotinoid insecticides, and more importantly, have admitted that "current agricultural practices related to the use of neonicotinoid-treated corn and soybean seed are not sustainable" and has issued a Call for Comments. [See this web page for details on how to participate in the PMRA's Call for Comments.]
I believe we need to expand our concerns beyond pollinators (the bees are just "the canary in the coal mine) if we want strong regulatory action. We need to bring an end to the prophylactic use of systemic insecticides.

This is our window of opportunity to make our concerns known as scientists, concerned citizens, parents and grandparents. I urge you to do so, and to distribute this e-mail to others who you think might be so inclined.
Thank you for your consideration. This planet can't afford our letting the regulatory agencies shuffle chairs on the deck of the Titanic when we have already collided with the iceberg. We can comment as informed private citizens. This IS a democracy although Stephen Harper has tried to make it otherwise.
My very best to you all,
Glen A. Fox, M.Sc
Ottawa, ON
A scientist like Glen does not put out this kind of call without giving it a lot of thought. We would all do well to listen to him and the many other scientists like Pierre Mineau who are trying to bring this to the attention of the public.

So, what do we do?

Here is a petition from the Ontario Beekeeper's Association that we can all sign, and a link to send an email calling for a ban to Neonicotinoids. And here is a web page they made that provides a lot more information.

At the very least, write your Member of Parliament and send emails and letters to the Minister of Health at

The Honourable Rona Ambrose, P.C., M.P.
Health Canada
Brooke Claxton Building, Tunney's Pasture
Postal Locator: 0906C
Ottawa, Ontario K1A 0K9

or email her using this web page's feedback form.

Birds such as this male Mountain Bluebird (a species in rapid decline in farmland) may also be affected by Neonicontoids

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Running the gauntlet--Environment Canada study shows 269 million birds killed each year in Canada

The endangered Loggerhead Shrike is affected by habitat loss and perhaps pesticides but today's study listed more immediate causes of death, such as collisions with vehicles, buildings, power lines, and predation by cats

Today a study by Environment Canada (Birdlife International summary here) in Avian Conservation & Ecology released estimates of the number of birds killed in Canada by human-related activities. Assimilating data from a variety of bird research sources,  the scientists determined that we are killing roughly 269 million birds and destroying 2 million bird nests in Canada each year.

That is nearly 5% of the estimated total number of birds we have in Canada during a given year.

And that does not include the loss of birds from habitat destruction--undoubtedly a more serious concern but one that is harder to quantify. The report does, however, estimate that between 1200 and 5,200 nests are destroyed as forests are felled for tar sands each year. Less direct causes of bird decline related to oil and gas exploration and other industrial activity are not included in the study.

Birds that breed in farm land such as this Brewer's Blackbird and this Swainson's hawk are vulnerable to pesticides, electrical transmission lines, and collisions with vehicles
Perhaps most alarming to some will be the figures on the numbers of birds killed by cats. Studies in other countries have made it clear that our cats are killing more native birds than any other single direct cause of anthropogenic (human related) mortality. This new Canadian study confirms what has been proven in the U.S. Cats are NOT native to any North American ecosystem and both pets and feral animals receive a boost in their predator efficacy by being fed and sheltered by people.

Tomorrow (October 2)on CBC Blue Sky at noon I will be with Garth Materie discussing the new report and what Canadian individuals and communities can do to help. Though habitat loss and degradation (serious but more indirect causes of long term bird decline) are beyond the scope of the study, it is worth seeing what we can do to limit causes that are in some ways more easily addressed. Everyone can control their cats, bylaws can be passed and enforced to control cat populations and shut off lights in highrises, and our buildings and electrical transmission lines could be designed to reduce bird mortality.

between 76 million and 416 million birds like this Northern Waterthrush are killed by cats in Canada each year



Nature Canada has responded to the report by calling on all levels of government and Canadian citizens to take some simple measures:
  • neuter your cats
  • keep them indoors, especially at dawn and dusk and especially during the peak migration periods of April 10 to June 1 and August 15 to October 15.
  • enforce bylaws that control stray cat populations. Neutering them is not enough--more than 60% of the birds cats kill are taken by the 25% of cats that are feral.
  • Civic governments need to look at building design standards to protect bird mortality from collisions with windows and building lit up needlessly at night.
  • Both Federal and Provincial governments need to consider bird mortality when doing the environmental assessments for any new energy projects and transmission lines (in Saskatchewan right now SaskPower is designing a major transmission line directly across the continent's primary Whooping Crane flyway. Collisions with electrical lines is the number one cause of Whooping Crane mortality in migration. All to serve the potash industry which should be helping to reduce the risks.)

    This lovely creature, the Black-necked Stilt deserves some legislation 
    and regulation to reduce all of the direct and indirect 
    causes of mortality--including the habitat loss that is not 
    discussed in the Environment Canada report.

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