Sunday, November 3, 2013

Wolverine PFRA: a Photo Essay by Branimir Gjetvaj Honouring our Federal Cowboys

Wolverine Pasture Mgr Eric Weisbeck sorting cattle to return them to patrons for the winter (all images courtesy of Branimir Gjetvaj)
Today's post pays homage to life and work of Canada's federal cowboys, the pasture managers and riders whose skill, sweat, and dedication have been taking care of the nation's community pastures in Saskatchewan and Manitoba for more than seventy-five years.

This fall, photographer Branimir Gjetvaj visited Wolverine Community Pasture north of Lanigan, which is scheduled to be one of the first five PFRA pastures to be transferred to Saskatchewan and then leased out to the cattle producers who graze it.

A biologist and environmentalist, Branimir is one of the best grassland photographers you will find anywhere. His images have appeared in magazines, books (including his award-winning The Great Sandhills: A Prairie Oasis), calendars and websites. Most recently, his shot of crocuses covering a vast plain was on the cover of Bird Studies Canada's Birdwatch magazine, for the feature story on the loss of the PFRA grasslands program. Visit his website at

Here are a bunch more of the images that Branimir took that day. Many show Eric Weisbeck, the manager at Wolverine (black hat and blue hooded sweatshirt; Eric was featured before a couple of times in Grass Notes ), working with riders to sort cattle for delivery to patrons at the end of the grazing season. Toward the end there are some shots of them taking a break in what looks to be a tack shed.

The PFRA and its manager-cowboys
Along with a system of management and public oversight that supports small to medium-sized cattle producers while protecting biodiversity and species at risk on some of the last large contiguous blocks of native grass on the northern Great Plains, the PFRA pastures have given rise to a slice of Western cowboy life that is as worthy of preservation as the grasslands themselves.

Each of the 88 community pastures in Manitoba and Saskatchewan have a resident pasture manager who lives on the pasture in a home owned by the federal government. These men, and sometimes women, raise their families there, teaching them horsemanship, how to work with cattle and dogs, and how to take care of the grass that supports their livelihood and the livelihood of every other thing on the pasture (here is an article in The Western Producer about one family). In addition, there are pasture riders hired to help manage the cattle in summer, following the PFRA grazing system for the pasture, ensuring the water systems are functioning, and the cattle are safe and healthy, with cows bred by the resident bulls.

If public land shared by many cattle producers is to be managed effectively, there has to be this kind of authoritative manager who will see that the resource is not degraded over time, who will not be swayed by any grazers who want to stock more heavily, who knows what will protect the grass and water and sticks to the plan. Without such an authority to ensure fair access and prevent overuse, public grazing lands may be pushed beyond their carrying capacity, particularly in time of drought, as the members of the pasture are moved by market pressures, the cost of leasing, or a shortage of grass on their own range.

Why we need these cowboys
What this means for the PFRA system is that, if Saskatchewan's government does not lease the land out on terms that will maintain the system of pasture managers and riders, the leasing cattlemen will in many cases not be able to keep the pasture in large fields with their herds co-mingled and rotated according to a sustainable management plan. Instead, with no resident manager to move and oversee the livestock in a co-mingled herd, it is very likely that these vast grasslands would be subdivided and cross-fenced into smaller paddocks where each grazing patron will place his own animals for the entire summer. Some may manage their fields well, but many of these will become places of season-long grazing with little or no real management or rotation. That on its own is not necessarily an ecological problem, depending on stocking rates. But if there is no one to ensure the stocking rates stay at levels healthy for the ecology of the pastures, some of the patrons may begin to overstock to help pay for the high costs of their leases. With overstocking you get less carry over of grass from year to year, reduced carbon sequestration and degraded habitat for the many native plants and animals that prefer longer grass and more carryover.

Here is one last shot by Branimir--Saskatchewan now has a chance to sustain and improve upon the legacy of the PFRA and its skilled, dedicated cowboys managing grass and cattle for the public good. Next year will the riders in these photos be there working with the livestock and keeping an eye on the wildlife? Will the new management system and the leasing terms from the Province allow (and financially support) the hiring of pasture managers to oversee the pastures into the future?

The way we set the terms for managing Wolverine and the other four pastures first to go through the chute will form a precedent for the remaining 58 pastures in the province. Let's make sure we get it right.
in the tack house at Wolverine PFRA, image courtesy of Branimir Gjetvaj

1 comment:

  1. Great photos and great article but you missed introducing the dog. He (or she) looks like they are part of the operation.


Share this post

Get widget